a woman sitting in bed, covered in a blue blanket wearing a jumper. She is holding a mug and sneezing into a tissue.

How to avoid the flu in winter

How to avoid the flu in winter- a question as old as time. It all comes down to your health; learn how to boost your immune system to fight off flu season!
a woman sitting in bed, covered in a blue blanket wearing a jumper. She is holding a mug and sneezing into a tissue.
Getting the flu can put everything on hold. Image via Shutterstock.

Mornings are dark and cold, the sun is almost set before you finish work…

Winter is here!

And with it, comes the dreaded cold and flu season. Everyone around you is dropping like flies. How to avoid the flu?

The answer lies within you.

I’m talking about your immune system, of course!

Your immune system is designed to recognise and destroy foreign pathogens as they enter your body. It’s ability to do this will depend largely on your lifestyle and health.

Some lifestyle factors that weaken the immune system include:

  • Inadequate sleep
  • Poor nutrition
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol (in excess)
  • High levels of stress
Our bodies are great at defending from pathogens- but we need to keep it healthy. Image via: Shutterstock

All of these factors hinder the immune systems ability to do its job.

But how can you tell if your immune system is weak?

There are some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) signs:

  • You constantly have a cold or feel “under the weather”
  • You have trouble falling or staying asleep
  • You feel tired all the time
  • You have tummy/ digestive issues
  • You develop food intolerances/ allergies
  • Wounds take ages to heal
  • You get frequent infections

As ever, it’s important to note that it’s rare for a symptom to be exclusive to one issue, and you should avoid self-diagnosis. If you recognise any of the above symptoms in yourself, go see your GP.

Don’t stress if you’ve recognised any of these clues in yourself- there are plenty of ways to boost your immunity and help your body defend itself against invaders!

1. Improve your sleep

a man lying in a bed with dark red sheets. He is on his stomach, with his head under the pillow as though he's finding sleep difficult. There is an alarm clock propped on the pillow next to him.
Bad sleep has a cascade of negative effects. Image via: Shutterstock.

In my opinion, inadequate sleep is like knocking over the first domino in a cascade negative side-effects on your body.

Poor sleep affects important parts of your brain including the amygdala (which controls your emotional responses- especially fear and stress) and the hypothalamus (which is the control centre for hormone regulation in the body).

Think about it! Lack of good quality sleep literally throws off our emotions and hormones– no wonder we feel grumpy, quick to temper and reach for high-energy foods and caffeine when we don’t sleep well! It’s a viscous cycle.

Tips for improving sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake at the same time each day
  • Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep
  • Switch off screens and bright artificial lights 30mins before bed time
  • Use a journal- or scrap of paper- to jot down any thoughts or worries keeping you up at night (this one is surprisingly effective!)
  • Make sure your room isn’t too hot or cold. Like Goldilocks, your body needs it to be juuuust right!

2. Boost your vitamin intake

A flatlay on a white and light blue backdrop. It includes ginger, oranges, grapefruits, honey, almonds and other foods high in vitamin C or known for fighting the flu.
Vitamin C is well-known for it’s immune-boosting capabilities! Image via: Shutterstock

Most notable in immune boosting capabilities are:

  • B Vitamins (salmon, leafy greens, organ meats)
  • Vitamin C (oranges, kiwi fruit, capsicum, carrot)
  • Vitamin D (oily fish, red meat, egg yolk)
  • Calcium (sardines, dairy products, dark leafy greens)
  • Zinc (egg yolk, oysters, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Iron (red meat, dark leafy greens, legumes)
  • Magnesium (nuts and seeds)

It’s recommended to increase nutrient intake via your diet before turning to supplements. But if you’re finding that a challenge or aren’t sure you’re getting what you need, chat to your GP or a Dietician about which supplements are going to be right for you!

3. Reduce your stress

An image of a young mother sitting at a desk, looking stressed while trying to get work done, while her young child crawls on her lap and an older child dances wildly in the background.
Stress has a huge impact on our bodies defences. Image via: Shutterstock.

Stress has a hugely negative impact on the immune system, so it really needs to be addressed if it’s a problem for you.

But I understand it’s easy for me to have a career I love and say “don’t work a stressful job”, but this is impractical for most.

The two points mentioned above (sleep and nutrition) are key starting places for helping your body cope with stress, but here are some practical tips for managing stress levels if you can’t change your lifestyle:

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness has been widely researched and has a huge amount of scientific backing. Mindfulness is all about staying present in the moment, not allowing big thoughts and feelings to overwhelm us. It lets us notice them, accept they’re happening, and continue tackling things with a clear head.

If you’re someone who constantly forgets silly things (like where you put your keys, or leaving the milk out of the fridge), or sometimes don’t remember parts of your drive home, or find that when something goes wrong you get so overwhelmed that you can’t continue- mindfulness is for you!

A woman's legs and hand seen in a meditation pose on a wooden by the water dock at sunset
Mindfulness is a science-backed way to reduce stress levels! Image via: Shutterstock

It also doesn’t have to be meditation, and it doesn’t have to be done every day! Some ways to include mindfulness in your week:

  • Go for a walk without your phone. Take notice of what is going on around you. What can you see, hear, smell and feel?
  • Write, draw, paint, sketch, colour in. Even if you suck at it, no one else has to see! Get lost in your work.
  • Cook a complicated meal or dessert from scratch. Write a shopping list, buy all the ingredients, and follow it step-by-step.
  • Attend a gentle yoga or stretch class.

There are some other great tips for starting mindfulness here.

2. Exercise regularly

Every wondered exactly why you feel so good after a big, sweaty gym session? Or why going for a run can make you feel so clear-headed?

Our bodies stress-response (aka fight or flight) is designed to get us ready for hard physical activity- like running away from a bear.

Physiological responses include:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure (you might feel palpitations)
  • Diversion of oxygen-rich blood away from organs and into the brain and muscles (you might feel lightheaded or rear a roaring in your ears)
  • Switch off digestion and bowels (you might get a tummy ache- a common symptom in kids when they get stressed!)
  • Shallow breathing (upper chest rising and falling)
  • Breakdown of muscle glycogen into glucose for release into the bloodstream for quick energy (your hands might shake)
  • Strong muscle contractions (jaw clenching, teeth grinding, constant foot tapping)

All fantastic if you need to make a quick getaway from a speeding car, or angry bear! Not so great if you’re sitting at your desk and it’s happening every time you open an email from a nasty boss.

Exercise technically also induces the stress-response in the body, HOWEVER the key thing to remember is that the stress-response was designed specifically for physical activity!

Allowing your body to be used in the way it was designed during times of stress, can actually help offset some of the negative effects! I wrote more about managing stress with exercise in this post.

I recommend a mix of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise through the week. Find out about my online personal training here and get started today!

3. Cut back on the booze and cigarettes

Addiction is a disease and not a choice- if you’re having trouble quitting, it’s highly likely there is a deeper psychological issue at play, and willpower alone is unlikely to help you quit for good.

If you feel like you’re not coping, or might have an addiction, or you’re not coping with the stress of life, there is help available.

You don’t need to feel ashamed or alone. Reach out and get support and begin working through your issues. Some great services to help you through times of stress or to help you quit smoking or alcohol are linked below:

Did you find this blog post useful? Don’t forget to spread the word or share it with a friend who’s always getting sick!

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Jess Neill

Jess Neill

I'm a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor and Pre and Post Natal Training specialist. I'm also a mother of two, and I live on the beautiful Northern beaches of Sydney. If you liked this post, don't forget to leave a comment and share! Subscribe to my monthly newsletter for the latest health and fitness news.

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