Cold and flu season approaches… are you waiting for a germ to "catch" you? In reality, we do not "catch" viruses and bacteria. Every day we are surrounded and covered by billions of microbes. A bacteria or virus invades, or overgrows, only when our immune system no longer can fight off the organism.
One of the first defenses against colds and the flu is minimizing exposure to viruses and bacteria. Hand washing is one of the simplest, most reliable methods of reducing transmission. Our hands contact numerous objects each day – doorknobs, subway rails, elevator buttons, plates and cups, silverware, and water faucets to name a few. Throughout the day we also rub our noses, push hair away from our faces, and brush food crumbs from our mouths. Unwittingly we deliver all of the germs we have accumulated throughout the day directly to our respiratory and digestive systems, via our nose and mouth. Washing hands and scrubbing under the nails several times each day can minimize these exposures.
Rest is another important factor. The body simultaneously runs two different nervous systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system primes us to react to stressful situations, triggering the "fight or flight" response in the body. During periods of relaxation, the body's parasympathetic nervous system predominates, encouraging tissue regeneration and repair.
For many people in today's culture the sympathetic nervous system predominates, with accompanying chronic low levels of norepinephrine (adrenaline) and other stress-related hormones. In earlier times, we would have expended norepinephrine and other hormones by moving our bodies, e.g. running from and/or fighting our attacker. Today, however, the "attacker" may be our boss, our landlady, or the IRS. No longer can we fight or run away; instead, we sit quietly and talk calmly. Our body, however, does not know the difference between a polar bear and an angry boss – the sympathetic nervous system response is the same. Because we do not "use up" the stress related hormones by moving our bodies, we tend to live with chronic low levels of adrenaline in our system. Rarely does the body fully relax, completely activating the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore our body's repair and regeneration response.
To reduce the impact of low level adrenaline in the body, exercise is extremely important. Regular aerobic exercise (at least 30 minutes four times a week) reduces adrenaline levels and increases relaxation. Guided visualization, meditation, and/or progressive relaxation also encourage parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Certain foods can decrease immune system function. One gram of sugar (sucrose), for example, can reduce immune system activity for up to 24 hours. Heavily processed, refined foods have very little nutritional value yet require a lot of energy for the body to break down and eliminate from the body. Focus on nutrient rich, fresh foods such as steamed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and a minimum of dairy products and red meats in your diet.