Ask the Pharmacist

Q. As well as the flu shot, what else could I do this fall and winter season to avoid getting sick (or to help keep me healthy)?

A. Though the answer is not a difficult one, it is not as easy as doing one single thing. Rather, it is a combination of many different lifestyle changes that, when incorporated all together, help build up our immune system. Our bodies will only be as healthy as we allow it to be. Let’s start with our nutrition.

The old saying “You are what you eat” holds true. Are you filling your body with many servings of fruits and vegetables (and be truthful here!)? Particularly ones that are chalk full of nutrients and/or antioxidants? Do you have a well-balanced diet filled with the proper amount of protein and good fats?

Many of us are strapped for time and are guilty of going through the drive-through or eating packaged meals that we reheat. We have all been there. But if that is your usual routine rather than the occasional transgression, not only are you putting yourself at risk of obesity, you are also being unkind to your body’s ability to combat illnesses. This is particularly true if you also fuel your body with sugar to help cope and get through the days.

Instead, try to shop the outer edges of the grocery store as best as you can (organic fruits & veggies, meats, dairy or alternatives) and get your slow cooker out to have a good home cooked, unprocessed meal when you get home or in between activities. Reduce or avoid drinking juice and pop as there is no nutritional value to either of these. Yes, even juice has little to no nutritional value. It is considered to be no more than a glorified pop!

What are we to drink with our breakfast then? And other times in the day? Try drinking water! Aim for drinking ½ of our weight in pounds as the number of ounces we should consume daily. Our bodies are 50-73% water (depending on age and sex) so naturally our bodies require it to stay alive. Many of us live our lives in a semi-dehydrated state due to not drinking enough water and/or drinking beverages that dehydrate us (coffee, tea, colas, alcohol). If you don’t like the taste of water, consider adding a slice of lemon or a drop of lemon essential oil to it. Even if you like water, lemon is a great detoxer which is wonderful for our liver. For some people, the lemon from the fruit can be too sweet or acidic to their teeth and therefore the oil might be a great choice. As a further benefit, this increased fruit/veggie/water intake would also benefit people that are normally constipated by getting their bowels to move more frequently.

Another important way by which we can improve our bodies immune function is to engage in exercise. Not everyone has the ability to run a marathon but you are encouraged to do what you can. See if you can stretch yourself to do a little bit more each time. That might be walking another block each week or adding that extra pound on your weights. It is thought that exercise helps our immune system by flushing out bacteria from our lungs and airways. Exercise is also known to slow down the release of stress hormones which, in turn, may protect us against illnesses. Essentially, get up and get active rather than staying on the couch all day watching Netflix.

Rest and sleep are another important part of our immune function since it is known that sleep deprivation suppresses our immune system. If sleep is a problem for you, look at all of your caffeine sources and also your alcohol intake. Many opt for a drink at night to aid them in getting to sleep only to learn that what helped them fall asleep is the same culprit that woke them up at 2am and is now keeping them awake. Yes, while alcohol has an initial sedative effect, several hours after consumption it stimulates the brain interfering with the ability to have a deep sleep.

Also, take a look at the amount of time you gaze into a tv or cell phone screen late at night. It is suggested to be screen free for at least 30 minutes before bed to allow our brain to settle and relax for the night. There are a few tactics to try to help you relax and unwind before going to bed (warm baths, reading a book, herbal remedies or essential oils). It is also recommended to not go to bed until you are actually tired. Attempting to sleep when you are not yet tired will more than likely set you up for failure.

Stress is another component that can influence our immune system. And who doesn’t have stress in our lives? Though we may not be able to change the stress we have, we can help ourselves better manage the stress through relaxation methods (meditation, yoga, deep breathing). Try taking even just a few minutes to take a few long, deep breaths next time you are feeling overwhelmed. You will be increasing the oxygen entering your body and also decrease that persistent “fight or flight” response we seem to be in frequently as we try to cope.

Reducing our toxic load is another important factor to help our immune systems. We can do that by doing some of the above suggestions (avoiding processed foods, drinking water instead of sugary drinks, getting outdoors for your exercise depending on where you live). We can also reduce this by decreasing our exposure to household cleaners, some makeup and perfumes, pesticide and plastics to name only a few. Consider cleaning with natural ingredients or find a chemical free solution to your cleaning and choose glass reusable dishware instead of plastic. There are many more examples of living a less toxic lifestyle.