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October 18, 2016 | Family Medicine
As we transition from beautiful autumn weather into winter and the holiday season, preventive health measures are more important than ever.
Flu season starts ramping up in October and typically hits full stride in December. Up to 20 percent of us contract the flu every year, and most of us succumb to at least one cold. What are some simple yet effective measures you can implement to safeguard your family’s health over the coming months?
1. Get vaccinated
When it comes to the flu, prevention is key. Making sure your family receives the flu vaccine every year is one of the most important things you can do before you join the crowds for holiday shopping, parties, parades, and school plays.
2. Fine-tune your diet
Eat for warmth, and eat for immunity. Adding extra healthy fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and nut and seed butter, to your daily meal plan can help stoke your metabolic fires, which helps heat the body, according to Columbia Health.
Keep eating your healthy salad at lunch when your body is warmest, but make the evening meal something warm to help keep your body warm through the night. Add warming spices such as cumin and paprika. Ginger is great for warming, and it nourishes the immune and digestive systems. Get creative with seasonal anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods. Beets, pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes boost your immune system and help protect you from viruses. Fill your slow cooker with nourishing brown rice, root vegetables, beans, and legumes that can be frozen in small servings and quickly reheated for a warming snack.
A hot breakfast built around rolled oats, millet, and other whole grains provides immediate warmth and plentiful complex carbohydrates to fuel the body for the day. Grains are rich in B vitamins and magnesium, which help the thyroid and adrenal glands regulate body temperature during frigid weather. Sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice on the cereal to boost metabolism and generate heat.
3. Stay hydrated
Maintaining a good food and water balance helps you tolerate the cold better. Drinking enough pure water also benefits your digestive system, helps relieve seasonal constipation, and keeps your skin hydrated when the humidity drops.
Although you’d think that a glass of red wine or spiked eggnog might warm you up fast, alcohol actually decreases your core temperature. Research shows that “alcohol reverses some reflexes that control body temperature, especially the body’s ability to shiver.” It can also make you perspire, even in cold temperatures, which can further lower your body’s core temperature, putting you at risk for hypothermia.
4. Wash your hands – a lot
Regular hand washing is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from flu- and cold-causing viruses. Keep your hands away from your nose and mouth as well as from your food during cold and flu season. Some viruses can live on surfaces for hours. Disinfecting your kitchen and bathroom counters and other exposed surfaces, including doorknobs, telephones, and computer keyboards, often help prevent the spread of disease.
Yes, moderate exercise is great for your overall health. But a study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that people who exercised vigorously for at least two and a half hours a week “were about 10 percent less likely to come down with a flu-like illness . . . moderate exercise didn’t seem to have any effect on the flu.”
When winter arrives, try to get more cardio than usual with your family doctor’s approval. Getting your heart to pump faster strengthens both your heart and your immune system.
6. Watch for hypothermia
If you’re going to be doing cardio outdoors in low temperatures, be alert for signs of hypothermia — abnormally low body temperature. Although the condition is most likely at very cold temperatures, hypothermia can occur in moderately cool temperatures (above 40°F) if you become chilled from a run in the rain or from excessive sweating.
Sometimes people with hypothermia do not even realize they are suffering from the condition. A too-low body temperature can affect the brain, leaving the person with muddled thinking. Signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, memory loss, and drowsiness.
7. Dress defensively
Stay warm outdoors by dressing in layers, especially when temperatures dip below freezing. Insulate yourself, and keep your core warm with an extra shirt or two under your wind and waterproof jacket. Wear long underwear beneath your pants.
Hypothermia often begins in the hands and feet, so keep your toes warm with thick wool socks that offer superior heat retention. Choose sturdy, insulated shoes or boots to keep your feet dry and help you avoid slips on slick surfaces. Cover your head with a hat to prevent heat loss, and don’t forget your hand-warming gloves or mittens.
8. Get your ZZZs
Your immune system functions best when you’re consistently well-rested. Sleep deprivation suppresses immune system function, making it harder for your body to stave off colds, flu, and other infections. Sleep loss also makes us less able to fight illnesses once we come down with them. Additionally, “studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived also get less protection from flu vaccines than those who are getting adequate sleep,” explains WebMD.
9. Know your unique vulnerabilities
If you’re taking drugs to treat high blood pressure, including beta-blockers or direct vasodilators, you may be more sensitive to the cold. Certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, make it harder to tolerate cold weather due to low body temperatures.
Children under age 2 do not cope well with cold weather. They have not yet developed the ability to shiver to raise their body temperatures. Dress infants and babies in one more layer than an adult would wear outdoors in low temps. Likewise, people over age 60 are less able to generate heat through shivering and should wear extra layers when venturing outside.
10. Be ready for anything on the road
Heed all weather alerts and warnings, and stock your car now with emergency supplies to sustain you in case you do get caught in a storm while on the road. Be prepared with plenty of fresh water, calorie-dense foods, warm blankets, a pair of sturdy walking shoes, and an extra set of dry clothes. “Researchers say that 70 percent of the fatalities related to ice and snow occur in automobiles, and about 25 percent of all winter-related fatalities are people that are caught off guard, out in the storm.”
The Live Better Team
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.