The back to school season has started and before we sharpen pencils or sit in front of our virtual class, families everywhere are paying extra attention to their household’s health. Like any year, the first few weeks of school offer a stew of germs, but this year’s pandemic changes the way we think about our offensive and defensive health. So, here’s what you need to know to aid in your family’s immune health.
Fun Fact: The Real Season for Immunity
We are accustomed to thinking there are distinct seasons for things. There’s Back to School season when kids across the globe head back to school for in-person instruction (how things have changed!). There’s the season of new starts and resolutions that are marked by the beginning of January. And, there’s cold and flu season that is triggered by cooler weather, the end of the 12-month calendar and everything people can do to boost their immunity. Many people don’t realize their bodies are equipped with a unique immune system that needs to be optimized all. year. long!
A well-functioning immune system recognizes a foreign substance such as a virus, how it multiplies and works hard to eliminate the things that don’t belong. A weakened immune system may fail to recognize an intruder or fall short in eliminating it.
Immunity and Nutrition
The strength of your immune system depends, in part, on what you eat – all year long. A diet that contains optimal amounts of the protective nutrients, such as vitamin C, iron, and zinc, helps maintain a strong immune system. If you do become sick, the symptoms are typically less severe and you should recover quicker than someone whose immune system is weakened by inadequate nutritional supplies (1).
Colorful fruits and vegetables are sources of the antioxidants, including beta carotene, vitamin E, selenium and vitamin C. The antioxidants work together to optimize the immune response and to help fend off infection, colds, and flu bugs (2). Ample intake of beta carotene-rich foods, such as carrots, apricots, and broccoli, also maintains the skin (don’t forget, skin is the body’s largest organ!) and mucous linings in the nose and lungs, which are the body’s first line of defense against germs. Most people don’t get enough of these foods and would do well to double or even triple current intake to at least 8, and preferably 10, servings daily. Simple ways to add more in your diet:
- For a treat, top low-fat ice cream with a cup of thawed blueberries.
- As a snack, dunk baby carrots in peanut butter or red pepper slices in hummus.
The minerals, including iron, selenium, copper, and zinc, also are involved in immunity. And don’t forget garlic! Compounds in garlic inhibit the growth of germs and might stimulate the immune system (3, 4) Although no optimal dose has been identified, including two or more cloves in the daily diet might turn on your immune system without turning off your comrades.
Studies have found that a low-fat diet stimulates the immune system, while typical American diets high in saturated fat might increase a person’s susceptibility to infection and disease (5). So, cut back on fat by limiting fatty cuts of meat, switch to low-fat dairy products, and use healthy, better-for-you fats, such as olive oil, in moderation.
Finally, certain healthy bacteria in some yogurts and kefir, including Lactobacillus and Bifidum, reduce the number of colds a person gets in a season, as well as the severity and duration (6). Skip the fancy high-sugar yogurts and choose plain, nonfat yogurt or kefir with active cultures.
Put this plan into practice with these simple solutions:
- For breakfast, serve oatmeal cooked in low-fat milk and topped with berries along with a glass of orange juice.
- For lunch, try a black bean burrito with baby spinach and salsa, bottled water, and fresh kiwi dunked in yogurt flavored with shredded orange peel, poppy seeds and cinnamon.
- For dinner, choose grilled salmon, then heap the plate with steamed vegetables, a spinach salad, and/or baked sweet potatoes.
Diet doesn’t work alone. You and your family need to:
- Get quality sleep: Inadequate sleep is linked to a compromised immune system. It also increases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Most kids need at least 9 to 11 hours a night, while adults need 7 to 9 hours.
- Turn to personalized nutrition: Fill in nutritional gaps on the days when your family doesn’t eat perfectly with personalized vitamin and mineral supplements that are made just for your body and lifestyle.
- Exercise regularly: Moderate daily exercise boosts immune cell function. Get the kids to unplug and head outside for a 30-minute bike ride or brisk walk in between virtual learning sessions.
- Lather up: Encourage everyone in the family to wash their hands frequently throughout the day.
- Laugh with friends: Socializing is important for mental health, and laughter as part of that social scene boosts immunity, lowers stress, and is important for everyone’s sanity!
These are small steps to take throughout the year, not just as back-to-school season sets in. Your immune system will thank you!