17 Ways To Not Get Sick
Man down! From this time of year onwards, as bugs and viruses sweep offices like a modern-day plague, we all start dropping like flies. Drowsy, bunged-up flies that may well have exceeded the recommended daily dosage of Lemsip.
Your immune system is a bit like a video game character’s power reserve. (Stick with us here.) You start off feeling 100 per cent with a full bar of health, but then – UGH! – a boozy late night begins to chip away at your energy level. Someone sneezes over you – AH-CHOO! – on the packed train to work and it depletes further still. And then you have to sit in a meeting opposite your colleague Steve who is bravely “soldiering on” despite the fact that he seems to be coughing up his left lung – HACK! HACK! HEURGH! – and infecting the entire office in the process. Thanks for being such a team player, Steve. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of energy and the man cold will take you down. Resistance is futile.
Or is it?
While your grandmother might claim her famous chicken soup is a miracle remedy, mankind has yet to discover a cure for the all-too-common cold. But there are plenty of sensible and scientifically backed steps you can take to ward off whatever ills are going around.
Why do we always seem to get sick after a flight? If you get a flu jab are you actually setting yourself up to be struck down by an even more virulent strain down the track? Do vitamin C supplements actually do anything?
Here, New Jersey-based physician Dr Mikhail Varshavski, aka Doctor Mike, answers these questions and more while sharing his practical tips for building up your resistance – from sleeping with a humidifier to having sex.
As the poet Mr Rudyard Kipling nearly wrote, if you can keep your health when all about you are losing theirs, you’ll beat a man-cold, my son.
More socks, please
“If your feet are cold, your body responds by bringing blood flow to your inner organs and away from your extremities,” says Dr Varshavski. “When the blood flow gets shunted away from your nose and your throat, you get less immune protection there, and these are the key areas where you need the most immune protection when thinking about getting transmission of viruses. So don’t walk around barefoot at home when it’s cold. And do wear a scarf.”
And more sex, please
“When we’re ill, we try to limit human contact so as not to infect others. But there have been a few interesting studies about the importance of touch: that hugging, getting massages, even having sex, all of those things boost your immune function. It’s not unwise to keep human contact during the winter.” Can you pick up a cold on the phone? “Germ-a-phobes take note: you need to be exposed to some bacteria. Your immune system should be busy in order to work efficiently. That’s why I don’t recommend even mouthwashes that are antibacterial because there’s good bacteria that lives in your mouth. What I do recommend sanitising, however, are your hands and your phone. Your hands are the most common carriers of bacteria and viruses. And your phone is absolutely disgusting. You’re shaking people’s hands, you’re putting it on the table where people sneeze, you’re using it on the subway, you’re even using it in the bathroom… and then you bring it up to your nose and your face. Transmission occurs when you itch your nose, or you put your fingers to your lips, or you rub your eye. So wash your hands and regularly disinfect your phone with antibacterial wipes.”
Cold and flu remedies lack punch
“Over-the-counter medications like Lemsip alleviate the symptoms of a cold, but they do not cure the illness. If the symptoms are preventing you from getting quality rest because you’re up all night with a sore throat, or you’re coughing non-stop, then OK, these medications will help you heal sooner because you’ll be able to sleep better. They may also have a placebo effect – you believe taking a tablet will speed up your recovery and so it does. But these medications do not directly act on the infection itself.”
Get a flu jab…
“The flu shot prevents what the researchers predict to be the strain of flu that we’re going to get this season. Without a doubt, the flu shot is the best thing you can do protect yourself from the flu, which is 10 times worse than the common cold because the fevers that you get from it are serious. There are very, very limited side effects that you can get from getting the flu vaccine. Almost everyone should get one, young (over the age of six months) and old alike.”
…but take it easy on antibiotics
“With a common cold, people think that if they get antibiotics, they’ll recover quicker. That’s not true. When people are prescribed antibiotics prematurely, meaning that they don’t have a bacterial infection, bacteria can become resistant to that antibiotic. This will render it ineffective, which is bad news if you get genuinely sick down the track.”
Honey is a superfood
“We all know we need to eat a balanced diet of fresh food, and yet so many of us don’t. There’s lots of talk about so-called ‘superfoods’. But one thing that has been proven through medical research to help alleviate a cold is honey because it has antibacterial properties. In fact, there’s medical-grade honey that some doctors prescribe for enhanced wound healing when some antibiotics aren’t working. Using honey in your tea will help control a cough just as effectively as some of the over-the-counter cough suppressants, plus it will help relieve some of the sore throat, and it will give you some calories when you’ve lost your appetite. Green tea is also a good way of staying hydrated while getting some quality antioxidants and a manageable amount of caffeine to keep you going without overdoing it.”
Vitamin supplements are overrated
“Unless you’re vitamin deficient (highly unlikely in 2017), studies have shown that vitamin supplements are not effective. Again, there may be a placebo effect – if you take vitamin C you might think you’re going to get better and so you do – but there’s no evidence that supplements have a meaningful measurable effect. Taking more vitamin C while you’re already sick is too late.”
Drink water when feeling rough
“Dehydration is a big trigger. If you come to hospital with a virus because you’re incredibly sick, we often cannot give you any kind of magical medication. The only thing we can do when you have a virus is to put you on a drip to hydrate you through your veins. Drink water with electrolytes – some Gatorade, Pedialyte, things like that.”
A hot toddy is a bad idea
“Alcohol actually has two roles when talking about the immune system. When it's cold out, a lot of people think that they can warm up by having a drink. You might feel warmer, but in fact alcohol lowers your body temperature and you get colder, which raises that risk of getting sick. Secondly, when you drink alcohol, you might think that you’ll sleep better because you fall asleep quickly. While in fact most people do fall asleep quicker after a drink, their sleep quality is much worse. This is because they either never enter REM or they shorten the amount of time that they spend in REM sleep, which is that restorative, most important form of quality sleep. That’s why you often feel so tired after a heavy night.”
Less than six hours sleep doubles the risk of infection
“Sleep is probably the most important out of all of these factors. When you’re in your deep REM sleep, that’s when your immune system is recovering. It’s resetting all of its hormones to get ready to start the day and to fight off infection. It’s been proved time and time again if you get less than six hours of sleep, your risk of getting any kind of infection nearly doubles. If you don’t get seven to nine hours of sleep every night, you will be at an increased risk. Some nights you might only get four or five hours sleep. That’s OK as a one-off, but if that continues into a pattern which develops sleep debt, you will start getting sick more and more often. The evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that if you get seven to nine hours of sleep, everything improves: your concentration, your reflexes, your creativity, your immune system. The improvement that you get with seven to nine hours of sleep is the cheapest and most effective way to boost your immune system and stay healthy.”
Lights off, humidifier on
“In the wintertime when people are blasting their heaters, or even in the summertime when they’re blasting their air conditioners, the air gets quite dry. This in turn dries out your nasal mucosa, which is the part of your nose and throat that has the most immune cells. When you dry that area out, it’s more susceptible to infection. Sleeping with a humidifier on in the bedroom is really important.”
Avoid long-haul flights
“Number one, on an airplane, the air is drastically drier, so you get some of that dry nose mucosa which increases your chances of getting sick. Number two, the air is recycled, so if someone on the back row of the airplane sneezes, some of those germs are going to make their way to the person in the first row. Then number three, especially on long flights, you suffer from jet lag and get worse quality of sleep, and that hampers your immune system as well.”
Exercise boosts your defences…
“Exercising and being in well-conditioned shape will help you tolerate illness better and get you back on your feet sooner should you succumb, so regular exercisers are generally better able to fight off the lurgy. When you exercise, your body creates these cells in your body called cytokines. Those are your body’s first line of defence against illness. When you do light-to-moderate exercise, your body creates more of those. When you’re just initially getting sick or you’re slightly sick, that’s a great defense to have.”
…but don’t overdo it
“When you go all out, and you stress your body when you’re already starting to get sick, your body will create some stress hormones called glucocorticoids, and that will actually decrease the amount of immune protection you get. It’s all about doing light-to-moderate-intensity exercise when you’re just slightly sick. If you have a fever, no exercise will help you. At that point, it’s only rest. Instead of boosting your immune system, it will actually hamper your immune system’s ability to fight.”
Healthy mind, healthy body
“Relaxing, watching or playing sport, spending time with your friends – these are great ways to keep a healthy immune system. When you’re stressed, your body creates stress hormones. They actually hamper your immune system in the long term, although in the short term, they prevent you from getting sick while you’re actually working. Once that stress hormone goes away, your body becomes very exposed – which unfortunately is probably why people often get sick as soon as they take a break from work and have a holiday.”
“A lot of people think meditation has to be a very spiritual and almost religious experience. It doesn’t. It can be as simple as five minutes before going to sleep, writing three positive things that happen during the day, and the reasons as to why. Doing that for two weeks will improve your immune system and alleviate anxiety and depression for up to six months. Doing something as simple as that can be considered meditation, something that you can do to boost your positive psychology.”
Illustrations by Ms Karin Kellner