The holidays are a hectic, stressful time for most people. Balancing family obligations, shopping, work functions and holiday parties with rodeo finals, three-day shows, and other events can sabotage our ability to fight off colds and flu, as well as decrease our resistance to other illnesses. Our bodies are exposed to viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens daily. You may wonder why it is that you easily catch cold bugs while your best friend dodges them. The answer may be in your body’s ability to fight off germs. A healthy immune system is our best defense against disease. Our immune system consists of a complex network of cells, organs, and tissues that recognizes each germ and defends our body against it.
Short-term stress may actually boost our immune system by signaling our body to produce more cortisol, which enables our flight or fight response. On the other hand, chronic stress such as overwhelming work, competition or family obligations can create a steady cascade of cortisol and adrenaline, which actually suppresses the immune system. Reducing stress will lower this cortisol reaction. Don’t over commit. Try to maintain a relaxed and positive outlook. Take time to laugh. Laughter has been shown to lower stress hormones and increases the number of white blood cells in the body that fight infection.
A sedentary routine, whether it’s from being confined to a desk all day or having activities limited due to weather conditions, will leave you feeling sluggish. Your immune system in turn becomes sluggish. Walking for a mere 30 minutes each day can increase the disease fighting leukocytes in your blood. Exercise also releases endorphins that increase your sense of wellbeing and boost sleep quality, both of which help keep diseases at bay.
A few extra pounds may not only affect your riding ability, but may also increase your risk of getting sick. Excess fat cells in the body may trigger inflammatory chemicals, which damage healthy tissues. Being overweight can impair your immune system. A study of overweight mice showed they made fewer antibodies after receiving vaccinations than their leaner counterparts. Antibodies are produced by the body after a vaccine is given to kill or neutralize the germ, such as the flu, if a person is exposed to it in the future.
During the holidays we are bombarded with sugary desserts so it’s important to remember that too much sugar can suppress the immune system. Studies show that 75-100 grams of sugar, which is about the equivalent found in two 12-ounce sodas, reduces the ability of leukocytes to fight off bacteria by 40 percent. On the other hand, increasing foods high in antioxidants can boost your immunity and help fight infection. Our body produces free radicals that can damage cells. These antioxidants can help neutralize free radicals and prevent damage to our cells. Upsetting the balance between free radicals and antioxidants can increase our risk of developing heart disease, cancer, and other chronic age-related diseases.
Antioxidants include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and zinc. Eating a diet filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables rich in these nutrients can boost our immune system. Leafy greens, oranges, grapefruit and bell peppers are high in vitamin C. Vitamin C has also been shown to reduce inflammation as well as inactivate histamine, which causes runny nose and congestion. Vitamin E, found in nuts and sunflower seeds, has been shown to help fight respiratory infections and boost immunity during periods of stress. Berries, red grapes, kiwi, strawberries, spinach, onions, carrots and sweet potatoes are all powerful antioxidant foods that boost the immune system. Fresh garlic has been shown to have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Including fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, and herring in your diet at least twice a week will decrease inflammation and boost the immune system. Combine fruit and yogurt for a tasty, healthy snack. In a University of California study, those who ate a ¾ cup of yogurt daily experienced 25 percent less colds that those who did not.
Not surprisingly, fatigue increases your chance of getting sick. Studies show you are more likely to get sick if you are not getting enough sleep. A study at the University of Chicago limited students to four hours of sleep a night for six nights. These students were given a flu vaccine. These sleep-deprived students produced half the normal number of antibodies. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night can boost the immune system and increase our energy level.
To stay healthy we must understand how germs are spread. When we have a respiratory infection the germs in our nose, throat, sinuses, and lungs are spread by droplets from person to person. They can be directly inhaled when an infected person sneezes or coughs, or may be spread to common objects like door handles, telephones, stair rails, shopping carts, etc. When we touch these contaminated objects then touch our nose and mouth we can infect ourselves or others.
Steps to prevent spread of respiratory infections:
- Wash your hands prior to eating or touching your face or mouth.
- Don’t share food containers or personal items.
- Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and face especially when in public. Door handles, grocery baskets, stair rails, telephones, computer keyboards, pens, etc. can all be contaminated by sick people who have sneezed or coughed into their hand then touched these shared objects.
- If you are sick, cover your mouth with your arm when sneezing or coughing. If you use a tissue, discard this appropriately and wash hands with soap and warm water or use alcohol based sanitizers.
- If you have a cough or fever, stay home from work or school and seek medical attention if needed.
- Get your flu shot annually.
About Martha Smith
Martha Smith resides in Hazelhurst, Miss., a small community south of Jackson, and has been a member of the NBHA for 15 years, competing actively in Mississippi District 05. In 2006 she earned the Open 3D Mid-South National championship and has qualified for numerous NBHA World Shows. Smith now serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi School of Nursing in the Family Nurse Practitioner program, teaching RNs how to become nurse practitioners.
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