How to stay healthy this fall

As the cold and flu season approaches, we’ve got another concern this year: the novel coronavirus. Public health experts warn that Covid-19—which has still not been halted in many parts of the country—may experience a comeback this fall and winter, just as we’re entering the height of the cold and flu season. So it’s particularly important this year to pay attention to your health and up your prevention efforts.

In addition to the obvious measures that have become routine—such as wearing a mask in public, washing your hands frequently, and minimizing close contact with others—here are the steps you can take now to strengthen your body’s ability to repel invaders and lessen the symptoms caused by any that do get in.

  1. Fortify your skin barrier. Your skin is the body’s first line of defense against viruses and bacteria. That’s why handwashing is so crucial to Covid-19 prevention. Beyond hand-washing though, Harvard Health Beat’s newsletter reminds us that “Any time the skin splits or is excessively dry represents an avenue for an organism to get in and cause problems.” The best protection is to eat your water and then lock in that moisture, which plumps the skin and makes it more flexible. Moisturize right after bathing or washing. Try a skin cream with ceramides, a type of fat, which are a main component of the skin’s stratum corneum, one of the five layers of the skin. Other good moisturizing choices are products with humectants, which help bind water to the skin. These include glycerin, alpha-hydroxy acids, pyroglutamic acid, sorbitol, lactic acid, and lactate salts. You might also consider a humidifier. Not only do viruses live longer in dry air, but as the humidity drops in cold weather, you’ll prevent dry air from sucking moisture out of your skin.
  2. Boost your immunity. Your body’s immune system is under attack now more than at any time in evolutionary history. The 24-hour impact of Cultural Stress, the thousands of new chemicals in our environment, to say nothing of coronavirus, colds, and the flu, means that our immune system seldom gets a chance to rest and recuperate. The result is chronic inflammation, autoimmune disorders, and food allergies.The solution? Strengthen your immune system through a healthy diet—whole, unprocessed foods including lots of vegetables and fruit; embryonic foods like eggs, seeds, and nuts; lean meats; whole grains (hold the preservatives, please); and adequate vitamin D—and
  3. Manage your stress. This is critical, not only for navigating the cold and flu season, but also for avoiding virtually all the chronic degenerative diseases that are our society’s leading killers—from cancer to cardiovascular disease to diabetes. Stress suppresses your immune system by flooding the body with corticosteroids, the same class of medications used to treat allergies and autoimmune disorders. That’s the last thing you want during cold and flu season. Here are my best tips for stress management:
    • Exercise! Immune cells circulate in the blood stream during and after an invigorating exercise routine. Even if it’s a brisk 30 minutes of dancing around the living room, an online aerobics or martial arts class, or racing your kids through the park, nothing beats exercise for building strength, endurance, cardiovascular capacity, and flexibility, while alleviating stress. Swimming, bicycling, hiking—anything that gets you breathing hard—is good.
    • Socialize! Loneliness and social isolation are a form of Cultural Stress, increasing inflammation and suppressing the immune system. Even though we can’t get together with friends and co-workers as we used to, it’s important to find ways to connect with others. That can be a socially distanced with friends, an outdoor visit as the weather permits, or a Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangout visit when all else fails.
    • Sleep! As a society, Americans work more and sleep less than any other people on the planet. One reason may be lack of exercise (we haven’t physically exhausted ourselves); the other is stress. People report that they can’t turn their minds off—it constantly replays concerns about the past or worries about the future. So, it’s up to you to create a restful bedtime routine. I recommend turning off all screens and devices at least 30 minutes before you hope to fall asleep. A soothing warm beverage can be a nice touch. Other possibilities include a hot bath, few minutes of meditation, or reading in bed.
  4. Consider getting a flu shot. Even if you’ve not been inclined to get one in the past, infectious disease experts are recommending that this may be the year to reconsider. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as many state and local public health officials, are strongly recommending that everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine this fall. Their concern is preventing an overload of the healthcare system, as well as the potential severity of a person contracting both the flu and Covid-19 at once, as both viruses attack the respiratory system.

Most of us will agree that 2020 hasn’t been the easiest year to stay healthy, but these tips for navigating the year’s final quarter can begin habits that will keep you in good health for the rest of your life.

Illustration on the right is from the United Nations’ Covid-19 public health campaign.

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