Back to School Immune System Support

Somehow it’s already that time of year: the kids are head back to school and they are bringing a whole lotta germs back home with them at the end of the day. We’ve all been there. We hear that one student has a bug and the next thing you know, it’s gone through the class and their families like wildfire. That first whisper of illness doesn’t need to be a cause for panic, though. Here are some of my best tips as a health and nutrition coach to support your immune system for greater health this fall.

1. Practice good hand washing for the whole family

Why it’s important. It seems that everyone loves their hand sanitizer these days, and I get it – it’s convenient, it gives you peace of mind, it can be effective. However, there are numerous drawbacks to regular hand sanitizer use: dry skin, increased bacterial immunity, damaged skin cells, exposure to excess chemicals with unknown long-term results, and even a weakened immune system (our immune system works based on remembering exposures). Further, there is little to no evidence that hand sanitizers are any more effective than good old soap and water. In fact, they may be less so in some instances.

What you can do. Given all of that, I encourage you to keep the sanitizer use to a minimum and focus on hand washing and good hygiene habits. Teach your kids to wash their hands before eating, keep their hands away from their face and mouth before washing, and turn hand washing into a routine – maybe as soon as they get home from school, before every meal, and before bed. This will help keep immune systems healthier and germs to a minimum.

2. Get enough sleep

Why it’s important. Getting enough sleep is critical to maintaining good health, proper body function, growth and development, and normal energy levels. Without enough sleep, we are more susceptible to bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. Children require more sleep than adults do because they are building and growing little bodies into big bodies plus staying active and constantly learning and acquiring new skills. Sleep requirements will vary depending on how old your child is. Here is a great resource on children’s sleep needs.

What you can do. Keep your kids on a regular bedtime every night preceded by a bedtime routine. The regular bedtime will help them get in the habit of sleeping at that time. Having a bedtime routine focused on winding down will help your kids relax and they will come to associate it with preparing to sleep, making bedtime a little easier. It’s important that this routine: 1.) be low-key, not energizing, and 2.) not involve ipads, smartphones, or TV as blue light disrupts our natural sleep patterns. Some ideas: start with teeth brushing and a warm bath, incorporate story time in the child’s bed, keep bedroom lights low, give your little one a little soothing back rub.

3. Eat the Rainbow

Why it’s important. Eating as many different fresh fruits and vegetables will help keep your immune system healthy. Brightly colored plants contain phytonutrients – special defenses plants have evolved to protect themselves that can protect us and keep us healthy as well when we eat them. Different colored produce contains different phytonutrients so it’s important to eat a variety.

What you can do. We all know kids aren’t always the most open to new foods, vegetables in particular. Try these tips to help: 1. Make eating these foods as interesting and interactive as possible. Kids love color. Ask them what color string beans they want or challenge them to get as many colors onto their plate as they can. 2. Don’t make a big deal of them not eating the foods on their plate; this is not helpful and can create more issues. 3. Just keep on putting the foods in front of them time after time and eventually they will try them.

4. Spice It Up

Why it’s important. Most herbs and spices contain antioxidative compounds that can help support our immune systems, such as thyme, oregano, cinnamon, and rosemary.

What you can do. Don’t be afraid to get “spicy” in the kitchen. Sprinkle some cinnamon onto apple slices for a snack (or onto your coffee grounds before brewing!), sprinkle some fresh herbs onto your chicken, or stick a big sprig of rosemary into your bottle of olive oil to infuse it.

5. Stay Active

Why it’s important. Regular exercise or physical activity is also a great way to keep your immune system working well. The increased blood flow created by exercise massages the lining of your blood vessels, prompting them to release more compounds that act as natural “medicines” to keep us healthy.

What you can do. Make sure that your kids get plenty of opportunity for active playtime. This can mean taking them to the playground, signing them up for sports, letting them play in the yard, taking family walks regularly, or taking up family activities together like hiking, biking, or skiing. When the weather is poor, a game of charades or Hyperdash are great options. Our bodies were made for movement and it’s especially important that we move enough as growing children. Keeping active also means keeping screen time to a minimum.

6.  Stay hydrated

Why it’s important. Our bodies depend on water to stay optimally functional. Being hydrated helps keep our muscles lubricated and moving, helps us absorb water-soluble nutrients from the foods we eat, helps keep our bowel movements regular, and helps flush out our bodies.

What you can do. For children, the current recommended water intake is 1 ounce of fluid per pound of bodyweight per day. For adults, it’s 1/2 ounce of fluid per pound of body weight per day. This can be asking a lot, not just in terms of consuming that much, but time spent eliminating that much as well… if you know what I mean. What I advise is: 1. drink before you’re thirsty, especially if you’re sweating or active, 2. make water the number one option for beverages, and 3. in general, if your urine is clear and light yellow in color, you’re in good shape for hydration. You can encourage kids to drink more water in a number of ways: give them a fun cup or straw they like to drink out of, toss some fresh or frozen fruit in it, and keep soda and juice out of the house.

Why Do I Get Sick When I Start a New Workout Routine?

Does it seem like every time you try to start a new exercise routine you get sick and end up having to start all over again? You’re not alone and this is an actual thing – it’s not just your body betraying you, though it may seem like it.

So let’s look at what’s going on when this happens and the steps you can take to stop it from happening to you next time.

Stress on Your Body

While exercise is really good for your body, it’s important to remember that it is also a stressor on your body, especially if it’s different or more vigorous than you’re used to. That stress on your body can temporarily run down your immune system, making you more susceptible to germs and viruses. It’s similar to how your immune system can get run down if you’re lacking in sleep for too long. One way of thinking of it is that your body only has so many resources to allocate. If it needs to move more of them to exertion and healing/recovery from a workout, there are less resources to allocate to your immune system. So if you combine a new, intense workout routine with lack of sleep or exposure to a lot of pathogens, then something has to give and sometimes it’s in the immune system department.

Gyms are a Germ Pit

I’m not being dramatic- they are a germ pit. Unfortunately, civilized human beings who actually thoroughly wipe down the equipment they use when they’re done are few and far between, so you’re sharing whatever they left on the treadmill before you. Free weights in particular are the dirtiest piece of gym equipment. In fact, one study found that free weights contain more than 300 times the germs found on a toilet seat. Sorry, but you needed to know. It makes sense when you think about it – how many times have you seen someone actually wipe down the weights before they re-rack them? Exactly. Never.

Your fitness classes are also guilty of being germy places. Yoga mats in particular are fantastic incubators for a number of infection-causing bacteria. And, just as at the gym, you can’t count on your neighbor wiping down her equipment as diligently as you do.

Add to this germy mix a rundown immune system and you have a perfect equation for a fitness de-railing illness.

Getting Enough Rest

For many of us, early mornings are the only times we can fit a workout into our busy schedules. Getting enough sleep is critical to all the basic functions of your body, including your immune system and healing. If you are just starting out with a 4 or 5 am alarm to get your workout in, that adjustment period can make you more vulnerable to getting sick if your body is accustomed to getting more sleep and, therefore, more time to recover and rebuild. Making sure that you are getting enough sleep each night when you begin cutting into that morning snooze, is important.

So what can you do to end the vicious exercise-sickness-exercise cycle?

Tips for Keeping Healthy

  • Wipe down your equipment BEFORE and after use.
  • Avoid touching your face until you’ve washed your hands thoroughly.
  • Bring your own towel – some gyms transport their dirty and clean towels in the same bin, thereby recontaminating the clean towels with bacteria.
  • Try to make sure you wipe your face with the side of the towel that hasn’t touched the equipment – you can do this by putting a mark on one side of your towel or using a towel that has a pattern on one side.
  • Ease into your new workouts instead of running headlong in so it’s less of a strain on your body. You can do this by taking more modifications in your first class or starting your runs shorter or at a slower pace, for example.
  • Do what you can to support your immune system – drink lots of water, take your vitamins, get enough rest, and eat lots of fruits and veggies for those phytonutrients.
  • Make sure you are fueling your body. Eat healthful, whole foods rather than overprocessed, prepackaged foods lacking in nutrition. I like to say “eat the rainbow” – the more different, vibrant colors you’re consuming in fresh fruit and vegetables, the greater the variety and concentration of nutrients you’re getting.

My Routine

I’m a fairly fit person, but I’ve dealt with the struggle of starting a new exercise regimen and getting sick immediately many times. Most recently, I tried a new HIIT class which is very different from what I’m used to and I got majorly sick within a couple days. So I have developed a new routine to avoid that.

Hydration. Not only do I make sure to drink water while I’m working out, I make sure to refill my water bottle before I leave and continue to drink it on my way home with the goal of replenishing fluids and then some.

Hand Washing. I try to be mindful about not touching my face during my workout and I wash my hands in the locker room before I leave. I also wash them again when I get home even if I’m going to shower right away (Confession: I usually eat before showering #priorities).

Immune System Support: I’m a dedicated vitamin-taker.

Rest. I’m an early to bed person. I have always needed a lot of sleep and that hasn’t changed with age so I listen to my body for bedtime.

Restore. I don’t go right back to it the next day. I give my body a break by doing something lighter that will still get my blood pumping, like a long walk or yoga. Then I’m giving my body some chance to recuperate while stimulating the lining of my blood vessels, the endothelium, which releases its own natural “medicine” to help me continue to recover.

Once you’ve gotten over this hurdle, be sure to check out my tips for keeping yourself motivated to workout so you can keep up the good work!

Boost Your Immune System Naturally

I’m sure you’ve all heard the refrain “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well, there is good reason why that saying exists! The foods we eat can help boost our immune systems to we get sick less frequently and, when we do get sick, it is less severe and we recover faster. There are also other healthful habits we can adopt that can maximize our immune systems to get through the Fall and Winter. So, now that Fall is here, the kids are back to school, and flu season is fast approaching, how can you support your immune system without relying on all kinds of medications?

Phytonutrients

Fresh produce is loaded with immune system-supporting compounds call phytonutrients (“phyto” means “plant”). These nutrients give plants their vibrant colors and distinct flavors. Phytonutrients include antioxidants which have been linked to a decrease in cancer risk by binding to the damaging free radicals in your body. They also include anti-inflammatory compounds as well. Inflammation continues to be linked to more and more illnesses and chronic diseases. Thus, phytonutrients protect your health on a number of different levels. To experience the benefits of phytonutrients, eat foods like berries, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and eggplant. An easy way to think of this is eating the rainbow – the more different colors you can eat, the more phytonutrients you’re eating as well!

Add Some Flavor with Honey and Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a powerhouse of a spice. It has both anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. It has also been shown to be antimicrobial and antibacterial as well. Once the cooler weather gets here, I start sprinkling cinnamon on top of my coffee grounds every morning – it’s delicious and I can enjoy the immune system boost from it as well. We are fortunate in that most traditional Fall recipes contain cinnamon, so eating seasonally will help get more cinnamon into your diet as well.

Similar to cinnamon, honey has proven antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Adding some honey to your tea, to plain yogurt, or to smoothies is a great way to consume more of this immunity boosting sweet.

Move!

Our blood vessels are lined with special cells called the endothelium. The endothelium is like your body’s own pharmacy in that it releases a number of different medicinal compounds into your bloodstream as is needed. When you exercise, it increases the blood flow through your blood vessels and over the endothelium, thereby prompting it to release more of those medicines. This is why sometimes when you feel a cold coming on, you feel better after going for a brisk walk. Additionally, regular exercise can help produce new blood vessels further improving your circulation and your health.

Rest Up

In the simplest sense, our bodies need just 4 things: nutrition, movement, water, and rest. The last of those is the one that we seem to value least in American society today. Sometimes it seems like there are competitions at work to see who is the most exhausted or the busiest. But sleep deprivation actually depresses your immune system, so the more exhausted you are, the more likely you are at to get sick. Sleep is the best opportunity your body gets each day to repair itself and flush out the toxins you take in during the day. It’s not just about the quantity of sleep you get, however, it’s about the quality, too. To make sure you are getting sufficient and quality sleep, avoid simple carbohydrates and big meals in the evening. Having a glass of wine before bed might help you fall asleep, but it will disrupt your sleep later in the night, so skip out on the alcohol as well. It’s also important that you sleep in a dark room and keep all devices out of the bedroom – just looking at your cell phone screen in the middle of the night will disrupt production of your sleep hormones.

Some other quick tips:

  • Practice good habits like washing your hands regularly (avoid using hand sanitizer – it’s loaded with chemicals and contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacterias).
  • Avoid eating processed foods as they contain many ingredients that contribute to inflammation in your body and don’t contribute anything in the way of nutrition.
  • Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum.
  • Keep well-hydrated – this means 1/2 oz of water per pound of your body weight per day (for adults).
  • Not necessarily “natural” in the strictest sense, but get your flu shot if you are part of the flu vaccine priority population.