When my kids were little, I always braced myself for the ‘back-to-school cold’ that swept through the house during their first week back in the classroom. With the new school year upon us, kids are going to be bringing home more than just homework and new friends—they’re sure to bring home plenty of germs, too. Even if you don’t have kids at home, you’re still more likely to get sick as the weather turns colder. So, now is a good time to look at all you can do nutritionally to help keep your immune system running in tip-top shape.
Despite what your parents or grandparents might have told you, you don’t catch cold from being out in the cold air (or, as my mother always insisted, from going outdoors with wet hair). But when the weather turns chilly, we spend more time indoors. That means we’re in closer contact with more people and there’s less air circulating, so we’ve got more exposure to the germs that can make us sick.
Your body has a built-in defense, of course—your immune system. It’s your own personal army of ‘soldiers’ that protects your body by identifying anything foreign—from a virus to a bacteria to a parasite—and then seeking it out and destroying it. Your body does rely on good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to keep your defenses up. For one thing, if you eat a healthy diet and take care of yourself, you’re more likely to maintain your good health.
Fruits and vegetables are key players because they provide an abundance of phytonutrients—natural compounds found in all plant foods that help to promote health by serving as antioxidants. You need antioxidants to balance out the processes in your body that cause oxidation. Oxidative processes are a normal part of metabolism, but oxidation can run rampant in cells if it’s not kept in check. And that can weaken the body’s ability to fight illness. So, your body relies on a steady source of antioxidants from fruits and veggies to reduce this oxidant stress and, in turn, help to support immune function.
Your immune system also has some ‘special forces’ in the form of white blood cells. These cells produce specialized proteins called antibodies that seek out and destroy invading viruses and bacteria. Since antibodies are proteins, you need adequate protein in the diet to ensure you’ll be able to manufacture the antibodies your body needs. Healthy protein foods—like fish, poultry, lean meats, soy foods and low-fat dairy products—provide the building blocks that your body needs to make these specialized proteins.
Keeping your digestive system healthy is also important in supporting immune function. Your digestive tract is home to trillions of bacteria that have numerous functions in promoting health. Some strains of bacteria help you digest the fiber in your foods, others consume intestinal gas, while others produce vitamins, like vitamin K and vitamin B12. When your system is populated with these ‘good’ bacteria, they also serve to ‘crowd out’ the potentially harmful bacteria that might enter your digestive tract. Some of the best sources of these friendly bacteria are cultured dairy products, like yogurt and kefir.
Eating well really does pave the road to good health. To help your body in the fight against foreign invaders, your internal ‘army’ needs the best nutrition possible. So, call in the troops—and dry your hair.