A head cold, again? Some years, it seems like you’re constantly coming down with something. But a worse-than-usual flu season may not be entirely to blame. There are a bunch of ways you might be weakening your immune system without even knowing it, all day long—from how much sleep you get to your sugar intake to the items you touch at the office. Eat This, Not That! Health has rounded them up here. Gesundheit. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Loneliness can cause chronic stress, wearing down your immune system. According to a study published in the journal Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, feelings of loneliness affect the body on a genetic level—it causes an increase in pro-inflammatory genes and decrease in genes that produce antibodies and immunity. “The resulting long-term inflammation may represent a key mechanism in the development of loneliness-associated chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer, and neurodegeneration,” the scientists said. Yikes.
The Rx: Never get too lonely. Maintain social connections and make an effort to be around others regularly. Or just give someone a (consensual) hug. According to a study published in Psychological Science, the simple act of hugging someone reduces stress and gives you an immune boost.
An adequate vitamin D level is protective against several types of cancer. And D seems to help guard against colds and flu as well. According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine, a low vitamin D level is associated with “an increased susceptibility to infection” and increased autoimmunity, in which the immune system becomes confused and begins attacking the body instead of protecting it. Fifty percent of people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D, the National Institutes of Health says.
The Rx: According to the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements, adults should get 600 IU of vitamin D daily, and 800 after age 70. (It also protects bone health.) Your doctor can test for vitamin D deficiency with a simple blood test, and advise you on a vitamin D supplement if it’s a good idea.
If there’s one tip everyone knows about preventing illness, it’s this one: Wash your hands. But too many of us aren’t doing it. A study by the American Society of Microbiology found that 83 percent of women washed their hands after using a public restroom—but only 74 percent of men did. And a separate study from Michigan State University found that 95 percent of us don’t wash our hands well enough to kill bacteria. To learn the correct technique, read on.
The Rx: Wash your hands after using the restroom, before preparing food, or any time you feel they might be dirty.
That MSU study found that only 5 percent of us wash our hands correctly, only one in three people use soap, and 1 in 10 don’t bother with the basin at all. Not washing your hands exposes you to all kinds of disease-causing bacteria and viruses, from the common cold to norovirus to strep and staph.
The Rx: Here’s advice from the people who should know: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands vigorously using soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds—about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. But the MSU researchers found that bathroom users only washed their hands for an average of 6 seconds, and just 5 percent of people washed their hands for 15 seconds or more.
RELATED: Not Remembering This One Thing Can Be a Sign of Dementia
When we sleep, the body engages in several processes to repair and recharge the body. One of them is to make sure the immune system stays up to snuff. During sleep, the body produces inflammatory proteins called cytokines, along with restocking various disease-fighting cells and antibodies. If you’re not getting enough shut-eye, that could be why you keep coming down with colds and flu.
The Rx: Experts including the National Sleep Foundation recommend that adults get seven to nine hours of quality sleep nightly. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, talk with your doctor—your overall health is at risk.
Chronic stress weakens the body and the immune system. When you’re stressed, the brain increases its production of the stress hormone cortisol, which impairs T cells, a component in the blood that fights infection. According to the American Cancer Society, people who experience chronic stress are more prone to the common cold and viral infections like the flu.
The Rx: In today’s world, reducing stress is easier said than done. But it’s essential to mental and physical health. Regular exercise is an excellent stress reliever. Learning relaxation exercises can help. If you find yourself constantly stressed, talk to your health care provider.
RELATED: 10 Ways to Look 10 Years Younger, Say Dermatologists
A recent study found that more than half the shopping carts at an average grocery store carry disease-causing bacteria, such as E. coli, which can cause diarrhea, nausea and fever. A separate study found that handles in the freezer section of a superstore held 33,340 bacteria colonies per square inch—more than a thousand times the bacteria found on the average cell phone.
The Rx: Some grocery stores have antibacterial wipes you can use to wipe down the handle of your shopping cart. You can also buy a pack to bring with you. Wipe the handle, then let it dry completely for 20 seconds before you touch it.
This is an easy one. The CDC recommends that all adults get a flu shot every year. It can reduce your chances of contracting influenza, which can cause serious or fatal complications like pneumonia—and cause a “twindemic” along with coronavirus.
The Rx: Get your flu shot. Ask your health care provider if you should get any other vaccinations, such as against shingles, while you’re at it.
RELATED: Best Supplements You May Need Now, According to Experts
According to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, being sedentary can impair the body’s ability to fight infection.
The Rx: If you work a desk job, get up and move around as much possible. Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes. And get regular exercise: The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity every week.
It’s called overtraining syndrome: Constantly working out, without giving your body a chance to rest, is not only counterproductive to your fitness goals; it can impair your immune system.
RELATED: 13 Ways You’re Ruining Your Body After 60, Say Experts
A hangover isn’t the only way over-imbibing can make you sick. Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a potent toxin. In excess, acetaldehyde impedes the lungs’ ability to sweep microbes out of the body (hello, common cold) and reduces the ability of white blood cells to kill bacteria and viruses. Just one night of heavy drinking is enough to significantly impair the immune system, researchers have found.
The Rx: How much alcohol is too much? Experts, including the CDC and American Cancer Society, say men should have no more than two drinks daily, and women one.
Straphanging might be hazardous to your health. A British study found that people who take the bus or subway to work are six times more likely to get an acute respiratory infection than people who walk or drive. That’s simply because you encounter many more people—and their germs.
The Rx: After you get off public transportation, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands (with soap, and at least for 20 seconds).
RELATED: Sure Signs You’re Getting Dementia, According to Science
Sugar causes inflammation, which decreases immunity by weakening white blood cells, whose job is to fight off infection. And most of us eat too much of it. The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar per day and that women have no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams). The average American eats about 15 teaspoons every day.
The Rx: Reduce your consumption of added sugars like sugar-sweetened drinks, processed cereals, cookies and cake. Eat a variety of whole foods, fruits and vegetables—you’ll get vitamins and nutrients that will keep you healthy.
Obesity weighs heavily on the immune system. Being overweight prevents white blood cells from producing antibodies and agents that fight inflammation. In an animal study conducted at the University of North Carolina, researchers found that obese mice were 10 times more likely to die when infected with a flu virus than mice of normal weight.
The Rx: Maintain a healthy weight by eating a healthy, balanced diet and staying active.
RELATED: First Signs You Have a Serious Illness, Say Experts
Antibiotics are meant to treat infections caused by bacteria. They don’t work on viruses like the common cold or flu. If you unnecessarily take antibiotics for those viral infections too often, you could become resistant to them.
The Rx: If your doctor diagnoses you with a virus, don’t insist on being prescribed an antibiotic “just to be safe.” It’s anything but.
As we age, it’s easier to become dehydrated, and that can strain your immune system. Dehydration limits the secretion of antimicrobial proteins into your saliva, which ward off infections. That’s not the only way dehydration can make you sick: water carries nutrients and oxygen to your cells, flushes bacteria from your bladder and normalizes blood pressure, among several other functions.
The Rx: Harvard Medical School recommends drinking four to six cups of water a day.
RELATED: 15 Supplements Every Man Should Take, Say Doctors
Here’s a fun fact: Your cellphone may contain 10 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has tested phones that contained 100,000 bacteria. “Viruses are a bit more mobile today than ever before, because you’ve got mobile phones,” said Gerba.
The Rx: Disinfect your cellphone once a month with a solution of 60% water and 40% rubbing alcohol. Apply it with a microfiber cloth or cotton pad. Don’t spray anything directly onto the phone; you might damage it.
Offices are hotbeds of germs—keyboards, phones, desks. But the germiest surfaces are likely in the break room, particularly the coffee pot. When Gerba’s researchers tested germ levels in a typical office, they placed a synthetic germ in the break room. It spread to nearly every surface in the office within four hours.
The Rx: Keep hand sanitizer at your desk, and use it after each trip to the coffee pot. Make it a habit to wipe down your desk, phone, keyboard and door handles with an antibacterial wipe or spray.
RELATED: This is Your Life Expectancy Now, Says Study
The common cold virus and flu bugs can linger on hard indoor surfaces for up to seven days. Opening a door and then touching your face is an incredibly efficient way to pick up whatever’s there—often the common cold or coronavirus.
The Rx: When you’re out in public, make it a practice to wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before you eat, drink or touch your eyes, nose or mouth. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.