This is a second year in a row that I’ve received an annual flu shot, because I’m required to as a health sciences student, but before that, I stopped getting the flu vaccine when my employer no longer paid for it. In spite of that, I can’t remember the last time I had the flu. Jeff last had the flu exactly six years ago (I only remember that because I was still mending a broken ankle), but I didn’t succumb.
We’re not sure why we have stayed healthy during the winters despite spending our days surrounded by coworkers or classmates and relying mostly on mass transit (a.k.a. movable Petri dishes). I don’t think we have unusually strong “constitutions,” since there was a time when we each got at least one cold a year, and the flu maybe ever other year. I like to think that the difference is that we got really serious about eating healthier and exercising regularly several years ago, with a focus on eating ample vegetables and fruit.
Good nutrition is important for a strong immune system, and a fairly mild deficiency of even one nutrient can weaken the body’s defenses. To help protect yourself against infections like the flu and the common cold, as well as give your immune system a general boost, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests building your meals and snacks with foods full of nutrients that are well-recognized for their roles in building immunity:
- Protein is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds.
- Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system and protects you from infections by keeping skin and tissues in your mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory healthy. Get this immune-boosting vitamin from sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, milk, eggs or foods labeled vitamin-A fortified, such as milk or cereal.
- Vitamin C protects you from infection by stimulating the formation of antibodies and boosting immunity. Include more of this healthy vitamin in your diet with citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice or foods fortified with vitamin C, such as some cereals.
- Vitamin E works as an antioxidant, neutralizes free radicals and may improve immune function. Include vitamin E in your diet with fortified foods, sunflower seeds, almonds, sunflower or safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter or spinach.
- Zinc helps the immune system work properly and may help wounds heal. Zinc can be found in lean beef, wheat germ, crab, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk and tofu.
- Other nutrients including vitamin B6, folate, selenium, iron and copper, as well as prebiotics and probiotics, may influence immune response also.
Even when I do get a flu shot, I know it’s not a magic bullet. There’s always a chance that a strain of the flu could make the rounds that wasn’t included in the current year’s vaccine. That’s why when I hear news about the current flu epidemic, I don’t fret much, I just keep on doing what I’ve been doing, knowing that I’m keeping my immune system as healthy and possible. I eat right, I exercise, I get enough sleep, and I try not to stress about stuff I can’t control. Those habits make me feel my best today…and hopefully pay off with long-lasting good health.