Every year as the winter season sets on, I prepare myself for the onslaught of marketing about flu shots. Even with my condition and medication that affects my immune system, I indignantly state “I will never get a flu shot” and “I never get sick” to anyone and everyone who will hold a conversation with me about it. I am confident in saying those things because I have made a priority of certain self-care habits that are protective of my health. There is no high-horse-standing going on over here. I cannot remember about 5 years of my 20’s so this was not always the case. My self-care regimen includes getting enough sleep, eating healthily with as little junk food as possible, keeping warm when I go outside and keeping my hands out of my face.
Even though I always talk about how I never get sick, what happened over Christmas??? Karma kicked me in the butt and I ended up getting sick. Now…it is a rare occasion when I do fall ill, so what happened? I did not get enough sleep for starters and coming from Canada going to 50°F I thought “I got this…” and did not wear a jacket, but clearly I did not have “this”. Yes I got sick, but you know what? I had about 2 days of feeling blah and about 3 weeks of an annoying runny nose – and that was it. Even though I did get sick, the intensity was minimal compared to what I went through 15 years ago when I was not taking as good of care of myself. We are constantly bombarded with germs. It is not like all of a sudden when you start to feel sick you just so happened to encounter germs the day before. Do not even think about pointing fingers at who you think you caught it from because you are always exposed to people’s nasty germs they are carrying around.
Here are my top 5 ways I protect myself from getting ill:
Capitalized and bolded because I cannot emphasize enough how important high quality sleep is. As a graduation present I received a Fitbit and I absolutely love it because one of the features is sleep tracking. The days before I got sick I clocked 4 hours 59 minutes and 5 hours 48 minutes of sleep. The second night I was restless for about 30 minutes, which means an even more disturbed sleep. I consider 8 hours of sleep a non-negotiable self-care habit. Meaning, it is an absolute must that I get the proper amount of sleep or it compromises my health. But you know what? Life happens, things come up and sometimes that nice long sleep has to be sacrificed. This is my Achilles heel – with all other factors the same a lack of sleep will not necessarily be a catalyst for illness, but let one other factor fall through and I am done. There are few fairly recently published studies about the reliability of fitness trackers tracking sleep1 and those studies do not seem to be raving about them; but to have it tracked automatically at least allows you to see a pattern, which for me has been worthwhile.
There are two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is interpreted by the person as “good” stress, which has beneficial properties. Distress has the opposite effect where instead of making the person perform better, it compromises her performance.
The most important aspect of negative stress that can help people cope is understanding that when it comes to psychological stress, our perspective on what is happening in our lives is directly proportionate to the distress we feel. There are always going to be things that happen that we do not like or that cause pain. There is a difference between acknowledging the pain and working through it vs. ruminating on it.
Ruminating, which is associated with judging and evaluating, will not change it but will make you perform less than your potential. However if you work through it, it can help to build your resilience, which is associated with being positive and optimistic. YES you can be real AND be optimistic, they are not mutually exclusive.
There was a study published this month2 that showed that women who had moderate stress throughout their lives had more mental resilience when faced with breast cancer; in other words they coped better. Stress is not all bad, but you have to make it work FOR you. There are many coping strategies that you can use such as changing your perspective on stress (watch Kelly McGonial’s Ted talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend), incorporating mindfulness practices (which can include yoga, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and just paying attention to what is around you), exercise (when you exercise you use up extra glucose floating around in your body that is a byproduct of the fight or flight response and it raises the cortisol release threshold for physical stress) and taking a good hard look at your lifestyle choices – why try to manage stress if you can prevent it?
Let food be thy medicine…literally! A study done in 2004 looked at the nutritional status’ effect on not only susceptibility, but also virus mutation3. The researchers looked at oxidative stress by either reducing certain antioxidants or increasing oxidants (which are nutrients – not environmental toxins). They concluded higher levels of oxidation directly affects how the virus is expressed in the body (meaning the severity of illness) and affects the occurrence of new viruses (meaning how the virus mutates). And let us get something straight – you eat antioxidants ALL THE TIME!!! They are the naturally occurring nutrients in your food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are your best bet regardless of if they are organic or not. The fresher the better so find a farmer’s market. Produce will use the nutrients in it at the time of picking to keep it alive so if it looks sad it is going to have less nutrients available to you. Fruit available at fast food restaurants that has had citric acid added to it is misleading because you do not know how old it is. The acid preserves the fresh look of the fruit. Yes an apple in citric acid is better than a super sized fries, but do you not want the best for your body.
4. Keep your hands out of your face
I sound like my Mother. But dang-it she was right! Everything you touch is loaded with bacteria and you never know who or what touched that same spot on which you now lay your hands. Viruses can live on a surface between 24-48 hours, someone could look healthy and be contagious, someone could look sick and not be contagious…why am I saying all of this? You never know who is sick or where you got the germs that make you sick. But guaranteed if you walk around in public and then shove your fingers in your eyes or mouth and you will get some nasty germs that have the potential to make you sick. I will never understand how people, ahem ladies, will hover over a public toilet seat, which you will not get sick from, but then rinse (not wash) their hands or worse yet just walk out. Ok so maybe I am being a little judgey here, but I really just do not understand the reasoning behind that. So moving on, the worst for me is when an eyelash falls into my eye. I have learned to use the back of my hand and fingers to get it out. I know that at least they have touched fewer germy surfaces than the other side. I always wash my hands when I get home (with regular soap – not antibacterial because you need SOME of that bacteria on your skin) and I change from my outside pant to my inside pants because I do not want germs I sat in in public to be spread all over my house. Of course, no shoes on in the house. I am not totally over the top with being clean (no matter what my old roommates say), but little habits go a long way to protecting yourself.
5. This is the habit of a lifetime
Exercise, or physical activity outside of your activities of daily life, is something that we all can do for the rest of our lives. We all know it is good for us but what does it exactly do? Exercise lowers the risk of chronic illness which includes: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, which are all members of the top ten killers. Chronic illness is responsible for up to 75% of all deaths and the majority cause is lifestyle habits.
Exercise prevents falls by helping to retain muscle mass. Every decade after age 30 we lose 5% muscle mass unless we exercise. Exercise also strengthens bones so that in the event of a fall there is less risk for injury. You can drink all the milk you want, but if you are not stressing your bones, I hate to break it to you (groan, yes, I have terrible jokes) but your bones are not going to get any stronger. The best part about this is, no matter how old you are, once you begin to exercise your body will adjust and get stronger – it truly is never too late! There was a study from 2004 that took post-menopausal women who showed osteopenia (pre-osteoporosis) and followed them to see exercise’s effect on bone density1. The results showed that exercise significantly reduced bone loss, but what needs to be noted is that they followed these women over 26 months. This is not something that will happen overnight so, again, it goes back to consistency. Overall, the benefits of exercise lead to an improved quality of life and independence.
You may not live forever, but the time you have here can be enjoyed much more by making exercise a priority in self-care.
The bottom line…
Going back to my annoyance with flu shots – yes there are certain populations in which they are not only beneficial but lifesaving. For instance if you are 65+ get the shot. Up to 85% of deaths from complications of the flu are in this age group4. However, if you are my age, get the shot if you want, but there are lifestyle changes that could be more beneficial. Just to be clear, these are the most important factors that I have noticed in my life and it will take some mindfulness for you to sort out yours if you do not already know them. But I promise you there is a “magic” formula – your body may be more complex than a computer, but it runs the same. There is a reason for everything and sometimes we just need to figure out what the reason is!
1) Evenson KR, Goto MM, Furberg RD (2015, Dec 15). Systematic review of the validity and reliability of consumer-wearable activity trackers. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 12:159 DOI: 10.1186/s12966-015-0314-1
2) Dooley LN, Slavich GM, Moreno PI, Bower JE (2017, Jan 4). Strength through adversity: Moderate lifetime stress exposure is associated with psychological resilience in breast cancer survivors. Stress and Health. Published ahead of print. DOI: 10.1002/smi.2739
3) Beck, M. A., J. Handy, and O. A. Levander. 2004. Host nutritional status: The neglected virulence factor. Trends in Microbiology. 12:417–423. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tim.2004.07.007
4) What You Should Know and Do this Flu Season If You Are 65 Years and Older (2016, Aug 25). Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/65over.htm