I used to pride myself on my killer immune system and the fact that I never got sick. In fact, for the first five years we were married, I don’t think my husband ever saw me not feeling well. But the last few years have been a completely different story. Last winter I was sick–really sick–almost continuously for months. I got strep throat twice, not to mention the flu, bronchitis, and several urinary tract infections. I was a mess.
My husband and close friends warned me that I was working too hard, and not sleeping enough, and that if something didn’t change I would just keep getting sick. I didn’t want to admit it, but deep down I knew they were right, and that something had to give. I started working harder at taking care of myself, and at making staying healthy a bigger priority.
I’m happy to say that the small changes I’ve made seem to be working. So far this winter I’ve been able to ward off any sign of sickness with proactive measures, and for the first time in years, I actually feel rested.
But I’m also being proactive, because I know that this is the time of year when illness strikes hardest. Shorter days and cooler weather lead to more time spent indoors, which only compounds the problem. We often neglect our own health in favor of work, family, and social obligations. Add in end-of-year and post-holiday stress and suddenly you’re dealing with a perfect storm for sickness.
5 Ways to Take Care of Yourself This Winter
Here are five ways I am taking care of myself and my family this winter–they might just help you too:
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1. Be Proactive
Before illness strikes, make sure you are doing everything possible to boost your immune system and stay healthy. This means eating lots of fruits and vegetables and other foods high in antioxidants, as well as taking vitamins or supplements. Citrus fruits are in season during the winter months which means there is no excuse not to stock up!
Another way to be prepared for cold and flu season is to assemble a few staples so you’re prepared when the sniffles start. Keep sick day items on hand, including your favorite medications, essential oils, ginger-ale, crackers, tissues and perhaps even some new movies or activity books so you’re ready to go when you get a sudden sick call or when one of the kids wakes up not feeling well.
2. Get More Rest
I am learning the hard way that there is simply no better way to keep yourself healthy than getting enough sleep! Although the nights are longer and darker in the winter, your sleep can actually suffer. Aim for consistency and shoot for 7-8 hours of sleep every night, even if that means going to bed earlier or sleeping a little later. If it’s just not possible, keep your wake-up times consistent (even on the weekends) and turn in earlier when you can. Getting plenty of rest will ensure you’re ready to face whatever comes your way, healthy, clear-eyed and ready to go!
I personally have loved using the Sleep Cycle app to track my sleep and help me wake up more refreshed. This innovative tool monitors your sleep patterns all night long, and then, based on a window of time that you select, wakes you up while you are in your lightest sleep cycle, making it much easier to get out of bed in the morning. It is so cool!
Another way to keep yourself healthy this cold and flu season? Manage your stress level. Exercise produces mood boosting endorphins and it’s a proven stress and anxiety reducer. Even with busy schedules, it’s important to pencil in time to exercise and get in physical activity. If you’re traveling, be sure to book your stay somewhere with access to a gym or pack your walking shoes or your favorite workout DVD. Taking some “me time” can help ease tension and keep you feeling renewed and able to cope with emotional situations.
Delicious winter comfort food can also take its toll on your immune system. Fat and sugar packed treats and fried foods can cause indigestion and heartburn, which can also affect your sleep. Even though it’s not an ailment you “catch” like the flu, stomach troubles can ruin a night of rest just as quickly. Try not to eat too late to give your body time to digest and recover before going to bed.
3. Know How to Tell a Cold from the Flu
When you start feeling sniffles or aches coming on, it can be hard to determine if it’s a common cold or if it’s the dreaded flu. A typical head cold will cause a runny nose, stuffiness and sometimes a scratchy throat. While you may feel a little tired, lethargic or under the weather with a common cold, you won’t be “down for the count” like you would be with the flu.
A typical cold lasts 3-4 days and it’s okay to continue with normal activity (including exercise), but only if you feel up to it.
Flu symptoms are more severe, causing body aches, chills and a fever. The symptoms can come on quickly—and they’ll hit you like a ton of bricks. (Believe me, our family flu last year was one for the record books!) Flu sufferers are usually exhausted and achy at the onset. The flu can last 10 days to two weeks.
If you really suspect you’re coming down with the flu, a quick trip to your doctor or to a walk-in clinic will get you a prescription for Tamiflu which can reduce the duration and severity of the illness. Sometimes though, an illness simply has to run its course.
Whether you have a cold or the flu, hydration is important. Water is nature’s magical elixir, flushing your system out and helping you heal. Taking a multivitamin every day as well as a pro-biotic will help keep your immune system strong. Rest, rest and more rest. Give yourself permission to take time off to heal.
4. Ease Your Symptoms as Much as Possible
A cold needs to run its course. There’s no quick fix for a head cold (or for the flu, for that matter). Antibiotics tend to be over-prescribed, so it can be healthier in the long run to try to fight illnesses with natural remedies. If you simply have the sniffles and congestion, you can probably skip a trip to the doc.
Vitamin C, zinc and other supplements may help boost your immune system prior to getting sick, as will homeopathic Oscillococcinum. Boost your home’s air moisture by using a humidifier, which can help keep your skin (as well as throats and sinuses) clear and ready to stave off infection.
While some people may get squeamish at the thought of using a Neti pot, others find it can bring real relief and alleviate mucus and congestion, clearing sinuses and making it easier to breathe. The term “saline nasal irrigation” does sound sort of well…gross—but follow the instructions and you might be surprised just how much a Neti pot can ease sinus pressure.
Steam, hot showers and even the age-old chicken soup remedy can help greatly, according to WebMD. Garlic and other components in the soup actually inhibit the movement of white blood cells, helping you fight off cold symptoms before they escalate.
Rest, drink fluids and eat lightly for a few days. Give your body time to heal. Avoid smoke and don’t do anything physically taxing (like running a 10K). Wash your hands and basically do all the things your grandmother told you to do. If the cold seems persistent or you suspect bronchitis, an ear infection or sinusitis, it’s time to see a physician.
5. Prevent Sickness at the Source
If your family is illness-prone and you’re freaked the flu is going to hit you hard this winter, the best way to keep yourself and your family healthy is to encourage frequent hand washing. Still concerned about germy areas? You can also run around your house and quickly wipe off doorknobs, counters and other “touch points,” especially when you know a bug is going around. Try using these natural homemade cleaners rather than commercial products that can actually harm your immune system in the long run.
While you can really make yourself nuts worrying about illnesses, an occasional wipe down of your cellphone during flu and cold season doesn’t hurt. Consider this: Many of us take our phones everywhere and touch them constantly. We put them up to our faces and we even take them into the bathroom sometimes. In fact, a recent study found that a cellphone has 18 times more bacteria than the handle of a public restroom.
Another simple way to avoid sickness? Avoid touching your T-Zone. Your eyes, nose and mouth are entry points for most illnesses. If we could just learn to stop touching our faces so much, we’d all be much healthier (and our skin would be better off too)! It can be a challenge, I know. I often catch myself propping my head on my hand while I scroll along on the computer or itching my nose. Just try your best to avoid these areas during flu season.
Watching out for your family’s well-being and knowing how to better address their sick-time symptoms are great ways to ensure you and your family stay healthy this winter. Manage your stress levels and practice self care. Be good to yourself and your body will be good to you!
Other helpful resources:
- Why Aren’t You Happy? How to Take the Pressure Off This Holiday Season
- How to Survive the Post-Holiday Blues
- Your Biggest Holiday Problems Solved
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How do you keep your family healthy during the winter months?
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