WASHINGTON — When it comes to the topic of health and the holidays, most people are focused on limiting the Christmas cookies and eggnog to avoid seasonal weight gain. But the holidays can affect more than just your waistline; this time of year can take a toll on your immune system.
Dr. John Young, a physician specializing in the treatment of chronic illnesses, says that from Halloween to Jan. 1, the immune system takes a hit from a number of different factors, including stress and diet.
“We’re under a tremendous amount of stress — parties, get-togethers, things like that — and we’re eating very poorly,” he says. “When you take in a lot of carbohydrates, they turn into sugar, and sugar by definition is pro-inflammatory, which also depresses the immune system.
Of course, the holidays coincide with cold and flu season. And with lots of people gathered in enclosed spaces with less access to fresh air, it’s easier for germs to circulate and for illnesses to spread.
Make sure you don’t miss out on the fun of the holiday season. Keep your immune system running at its peak with these tips:
Eat enough protein
At most holiday parties, there’s no shortage of food. However, Young says, a lot of people neglect the protein options on seasonal spreads and eat more carbohydrates and sweets.
“Your immune system is all protein. Without the protein, the immune system is depressed,” Young says. “If that immune system is not working right, then you’re more likely to get a virus or a bacterial infection.”
At your next party or holiday gathering, skip the cheese-and-cracker platter and grab an extra portion of turkey, chicken or roast beef with a side of vegetables. Vegetarians can nosh on nuts, whole grains or protein-packed veggies such as spinach, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Add in some vitamin D
Unfortunately for those in the mid-Atlantic, soaking up vitamin D from the sun’s natural rays isn’t an option during winter months — without a few vacations to the tropics.
But Young says vitamin D is crucial to keeping the immune system operating at its best citing the research of Dr. Michael F. Holick, a professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center.
“Without vitamin D, it’s another kind of mark against you that the immune system is not working optimally,” says Young, who advises pill or liquid vitamin D during the winter.
But before starting any supplement, Young says, it’s important to consult with your doctor, since vitamin D can raise calcium levels. Foods high in vitamin D include salmon, tuna, eggs and mushrooms.
They say laughter is the best medicine, but it can prevent one from having to even take medicine. The Mayo Clinic says laughing has short-term effects such as an improved mood, and long-term benefits, such as an improved immune system.
Positive thoughts help to release neuropeptides, which help prevent stress and more serious illnesses, the Mayo Clinic says.
Power up with power foods
Feeling a little run down? Maybe it’s time to rethink what you’re eating. Diet plays an important role in how your body runs, and foods such as mushrooms, sweet potatoes, garlic, yogurt and shellfish can all help your body build up the power it needs to ward off infections. Prevention lists nine foods that can help give your body the boost it needs to stay healthy all season long.
Exercise is often one of the first things people neglect during busy and stressful times. But Young says movement is key to keeping healthy.
“Exercise makes the immune system more vigilant,” he says. “It raises nitric oxide levels, which is another way of increasing oxygen within the body. The more oxygen in the body, the better the body runs.”
If you don’t have time for a full workout, try to squeeze in a 10-minute walk during your lunch hour or a quick jog after work. Every little bit helps. Exercise also helps you to sleep better — and sleep is another key component in maintaining a healthy immune system. — (AP)