A healthy lifestyle has many benefits and can help your immune system to fight infections like flu. Influenza, or flu, affects millions of people every year. While most people recover easily, others can become seriously ill.
With the annual flu season approaching in the coming weeks, Western Cape Health and Wellness dietician Tanja Venter says the first line of defence to protect yourself and your family against flu is a healthy lifestyle.
“Boosting our immune system by living a healthy lifestyle strengthens our immune response and helps our body to fight off infections like colds and flu. If you do catch a cold or the flu, having a strengthened immune system can help to reduce the severity of symptoms and the period of illness.”
Common flu symptoms include:
- fever or body chills,
- sore throat or cough (usually dry),
- tiredness and weakness,
- runny or stuffy nose,
- aching muscles and
- vomiting or diarrhea (common in children).
Tanja shares three ways to enhance your immunity before flu season, as well as advice for parents.
1. Eat a well-balanced diet
Eating a well-balanced diet that includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables is the best way to boost your immune system during the cold winter months.
Tanja explains: “No single food item can guarantee immunity against colds and flu, but including food items rich in antioxidants such as selenium, zinc, vitamin A, C,E and beta carotene can boost the immune system by ensuring that immune cells work optimally. Including butternut, pumpkin, citrus fruits (such as oranges), tomatoes, whole grains, milk, and lean meats and drinking lots of clean water can contribute to a healthier immune system, keeping colds and flu at bay.”
Tanja warns that an unbalanced diet, lacking fresh fruits and vegetables, and high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates can weaken our immune system and our body’s ability to fight of colds and flu.
“Avoid food items high in sodium (salt), saturated fat, and sugar. Focus on food items that provide nutrients (vitamins and minerals), fiber, and healthy fats like Omega 3 fatty acids.”
2. Get your flu vaccine
In South Africa flu kills between 6 000 – 11 000 people every year, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
Annual vaccination is the most effective way to protect yourself against flu, and serious complications.
People at risk for becoming seriously ill due to flu include pregnant women, and those living with chronic conditions such as HIV, asthma, diabetes, lung disease, tuberculosis and heart disease.
Remember: a flu vaccine cannot give you flu. To feel achy or feverish after vaccination is a completely normal and natural reaction, and generally lasts only a day or two. Tanja shares the benefits of getting your flu vaccination.
“The flu vaccine can help the body’s immune response against flu by helping the immune system to create antibodies. It is important to note that a healthy balanced diet and proper hygiene practices are still needed to ensure that our bodies remain healthy during the flu season.”
Every year, flu vaccines are distributed to primary healthcare facilities (clinics and day hospitals) at no cost. The vaccines will be administered as soon as the doses arrive at primary healthcare facilities. Flu vaccines are also available at local pharmacies or your GP.
3. Monitor your well-being and stress levels
Long-term stress can affect your immune system and your body can become vulnerable to infections, such as flu. Everyday experiences can lead to stress such as personal difficulties (conflict with loved ones, lack of income etc), disease, violence or conflict in your workplace.
Tanja shares easy ways to reduce your stress. “It is important to consume a healthy balanced diet and it is equally as important to try and reduce our daily stress levels. With the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, we often find ourselves stressed out, eating poorly and not doing enough exercise. Exercising can reduce stress and improve your overall health. Poor lifestyles choices like smoking can also attribute to a poor immune system. Try to find the balance in life. The healthier you are the healthier your immune system will be.”
Remember, exercising doesn’t need to be expensive or lengthy or take up too much time in your day. Find something that makes you feel good and puts a smile on your face. Dance around the house for 30 minutes to your favorite music with your family or on your own or go for a brisk walk near your work or in your neighbourhood.
You could also use music to unwind. Music facilitates the recovery process from a dip in your day or a low mood. Tune out from your busy day by listening to your favorite song or switching on the radio and having a sing-along. If music isn’t for you, try to get in touch with your creative side, whether this is drawing, painting, sewing, writing in your journal or cooking. Take time away from social media and re-engage with activities that made you feel happy in the past.
It is best to seek the assistance from your loved ones or a professional if you need mental health support. Visit a Western Cape Health and Wellness clinic to access free mental health counselling.
HOW TO PROTECT YOUR CHILD’S IMMUNE SYSTEM
Your little ones may also catch the flu, but you can protect them and strengthen their immune response to flu.
“Breastfeeding infants and toddlers up until at least the age of two years provides children the best start to a healthy immune system. Breastmilk contains all the nutrients babies need to establish a good immune response and supports the immune system by providing antibodies from the mother. Ensure that the complimentary food baby receives from the age of six month is age appropriate and nutrient dense. Just like adults, children also need a healthy balanced diet, safe clean water, and enough sleep to keep them healthy. Include fun ways to consume healthy food like banana and peanut butter popsicles or eating a rainbow of fruit. Teaching our children to eat right and to balance stress will lead to healthier children and one day a healthier adult.”
Other healthy habits for adults and children include good hygiene practices such as washing your hands regularly, coughing or sneezing into a tissue or an elbow and staying home when sick to avoid infecting others, as flu is contagious.
Taking care yourself by living a healthy lifestyle and taking your flu vaccine will greatly reduce your chances of hospitalisation. This means that healthcare workers can care for members of the public who are seriously ill and protect the healthcare system.
Take charge of your health today to protect yourself and your family.