• Dr Meltzer

The Secret to Preventing the Cold & Flu

Making it through the fall and winter season without coming down with the cold or flu can sometimes be a challenge — but it doesn’t have to be! Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself! In this article we’re going to explore the most important steps you can take to prevent the flu and common cold.

What ultimately determines whether or not we get sick — and how long we stay sick if we are indeed infected — is the strength of our immune system.

But first, let’s test your knowledge. Do you know what your primary defense mechanism is in protecting yourself from this season’s cold and flu?

  • Is it washing your hands frequently and trying not to come into contact with any germs?

  • Is it getting your flu shot or annual vaccine?

  • Or is it naturally boosting the cold-and-flu-fighting capacity of your immune system through nutrition, physical fitness, and stress reduction techniques?

While all of these factors play their own specific role, the idea behind this question is to get you thinking about the primary actions you can take to successfully prevent the cold and flu. Let’s take a closer look at the different options.

Is Washing Your Hands Your Primary Defense Mechanism Against the Cold & Flu?

When it comes to seasonal viruses, conventional wisdom teaches us that we need to wash our hands and try not to “catch” the cold or flu from co-workers or family members that might be infected. But is avoiding germs really our best defense mechanism against seasonal viruses?

What I find interesting is this approach to preventing the cold and flu originated and has been perpetuated by the “germ theory” of disease. What exactly is the germ theory of disease? The germ theory of disease states that the cause of an illness, such as the cold or the flu, is the direct result of being exposed to a germ or virus. Based on this logic, the best thing you can do to avoid getting the flu is to try and avoid any contact with germs. Unfortunately, while this is the prevailing advice that makes its way through the media and most doctors’ offices, it’s a bit misguided. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not our primary defense mechanism for fending off the cold and flu and does not necessarily protect us from getting sick.

So what’s missing from this approach? The problem with the germ theory of disease is it ignores the most important factor that influences our risk for getting sick. You see, when it comes to the cold and flu, there are two interacting factors that are always at work. There is:

  • The Agent: A foreign germ or virus that’s attempting to invade your body, and

  • The Host: Your body, which is protected by your immune system — your body’s internal military that is constantly at work to identify, neutralize, and destroy any foreign invaders.

The reason the germ-theory of disease is misleading is it puts all of the emphasis on the agent (the germ) and minimizes the indispensable role that the host (your immune system) plays in the process of fending off outside intruders.

Think about it for a moment. Have you ever noticed that some people come down with the flu that is going around in the office whereas others don’t? Is it because only a few people came into contact with the germ or virus? The truth is we come into contact with invisible germs and viruses all the time. What ultimately determines whether or not we get sick — and how long we stay sick if we are indeed infected — is the strength of our immune system. Sure, the agent (the germ or virus) has to be present for us to get sick, but more importantly, our immune response is typically the deciding factor in determining whether or not we come down with the cold or flu.

Building Your Internal Military

The good news is there’s a lot we can do to fortify our immune function and build our cold-and-flu-fighting capacity. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot we can do to compromise our body’s immune response. For example, when we’re over-stressed and eating the wrong foods, it causes our body and our immune system to tilt, and increases our susceptibility to the cold and flu. Alternatively, when we create a lifestyle of nutritional and emotional balance, it’s empowering to our immune system and increases our resistance to germs, viruses, and all kinds of disease.

Another way I like to explain this to my patients is it’s important to build up your body’s internal military when heading into the fall and winter seasons. Why is that? Because this is the time of year that the cold and flu are most likely to be on the attack. No matter how vigilant you are about washing your hands and avoiding germs, odds are you are going to be exposed multiple times to various viruses. With this in mind, the most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to build up your immune system and develop your Immune Power — your body’s ability to naturally fight off and destroy these outside intruders. So how do you go about building Immune Power? How do you develop the strength of your internal military to defend yourself from getting sick? Let’s take a look at a few important strategies.

Eating Smart Foods, developing the habit of physical fitness, strengthening your cardio-respiratory health, and effectively managing stress all come into play in creating the Immune Power necessary to protect your body from the seasonal flu and cold.

From a nutritional standpoint, emphasizing whole, living, high fiber, low saturated fat, phytonutrient and antioxidant rich foods — such as fresh fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, and whole grains — are a great way to build your immune system. There are also very specific foods, such as citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables, that play a particularly important role in protecting your upper respiratory tract from seasonal bugs. (for more information, click here to learn the 5 Foods to Eat and the 5 Foods to Avoid to Prevent the Cold & Flu).

Meanwhile, it’s been well documented that regular exercise decreases your risk for upper respiratory infections. With that in mind, make sure to stay consistent with your exercise routine and make a renewed commitment to your physical fitness and cardio-pulmonary health. Finally, taking steps to manage stress and emotional tension is another way to protect against the cold, the flu, and stress-related illness. How so? It’s well documented that stress-related hormones can suppress immune function and make you more susceptible to getting sick. Therefore, by incorporating stress reduction techniques into your morning and evening — whether it’s exercise, meditation, simple breathing drills, or mind-body disciplines such as yoga — you can take an active role in protecting your immune system from the emotional stress and mental strain of day-to-day living.

With all that said, is it still helpful to wash your hands and cover your mouth while sneezing to keep a virus from spreading? Absolutely — but it’s not the primary step that you need to take to protect yourself and others. First things first; you need to make sure you are prepared to fend off germs and viruses from the inside out. It’s important to make sure that you are taking steps to build, fortify, and protect your Immune Power.

Is the Flu Shot an Effective Means for Fighting off the Flu?

What about getting a flu shot? Is that an effective means for preventing the flu? Unfortunately, getting a flu shot does not necessarily protect you from coming down with the flu. It’s important to note that developing a flu shot is an imperfect science. Every year they have to make an educated guess as to which influenza strain they believe will be most prevalent 9 months in the future. Sometimes they predict well and sometimes they don’t. Even when they do predict well, there are numerous other viruses that circulate in any given year that the flu shot does not protect against.

Interestingly enough, a large study that was just completed analyzing the efficacy of the flu shot showed that the flu vaccine only reduced the incidence of the flu in 1.5 people out of every 100 (The Lancet, Efficacy and effectiveness of influenza vaccines: a systematic review and meta-analysis).

At the end of the day, the only way to put yourself at the lowest possible risk for all strains of flu viruses and seasonal colds is by strengthening your body’s natural defense mechanisms. In other words, by building up your immune system and developing your Immune Power — through nutrition, exercise, and stress management — you can tap into your body’s infinite wisdom and potential to protect itself against outside germs and viruses. For those interested in learning more, make sure to check back for more specific immune-boosting strategies to prevent the cold and flu!