6 Immune System-Boosting Secrets Straight from Doctors

Hand Sanitizer & Immune Boosters
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It’s cold and flu season (blech). So, either be prepared to be laid up in bed buried in a pile of used tissues —or maybe this is the year you stay well. What it comes down to, essentially, is self-care.

“Young women who are busy working often do have trouble taking care of themselves and protecting their immunity, so they come down with all these little colds during the year,” says Joyce Gottesfeld, MD, an OB-gyn at Kaiser Permanente in Denver, Colorado. That includes things like eating well, finally going to bed on time, and taking a breather when you need it.

We asked medical pros what they tell their patients during this oh-so-sick season. Here are their smart tips.

Cap Your Social Media Time

This is your gentle reminder to not get sucked into Instagram right before bed, since good sleep (seven to eight hours for adults) is what keeps your immune system running at a strong clip. “Sleep is the time when your body restores itself and when all of your repair work takes place,” says Susan Blum, MD, MPH, Founder of Blum Center for Health and author of Healing Arthritis and The Immune System Recovery Plan.

Blum explains that when you don’t get enough or quality sleep, your body cues up its stress response and releases cortisol. “The stress hormone suppresses your immune system,” she says. It can also prompt your body to pack on belly fat, too. Designate a cut off time before bed where you’ll stop looking at your phone—those posts will be waiting for you in the morning.

Rethink Happy Hour

Winter can be an endless-feeling season, so you might think, what else am I going to do to kill time other than drink indoors with friends? We’re not saying you have to skip the booze altogether (although dry January isn’t the worst idea for some), but at least practice the fine art of chasing each drink with a glass of water to slow you down.

Research in the journal Alcohol discovered that a single night of binge drinking (for women that’s four or more drinks in two hours) reduces the activity of your immune system. More than that, though, your healthy habits are likely to tank after you’ve had too many, adds Gottesfeld. “You’re less likely to eat a proper meal, get proper sleep, or pay attention to good hand-washing habits,” she adds. Plus, you may accidentally reach for someone else’s glass and take a sip. Boom: You’ve got a cold.

MORE: 23 Healthy Winter Food Swaps That Can Make a Huge Difference

Just Breathe

Adding to the plea for more sleep: The number-one thing you can do to fortify your body’s defenses is to buffer stress, says integrative medicine physician Jeffrey Gladd, MD. “Regular, constant stress puts the body in fight-or-fight mode,” he says, which is a major drag on your immune system. In addition to good sleep, he also suggests practicing mindfulness every day and laughing more. “Anything you can do to press pause in your day and allow the body to relax will boost your immunity,” he says.

Carry This in Your Purse

You guessed it: hand sanitizer. This is more of a preventative measure than one that has a direct impact on your immune system, but hear us out. “Keeping your hands clean by washing them or using hand sanitizer is one of the most important ways to prevent sickness,” says Gottsfeld. When you come back home from the grocery store or mall, the first thing you should do is wash your hands. Out and about? Carry around an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use it liberally and often—particularly before you eat or touch your face.

MORE: 21 Smoothie Recipes for Your Healthiest Skin and Hair

Keep Exercise in Check

Even though colder temps can make it hard to motivate to head out for a walk or run, it’s important to get your sweat on. “Anyone who exercises regularly will tell you they don’t get sick as often,” says Gottesfeld. There is a happy medium, though. Over-exercising (going at too high of intensity without building in necessary rest days) can weaken your immunity, so she recommends 30 to 60 minutes a day, four to five days a week at moderate-high intensity for her patients. Oh, and gentle doctor reminder: don’t share your water bottle with anyone at the gym, and (ahem) wash your hands when you get home.

Amp Up Your C

It’s time to fill your plate with strawberries, kiwis, and citrus. “Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and antiviral, which is great for helping to prevent cold and flu,” says Blum. If you often get saddled with colds, she recommends taking 1,000 vitamin C a day. Otherwise, make sure you’re adding ample C-rich foods in your diet, like broccoli, tomatoes, bell peppers, and oranges.