Don't let the cold and flu bugs get you down this season!
Classic Chicken Soup

Pictured recipe: Classic Chicken Soup

As the temperatures drop and the days get shorter, it's time to look forward to the upcoming winter season, which means cozy nights spent indoors with family and friends, and festive nights toasting the season. But while the chill in the air makes a night in front of the fireplace seem doubly inviting, it also signifies the approach of another, less joyful season: cold and flu season.

We tend to associate cold and flu season with colder weather, but while it's true that winter is a potent time for germs, don't blame the falling temps for your sniffles. Rather, look to your changing habits. Gone are the carefree summer days spent riding bikes, cooking on the grill and tossing a Frisbee around after dinner. Instead, we tend to hunker down to stay warm, often in close proximity to others—and their assorted germs.

Unless you live somewhere that's warm and sunny all winter (lucky you!), there's not much you can do about the need to stay warm and dry during inclement weather. But you can enact a few preventive habits to help you stay healthy while others are sniffling and sneezing.

To stay healthy this season, it helps to start healthy by building up your immune system. Makes sense, but … what exactly does that mean? (Hint: Popping a multivitamin isn't going to cut it.) Instead, consider a whole-body approach to wellness. Your body is a system, not a single organ. And as a result, you need to take care of all parts of it. A holistic approach includes eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, managing stress—and washing your hands frequently to stay ahead of nasty germs.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Slow-Cooker Mediterranean Chicken & Orzo

You probably already know that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats—while limiting processed foods, saturated fats, sugar, red meat and alcohol—is good for you. This pattern of eating roughly translates to what's become known as the Mediterranean diet, which (once again) topped U.S. News & World Report's list of the best diets to follow for good health in 2019. The Mediterranean diet received top ranking two years in a row because it's easy to follow, embraces real foods (and real eating patterns!) and offers an impressive roster of health benefits, including cancer reduction, weight management and heart benefits. Plus, many foods included in the Mediterranean diet are high in vitamins and nutrients that specifically bolster immunity. Some of the most potent include:

  • Citrus fruit, red bell peppers and kiwi for vitamin C.
  • Yogurt and salmon for vitamin D and immune-stimulating probiotics (in the yogurt)
  • Almonds and sunflower seeds for vitamin E
  • Carrots for beta carotene and vitamin A
  • Seafood and chicken, egg yolks and whole grains for selenium
  • Beans, crab and dark-meat turkey for zinc
  • Nuts, fatty fish, olives and avocados for healthy fats to help you absorb fat-soluble nutrients.
  • Green tea for antioxidants to help bolster your immune system, lower your risk of heart disease and protect against cancer.

Get Enough Shut-Eye

No, you're not imagining it. When you don't sleep enough, you're far more likely to fall ill. According to research published in the journal Sleep, the immune system functions best with seven hours or more of shut-eye per night. Skimping on sleep causes inflammatory markers to go up and immune system function to go down, underscoring the connection between late nights and the likelihood of getting sick. Take advantage of the longer nights and shorter days to get in bed early enough to reap a good 6-8 hours of sleep per night. It's easier to do when the sun sets earlier!

Stay Active

Yes, it's cold outside. But no, you don't get to adopt the exercise habits of a hibernating bear, just because the thermostat dropped. Do your best to get 150 minutes per week of physical exercise, as defined by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, and you'll go a long way toward bolstering your immunity. Think of the changing weather as a challenge to take up a new sport: If you're a passionate runner or cyclist, try your hand at Nordic skiing (it scratches the same endurance-junkie itch). If you're a swimmer, try circuit training or indoor rock climbing to keep your shoulders toned on dry land. If you're into yoga … you're lucky! Sign up for a class card and see it through to the end of the season. Maintaining a healthy weight (and avoiding smoking) is linked with having a healthy immune system, along with a host of other benefits.

Warm Pear & Spinach Salad with Maple-Bacon Vinaigrette

Wash Your Hands

Parents, rejoice: according to research published in the Journal of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, being hypervigilant about sterilizing everything your kid's grubby little hands touch isn't necessary. And in fact, spritzing down your child's world with disinfectant may actually increase his or her odds for developing allergies and conditions like eczema or asthma. But here's the catch: the research generally only supports this "hygiene hypothesis" as it applies to playing outside. Getting a little dirty is a good thing, but skipping hand-washing—and exposing yourself to the germs that will cause you to get sick—is a bad thing. Practice good hand-washing habits, and lay down the law to ensure everyone else in your house does too.

Get a Flu Shot

No, you won't catch the flu from getting a flu shot. Yes, you need to get one every year, as flu vaccines keep up with ever-changing flu viruses. And no, don't wait until December to get one. It takes about two weeks for flu antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection, so you want to be ahead of that timeline—not behind it. And while you may not enjoy the process of getting a flu shot, the consequences of skipping it can be severe and even life threatening. Most peoples' health insurance covers the cost of an annual flu shot, so there's really no excuse to skip it this year.

Evaluate How You're Doing

A good way to know you're on track is if you and a friend both sit next to the same sneezing, wheezing person and your buddy gets sick—but you don't. That's the sign of an immune system that's doing exactly what it's supposed to do.