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Win the Cold War: 7 Ways to Boost Your Immune System

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Your virus-protection plan needs an upgrade, and no, we're not talking about the one for your computer or smartphone. Studies show that the average person comes down with a cold two to four times a year and that up to 20 percent of the population gets the flu. Fortunately, there are now more effective ways than ever to kick your immune system into high gear. Here's how to fine-tune your healthy habits to fend off any nasty germs that come your way.

Stop the Sniffles

Healthy habit: You load up on plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Power it up: Sure, vibrant-hued produce like kale and oranges have cold-fighting nutrients, but don't overlook their pale counterparts. White button mushrooms, for instance, can jump-start the body's natural killer cells, which attack cold and flu viruses, according to a study at Tufts University. "Mushrooms are abundant in a type of fiber, called beta-glucans, that can activate the immune cells," explains study author Dayong Wu, MD, PhD, the associate director of the nutritional immunology lab at Tufts. Incorporate shrooms in omelets, pasta, and stir-fries. While you're at it, toss in some garlic, too. Besides adding flavor, it will deliver a dose of allicin, a compound shown to fight off infections. "Use fresh cloves," suggests David Grotto, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of The Best Things You Can Eat. "Jarred garlic is pasteurized, which destroys the allicin." Chop garlic finely, then let it sit for about 10 minutes; the extra time allows the cloves' tissue to release the enzymes that create allicin. And be sure to add garlic at the end of the cooking process to prevent the heat from neutralizing it.

Healthy habit: You log seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Power it up: The quantity of your slumber is important, but so is the quality. "Interrupted sleep may increase the production of stress hormones, which wear down the immune system," says Michael Breus, PhD, the author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan. Case in point: When researchers at Carnegie Mellon University exposed study participants to a cold virus, those who didn't snooze as soundly were six times more likely to get sick than people who slept like a rock. To maximize your shut-eye, lace up your sneakers on most days of the week: Regular exercise is proven to help you doze off faster and spend more time in restorative deep sleep. If worries keep you awake, jot down everything you're fretting about, along with a solution for each, before turning in, Breus suggests. This will put your mind -- and your body -- at rest.

Healthy habit: You always, always wash your hands.
Power it up: If you're like the overwhelming majority of us, you're probably not sudsing up correctly. A study at Michigan State University found that 95 percent of people don't scrub for the recommended 20 seconds, and one in three doesn't use soap. Time one of your sessions to see what a 20-second scrubbing feels like. "Wash the fronts and backs of your hands, around your wrists, between your fingers, and beneath the tips of your fingernails," says Daniel Uslan, MD, the director of the UCLA Health Systems antimicrobial stewardship program. Then dry thoroughly; germs cling more easily to wet surfaces. No sink in sight? Use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

Next:  More Cold Fighters


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