The question: How can I stay in good health this year? One of my New Year's resolutions is to stay as healthy as possible over the next 12 months. I mean no flus or colds, no sick days from work – if I can help it. Do you have any tips to help me achieve this goal?
The answer: The "fresh start" that the new year brings is a good opportunity to take inventory of our current health and press reset on certain areas that could use improvement.
At this time of year, many of my patients come in to discuss setting health resolutions. Their goals range from losing weight and quitting smoking to improving the quality of their relationships. While resolutions are a great starting point for positive change, we always review the importance of making sure they are realistic, concrete and achievable. With some effort on your part, your resolution of having a strong immune system to maintain good health is achievable and realistic.
Here are a few tips to keep you healthy in 2013:
1. Get good rest: Poor sleep patterns not only leave us feeling sluggish during the day, but also increase our vulnerability to getting sick. Sleep heals our body, so not getting enough can impair our ability to fight infection and stay well. Aim for at least seven hours a night to ensure you're giving your body enough time to recuperate and heal.
2. Get moving: In the middle of winter, the last thing on our mind can be to get out and be active – but it's key to keeping your immune system strong. When we exercise, our immune function is strengthened with the production of fighter cells that ward off germs. As a bonus, exercise also stimulates the release of endorphins, which make us happy, help us deal with stress and promote a feeling of well being. To keep it realistic, aim for simple activities like walking, running or dancing for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
3. De-stress: Easier said than done, but chronic stress depresses our natural immune response and blunts our ability to fight off colds and flus. When we're stressed out, there is a release of cortisol and adrenaline, which weaken our immune system. My suggestion is to take a look at your life and see where your sources of stress are. Certain stressors are unavoidable, but if you can identify an area that is overwhelming you, see how you can make changes to the situation. Some good stress reducers to build into your day include exercise, meditation and spending time with friends and loved ones.
4. Butt out: Smoking impairs the body's ability to heal itself, and also damages the physical defenses in the nasal passages and lungs against viruses and bacteria. For those who smoke, it's easier to catch a cold or flu – plus it's harder to fight one off when infected. If you can't fully quit, even cutting down the numbers of cigarettes you smoke can be beneficial to your health. Visit smokershelpline.ca for some online tools to help with quitting.
5. Get your vitamin D: This essential vitamin is crucial in helping our immune cells efficiently fight off viruses and bacteria. In Canada, with our limited exposure to sunlight, the only way to get vitamin D is in certain foods (fatty fish and fortified milk or cereals) or through a supplement. Aim for 1,000 to 2000 IU of vitamin D daily to keep you healthy through the winter low-light months.
6. Eat right: Choose foods that are rich in antioxidants that help boost your body's ability to heal and resist infection. Choosing whole grains, dark leafy greens and berries are good options. They not only help satisfy your appetite, but they also help your immune system.
7. Wash your hands: This is a simple habit that can have a big impact. Viruses and bacteria are everywhere, so any time you use public transit, bathrooms or are traveling in crowded areas, make sure you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer afterward to prevent picking up germs.
8. Just do it: Research has found that good sexual relationships can help with your immune system. Having sex twice a week has been found to increase energy, immune function and reduce the number of sick days taken. As a bonus, it helps to reduce stress and improves sleep and relationship quality.
Remember to set concrete, realistic goals that fit your lifestyle. While resolutions are excellent, make them achievable by setting incremental milestones. This way, your goals will be sustainable not just in January, but during the whole year.
Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.
Click here to submit your questions. Our Health Experts will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.