The cold and flu season may be in full swing, but that doesn't mean the whole family has to succumb to days or weeks of sniffling, coughing, and achy misery. The key to staying healthy: Keep your bodies in top form, ready to fight off illness, by eating well; getting enough sleep, exercise, and fresh air; and being savvy about fending off germs. Here, tips on how to strengthen your family's overall health.
Pump Up Nutrition
The evidence is clear: Kids and adults need a diverse diet, one chock-full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein, to keep immunity high.
"Go for the nutritional superstars -- most often foods high in vitamins A, B, C, and E -- that truly help boost immunity," says Annemarie Colbin, founder of the Natural Gourmet Cookery School and author of Food and Healing. She recommends eating plenty of orange and yellow produce (one or two of the recommended five total daily fruit and vegetable servings), which are naturally high in disease-fighting flavonoids and carotenoids -- such as butternut and acorn squashes, sweet potatoes, and carrots, or brightly colored fruits like kiwis, mangoes, clementines, and pink grapefruit.
Drinking 100 percent fruit juices is a good way to up your vitamin intake. To make sure you get a wide range of nutrients, vary the type of juice that you serve: Instead of giving your toddler a daily dose of apple juice, go for a mango-guava mix or banana-kiwi blend. Most supermarkets now offer ready-to-serve exotic juice combinations.
If you can't get fresh fruits and vegetables, are canned or frozen as good? "In general, yes, although frozen vegetables and fruits are slightly more likely to retain valuable nutrients than canned varieties, which may leach out some vitamins during processing," says Michael Morse, M.D., professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Virginia. "But since the difference is negligible, canned produce is fine."
Minerals also play a key role in health. Many kid staples, such as cereals and breads, are fortified with extra vitamins, but don't contain substantial minerals, says Luke Bucci, Ph.D., a nutritionist in Salt Lake City. So include foods high in calcium (milk, yogurt, tofu, cheese, broccoli); potassium (bananas, baked potatoes, raisins, grapes); zinc and protein (lamb chops and other red meats, seafood, peanut butter, chicken); and magnesium (brown rice, whole-wheat bagels, pastas, milk, yogurt, nuts, and seeds).
The mercury is dipping. The wind is whipping. Why bother to bundle up and head out? Research shows that spending time outside can promote better sleep, boost overall wellness, and may improve your mood. "Being outdoors in daylight for as little as twenty minutes a day can make a big difference in raising your energy level and preventing the winter blues," says Norman Rosenthal, M.D., director of seasonal studies at the National Institute of Mental Health and author of Winter Blues. While studies show that bright morning light offers the most benefits, he says, "getting out in the afternoon may help as well."
Depression caused by seasonal affective disorder, known as SAD, occurs in only about 3 percent of children. For kids who do develop it, it has many similarities to the adult form, such as an inability to concentrate and irritability. Many more kids and adults experience a milder seasonal sadness. With either condition, research suggests that both adults and children would respond well to regular exposure to outdoor light.
Just having to wrestle your 2-year-old into her jacket and mittens can deter you from getting out -- but the extra effort is worth it. "Most of us are surprised that once outdoors, away from the recirculated air and heat that fill most modern homes and offices, we feel refreshed," says Dr. Morse. And the more active you and your kids are -- whether it's building a snowman or heading out for a brisk stroll to get milk instead of taking the car -- the better you'll all feel.
Get Your ZZZZ's
Although people's sleep requirements differ -- from 8 hours on average for adults to at least 13 hours for most toddlers -- experts believe that prolonged lack of sleep (causing you to nod off any chance you get, impairing your ability to concentrate, and slowing your reaction time) or a disruption of sleep patterns can impair immunity in adults and children. "Some studies show that being sleep-deprived limits the body's natural killer-cell activity -- white blood cells, which help battle disease," says Michael Bonnet, Ph.D., director of the sleep laboratory at the Dayton Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in OH. And in overtired 4- and 5-year-olds, he says, fatigue appears to cause irritability, hyperactivity, and night terrors.
To cope with exhaustion and maximize sleep efficiency, Claudio Stampi, M.D., director of the Chronobiology Research Institute, in Newton, MA, suggests getting sleep in small doses. "The best way to boost alertness is to try to grab a twenty- or thirty-minute nap," he says, so doze off for a little while on the train, behind a closed office door if you have one, or in your car in a parking lot.
However, though catnaps will definitely help you make up for a sleep deficit, short naps that last longer than 30 or 40 minutes will only make you groggier. But people with more time on their hands can go for a longer snooze, sleeping for 90-minute intervals (or an hour and a half, three hours, four and a half hours, and so on).
Why the specific time recommendations? "Sleep occurs in ninety-minute cycles, so napping this way allows you to go into a deep sleep. At the end of each cycle the body enters a lighter sleep phase, enabling you to wake up more refreshed," explains Dr. Stampi.
Don't underestimate the value of short snatches of restorative time: a warm bath or a ten-minute foot massage before bed can relax you. For little ones, try a whole-body massage with unscented oil. And don't overlook bedtime rituals -- same time, same place, same stories -- to help ready toddlers, older kids, and even adults for slumber.
Close quarters. Snow days. These long winter months can get to even the calmest parent -- and leave your body as stressed out as your brain. "There's extensive research showing that stress is a primary factor in susceptibility to colds and gastrointestinal disorders and may be a contributor to chronic pain syndromes, such as arthritis," says Henry Dreher, author of The Immune Power Personality.
A key strategy for combatting stress: Get moving. Regular, moderate exercise -- aerobic or strength training -- can improve the quality of sleep, lift your mood, and help you battle winter weight gain. "It's probably the single best way to keep your energy up and your stress level down, which is doubly important during cold and flu season," says Ray Sahelian, M.D., a family physician and author of The Common Cold Cure. In fact, researchers at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC, found that previously sedentary women who started walking five days a week for 35 to 45 minutes reported about half the number of days with cold symptoms as women who didn't walk. When it's too cold to exercise outdoors, consider swimming at a local Y that offers a babysitting service, walking on a gymnasium track, or ice-skating at an indoor rink with your kids.
Lastly, try to check your anxiety at the front door. "An emotionally healthy, caring environment is at the root of staying well," says Dr. Sahelian. Several studies show that stress makes children more susceptible to colds and flu, and lowers their ability to fight off viruses, particularly upper-respiratory illness. So make sleep, good nutrition, and exercise a priority, and do a reality check every week: Are you or your kids overtired and chronically cranky? Are your and your family's schedules too hectic? If so, recharge by taking a mental health day or by freeing up a weekend to simply do nothing.