(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com.
Even if you’re the most diligent hand-washer and get your flu shot, you could still be laid low by any one of the hundreds of viruses that can cause the common cold or flu. After all, your body is assaulted by thousands of nasty germs every day.
Even the flu shot is only about 60 percent effective at fending off influenza (though the vaccine can minimize symptoms and prevent serious side effects, if you do get sick), according to a study published in 2011.
So what is the secret to staying healthy this season? Strengthen your immune system, so it can fight off those nasty bugs, say experts. Here are nine ways to do it:
Eat Protein at Every Meal
The older you are, the less likely you are to get enough protein, says Lisa Hark, Ph.D., R.D., a family nutritionist and the author of Nutrition for Life
The main reason: Foods high in protein, like lean meats, poultry, fish and beans, can be time-consuming to prepare — and who wants to bother when you’re cooking for two (or one)? But eating protein-rich foods helps your body make antibodies that fight colds.
(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 8 Great New Meat Alternatives)
Another reason to consume lean meats, beans, or poultry at every meal: All these foods are rich in zinc, which plays a role in white blood-cell production.
One easy way to sneak in some extra protein: Snack on nuts, suggests Hark. They also contain magnesium, another mineral with immune-boosting properties.
Meditate and Take Time to Relax
When researchers in Wisconsin studied the effects of exercise and meditation on 149 adults over the age of 50, they were surprised at the results. Not only did the group who ran on the treadmill or biked for 45 minutes a day cut the number of colds and flu by almost half, but so did the group who meditated, did yoga, walked or stretched for the same amount of time per day. Plus, those who meditated tended to miss fewer days at work than even those who exercised.
One reason why meditation and yoga may be cold-and-flu fenders: They reduce stress, which has a negative effect on your immune system, says Dr. Neil Schachter, a professor of pulmonary medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu
Can’t spend 45 minutes every day doing something mindful? Take 10 minutes and relax with a distraction, says Schachter — even if it’s just playing Fruit Ninja on your cellphone.
Limit How Much Wine You Drink
There are many ways that drinking too much alcohol can wreck your body. For one, drinking lowers your ability to absorb nutrients, says Hark, which makes it harder for your immune system to stay in fighting shape.
Another reason: Overindulging can suppress your cough reflex, which is your body’s way of expelling germs and bacteria before they can burrow too deeply in the lungs and make you sick, says Schachter.
To reap the healthy benefits of a glass of red wine, don’t go beyond the recommended limits: one glass a day for women, two for men.
(MORE: Yes, You Really Do Need a Flu Shot)
Minimize Shaking Hands and Sharing Items
How do cold and flu viruses make their way into your body? One way is through hand-to-hand contact. Someone who’s sick touches a surface, then you touch it, too, and transfer those bugs to your mouth, nose or eyes when you touch your face (which the average person does about 16 times a day).
Stashing hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket can keep infections at bay, but so will carrying your own reading material the next time you visit the doctor or dentist.
The reason: Public surfaces are teeming with germs — and that’s true for the magazines in waiting rooms as well as “elevator buttons, handrails, light switches, pens on credit card machines, cash-machine buttons, airplane and train seats and poles and straps in buses and trains,” says Schachter.
Gargle with Salt
When you’ve got a cold, the mucus in your respiratory system turns thick and sticky, making it tougher to expel. That’s why gargling with salt water is such a popular home remedy for soothing sore throats. Gargling can liquefy the mucus, so you can get rid of germs more easily.
But one study, done in Japan, showed that gargling might prevent colds and flu, too. Researchers tracked nearly 400 healthy people during one winter season and found that the group who gargled regularly decreased their chances of coming down with a respiratory illness by 40 percent.
Try a simple salt-water solution: Mix half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and gargle for a few seconds before spitting it out.
Watch Your Weight
The more fat cells you have, the lower your ability to fight off infections, notes Schachter. That’s because fat cells have fewer T-cells, a type of white-blood cell that searches out and destroys the many pathogens that invade your body.
Being overweight also makes you prone to inflammation. Normally, inflammation is a good thing, a sign that your body is fighting off an infection. But when fat cells release too many infection-fighting cells, that throws your immune system off balance and ups your chances of catching a cold — or developing a host of serious conditions, from diabetes to Alzheimer’s.
(MORE: Foods to Have on Hand in Case of a Sudden Illness)
Plus, “the more overweight you are, the more sedentary you’re likely to be,” adds Schachter. Any type of exercise can boost your immune system by reducing stress and helping antibodies circulate through the body more quickly.
Load Up on Whole Foods
Eating a varied diet is something people can do every day, notes Hark. That way you are bound to consume the many nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants your body needs to keep the immune system in its best shape — from iron to selenium to vitamins A, C, B6 and E.
Even though processed foods have added vitamins and minerals, they’re synthetic. “And there’s not a lot of data that shows that synthetics work as well on the body,” says Hark.
So mix and match your fruits and veggies, whole grains and a variety of protein. And when a fruit or vegetable isn’t in season, buy frozen. “They’re cheap and convenient. There’s no chopping or cutting required,” she adds.
Beware Those School-Age Grandchildren
Of course you want to see your grandchildren, but here’s why you might want to pass up a visit when there’s a cold going around the classroom, especially if you suffer from COPD or emphysema: While experts have long known that being around school children ups a person’s chances of catching a virus, a new study, which looked at people with lung disease, found that an infection was twice as likely to turn into a full-fledged cold — runny nose, coughs and sore throats — after people came in contact with germy kids.
Researchers speculated it might have something to do with the nature of kids’ colds, which are nastier and last longer than adult ones. Even if you aren’t suffering from a pulmonary disease, think twice before babysitting your sick grandkid.
And if you can’t say no, wash your hands and teach your grandchild to sneeze and cough into his elbow.
Drink Warm Liquids
While it won’t prevent an upper respiratory infection, a bowl of chicken soup or mug of hot tea and lemon will relieve the worst of your symptoms and shorten the duration of your cold or flu, says Schachter.
Like gargling, hot liquids can help thin out infected mucus, and make it easier for you to cough or blow it out. And the oils in chicken soup stimulate the release of cytokines, molecules that play a role in clearing up infections. Plus, the very act of sitting down to enjoy a steaming bowl or mug can be a soothing stress-buster — and just what the doctor ordered.
This article is reprinted with permission. © 2013 Grandparents.com. All Rights Reserved.