As the temperature starts to drop and the cold and flu season descends upon us, one of the best lines of defense against infection is…you. Whether or not you get sick can depend on how well you take care of yourself. Keeping your immune system strong is mostly your responsibility, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do it. Unfortunately, there is never a 100 percent guarantee you won’t catch something, but why not at least give it your best shot? Here are some helpful tips.

1.  Eat plenty of fruits and veggies.

Fruits and veggies are high in antioxidants, which are known to help fight against infections in our bodies. The deeper the color of the fruit or veggie, most likely the richer the concentration of antioxidant. Vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene are the three that you really don’t want to miss out on this time of year.

Make sure you get what you need by including the following foods in your autumn and winter diet:

Vitamin C: Strawberries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, oranges, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, peppers (red, green, or yellow) kale, cantaloupe
Vitamin E: spinach, chard, broccoli, carrots, papaya, pumpkin, turnip greens
Beta-carotene: tomatoes, spinach, carrots, corn, kale, pink grapefruit, sweet potatoes, tangerines, beets, asparagus, cantaloupe

To get the highest antioxidant benefit, be careful not to overcook your veggies. Feel free to buy low-sodium canned or frozen if they’re not easily available or not in season.

And don’t be fooled in thinking that taking individual vitamin supplements can replace actual food. Nothing can replace whole fruits and veggies, since it’s not just one nutrient that makes them powerful, but the entire nutritional package, including phytonutrients—plant-based compounds that may have additional health benefits.

2. Go for the grains.

Other antioxidants that are important for immunity are zinc and selenium. They are readily available in many of the foods we eat, especially whole grains like barley, brown rice, whole wheat couscous and oats.

Zinc: whole grains, fortified cereals, beans, nuts, poultry, red meat, dairy products
Selenium: whole grains, fortified breads, beef, poultry, tuna, brazil nuts

3. Don’t skip meals.

Think of it this way—every time you skip a meal, you miss an opportunity to take in antioxidants and other nutrients. Also, meal skipping can lead to lethargy, which can put stress on your body. And the more stress, the more you weaken your immune system. To make things worse, many people who skip meals tend to make poor meal choices when they do eat, opting for less healthier fare than they should.

4. Exercise regularly.

Even though we’re focusing on food here, I cannot help but mention exercise. Research has shown that a regular exercise program of brisk walking can strengthen the immune system. We aren’t talking about being a marathon runner, but simply being active. The more you walk or engage in regular physical activity, the more likely you are to ward off a cold this season.

5. Get enough sleep.

Definitely one of the hardest things to do for many of us. But without enough sleep, you are playing havoc with your body. Try to a get minimum of seven hours per night.

As I say, there are no guarantees. But if you follow these simple steps, you may find yourself making it through flu season without a stint on the sick list, and a healthier take on winter in general.

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