MOVEMENT

Boost Your Baseline to Stay Healthy this Holiday

By Sarah Casey and Michol Dalcourt

Every year, so many of us bust our butts getting ready for the holiday season, only to wind up sick in bed and unable to enjoy the festivities when they finally arrive. What gives? And what can we do to keep it from happening again this year?

A Google search for “healthy immune system” returns a staggering 99,200,000 results touting the immune-boosting benefits of specific vitamins, foods and even teas. But just what does it mean to “boost” an immune system, anyway? And is it something we even need?

Super-quick immune science primer

The human immune system is awesomely complex—as in, too complex to really explain here. (there is a pretty detailed article over on howstuffworks.com, and a full introduction on the subject from the US Department of Health and Human Services here if you’re interested—but prepare for a long read!

At the simplest level, it is a messy mix of cytokines, antibodies and other kinds of immune-specific cells, all working together to get rid of things that don’t belong inside us. It also includes our outsides: skin, saliva and even our nose hairs are part of the team, creating physical barriers and expulsive actions like coughing and sneezing to eject foreign materials and pathogens (aka germs) before they can infect us.

We can think about the immune system in two parts, the innate system and the adaptive system.

We found an excellent description of the innate system in this article: “This part of the immune system includes its ability to prevent or detect foreign material, then eliminate it without an antigen- or pathogen-specific physiological response of the body. It is the body’s quick and initial general response to disease-causing organisms (pathogens) which invade our body.”

The innate immune response works to prevent pathogen entry and, if a pathogen does get into the body, to slow down the infection.

The adaptive system is the next line of defense. Adaptive immune responses “react to specific pathogens, multiply and then become long-term guards against a recurrence of that same pathogen, becoming a sort of ‘memory’ for your immune system.”

Think of the adaptive system as a “search and destroy” response that can remember every bug it ever fought!

So does it need a boost?

For the most part, no. Our immune system is pretty perfectly tuned on its own. If a pathogen gets into our bodies, we want to see a runny nose, or a fever, or inflammation. These symptoms are signs that our immune system is doing its job!

And if we did boost our immune systems, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. When the immune system becomes overactivated, it starts attacking our own healthy tissue or mounting immune responses to non-pathogenic substances. This is what happens for people with allergies, eczema, celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions.

Healthy baseline

Of course, getting run down and ending up sick is still a thing. So if it’s not our immune system that needs boosting, what is it? It’s our basic baseline health.

Think about it. As the holidays approach, we tend to stress more, sleep less and eat more indulgently. As a result, we’re walking around with more active immune systems already! Overeating, stress and not getting enough sleep are all correlated with increased inflammation (part of our innate immune system).

Finding strategies that help us improve our baseline health is the best way to support our immune system—basically by giving it less work to do!

Strategies to boost your baseline health

We’re going to be upfront with you here: Baseline health is not trendy or exciting. It’s run-of-the-mill stuff. But that doesn’t make it easy to maintain during the holidays. So we pulled together the three most important areas. If you can get these in order, you’ll be cruising through your holiday in a really healthy way!

1. Boost your sleep

It may seem like sleep is the cure for everything these days—from weight loss to Alzheimer’s— but getting sleep right really is as important as the hype. Adults need six to eight hours every night to maintain good baseline health—the kind that gets us through flu season unscathed.

But it’s important to note this means “at least” six hours and “not more” than eight. Getting too much sleep isn’t good for us, either.

Sleep-boosting strategies:

Naps can reduce our “sleep debt” from a busy week or weekend.

Lower lighting or candles in the evening can encourage us to feel sleepy and get to sleep easier on nights we stay in.

A consistent wake-up time (within one hour or so) can help us offset the disruptions to our circadian rhythms caused by getting to bed too late and can help us make sure we’re not overdoing it, either.

2. Boost your movement

When we think of the holiday season and exercise, we’re usually talking about some kind of guilty motivation. We’re “working off the pie” or “making up for all the cocktails.” But baseline health isn’t about undoing the “bad” (aka fun) stuff. It’s about making sure we get enough physical activity so our body can keep doing what it needs to do to keep us healthy.

Exercise helps everything work more efficiently by using muscle actions to pump fluids and blood through our bodies. It doesn’t even have to be a “workout,” per se, just daily movement to offset all the sitting from visiting.

Movement-boosting strategies:

Harness the benefits of an after-dinner walk.

Try a family game of touch football, capture the flag or a snowball fight!

Indoor activities work, too. Low-key games like bowling and mini-putt are an excellent way to boost your daily movement.

You don’t have to “go hard” to maintain baseline health, you just have to keep moving!

3. Boost your fun

Turns out, a vibrant social life is strongly correlated with a healthy immune system. Researchers in multiple studies have found that loneliness and social isolation suppress various parts of the immune system.

So be sure to spend time with people you enjoy doing fun stuff. Make those phone calls. Read and reread those holiday cards. It’s a simple but a massively important part of staying healthy this holiday!

Video credit: TravnikovStudio, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Victor Freitas, Unsplash; Dmytro Zinkevych, Shutterstock; Ekaterina79, Thinkstock; estherpoon, Thinkstock; Air Images, Shutterstock

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Author

Sarah Casey

Sarah Casey is a writer whose work with Institute of Motion (IoM) helps readers cut through health industry jargon and advice. At IoM, Casey investigates ideas and strategies outside of the fitness/health sphere, to discover new methods to support preventative health initiatives. She’s currently exploring how high-value interactions can improve preventative health education and technology. Casey lives with her husband and two daughters near the beautiful Great Lakes and enjoys vegetable gardening and swimming in the summer, snow shovelling and ice-skating in the winter, and a good mystery novel any day of the year.

Author

Michol Dalcourt

Michol Dalcourt is an internationally recognized expert in human movement and performance. He is the Founder and CEO of the Institute of Motion, inventor of ViPR and Co-Founder of PTA Global. Dalcourt has done extensive work and field research in the area of human performance. He consults with many of the fitness industry’s biggest companies and his highly innovative techniques have been adopted by many of the top international fitness certification bodies.

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