How I Avoid Colds

I do not wish to jinx myself, but I have gone fourteen months without an upper respiratory infection.  Some reading I did about ten years back enabled me to cut their frequency from roughly three a year to one.  Since I work in a school, I know I am exposed to a lot of pathogens, so it is hard to minimize exposure.  But I have learned that the most important approach involves strengthening the immune system.

With a checklist of four priorities, I know that if I can address at least three at all times, I am far less likely to fall ill.  For some stretches of time, I can even manage all four.  Here are the items:

  • minimize stress
  • take daily megadoses of vitamin C
  • get a minimum of seven hours of sleep nightly
  • ensure prebiotic/probiotic intake

In my profession, the first is hardest.  I make a point to emphasize that we cannot entirely eliminate stress, but we can eliminate unnecessary stress.  My physician is a Sikh, who strongly recommends meditation, and I certainly agree that it has benefits.   Long before I took up that recommendation, however, he mentioned some of my risk factors for serious health problems in coming years, and he provided some resources for me that enabled me to adjust my manner of thinking about most things.  This slight change made a significant difference for me right away.  Mindfulness practice started with this and grew over the years to something far more meaningful.  Still, meditation and yoga will offer no guarantees in any set of circumstances, much less in our challenging modern world or in the profession of public education.  Some stress will inevitably present itself.  Stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine pose no harm when stress levels are manageable.  Chronic unmanaged stress, however, enables these endogenic substances to do gradual but serious harm to our organs and tissues, the cardiovascular system in particular.  The immune system is even more vulnerable.  Stress weakens it significantly and quickly.  Conversely, the immune system can rebound quickly in the absence of excess stress.

With regard to vitamin C, I learned in high school that it is water soluble.  Unlike fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, we need not worry about ingesting too much of it.  But it simply would not, by traditional understanding, yield any benefit to have beyond the recommended amount.  Nobel laureate Linus Pauling famously recommended megadoses for water-soluble vitamins, but he was not a physician, and during his lifetime, no empirical evidence emerged to support his recommendation.  In the late 1990’s, however, a study showed that vitamin C megadoses were indeed an effective treatment for cold and influenza.  Later studies demonstrated varying degrees of effectiveness–with some risk of stomach ailments and even kidney stones at very high quantities–in preventing respiratory infections in the first place with daily vitamin C megadosage.  I take 2000 milligrams per day, far higher then the federal government recommends, but not as high as some of the clinical trials I have read about.

Concerning sleep, the Mayo clinic explains the release of cytokines–proteins that play an essential role in the immune system–as we slumber.  One study in the late 2000’s that I read about in the newspaper (but cannot now find online) found that test subjects exposed to and infected with cold viruses were much less likely to come down with symptoms if they regularly slept over seven hours per night.  Its authors speculated that the nightly release of cytokines not only protects against pathogens but also regulates and moderates our immune systems.  Indeed, most cold viruses and even allergens do not directly cause symptoms.  Many illnesses, as well as allergic reactions, occur when our immune responses go too far.

Finally, I learned of the benefits of pre- and probiotic intake from reading an illuminating article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine earlier this decade.  In it, Pollan explains that scientists are just beginning to understand the role of the human microbiome in aiding our immune systems.  Prebiotic foods such as a variety of raw vegetables in ample quantities (I eat them, but they disgust me) foster helpful bacteria–some of which we have identified and find in foods such as yogurt–to flourish in our intestines.  Intriguingly, some studies associate healthy intestinal flora with lower levels of stress and depression.  Scientists have not drawn firm conclusions about the explanation, but many suspect the role of the vagus nerve which runs from the gut past the heart to the brain.

I am no doctor.  I merely read stuff.  My experimentation on myself does not rise to the level of empiricism.  Still, my strategies have made me healthier today than I was ten years ago.  I consider that a sizable slice of life.

20 thoughts on “How I Avoid Colds

  1. Thank you, Paul. This is a wonderful and timely blog with the advent of allergy season upon us! Ach-ooo! Your list is very helpful in its brevity and attainability, also. I can say I am good for the probiotic and Vitamin C part, am somewhat close on the sleep item, and trying my best for the stress management goal. Your slice prompts me to make better my effort on sleep, which I can certainly do. Thank you!

  2. Paul- I read a book called “Never Be Sick Again” a few years ago and the author recommended mega dosing Vitamin C. I have found that my immune system has benefitted from regular exposure to germs- working with little ones will do that to you! My own children stay pretty well- I think that had been due to my “bringing” things home. In the end, stress management is huge. Thanks for this informative piece!

    1. I am looking into that book by Raymond Francis. I read Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers a little over ten years ago. I took away no specific strategies–except for mindfulness–that I did not already have, but it changed my manner of thinking on a fundamental level.

      1. Eastern-style approaches to health and wellness are incredibly important- mindfulness is a part of that as well as vitamins, oils, and herbs. As long as we are looking to multiple options, I think we are moving in the right direction for our health.

      2. I agree. I am fascinated by Ayurvedic medicine, some of whose treatments are, after centuries, being validated by scientific research.

  3. Great post! I have avoided the mega dosing of vitamin C for years, not really believing it. Your post has me considering it again. Stress is the biggie! I believe it can turn the hint of a cold/allergy attack into a full blown one. I feel this was evidenced in me last week. My allergies got so severe so quickly as the day went on Friday! Thanks, as always, for your educational, enlightening, and enjoyable posts.

    1. Thanks, Suzanne. My spring allergies have not been nearly as severe since I have made it a point to sleep well. This has enabled me to enjoy springtime.

  4. Thank you! Great post! I agree the stress is the hardest to manage. I also tend to let myself get run down to the point of no return and then I have to stop. I have been trying to listen to my body more and take heed to the warnings. Some days are better than others. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts

    1. And the warnings are definitely there. Some years ago I had a spectacular implosion at the beginning of a summer. On a conscious level, I did not realize that I was overworking myself. Only in looking back, did it make sense.

  5. These are some great tips, thanks for the reminder! It takes a lot to avoid the cold and everything else that goes around!

  6. “I merely read stuff,” so you say. But you also use the stuff you read. Thank you for sharing.
    About vitamin C, I remember when my daughter was a toddler and had a cold, she sat at the table with a bowl full of oranges, and asked me to peel one after the other for her. She was only maybe 3, and she ate 6 oranges! I guess she knew what she needed!

    1. That is so interesting that your daughter did that.

      As for my reading things and applying ideas elsewhere, I try to keep Pope’s warning in mind: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

    2. Your slice triggered a couple of thoughts. First of my mother who has believed in vitamin c and echinacea for years and often prescribes this to us.
      Next I thought of my own strategies – nightly cup of jasmine green or sleepy time herbal tea – helps with both the sleep and immune boosters. And then I am also wondering what it is in chicken noodle soup that has the healing powers? Each time I have thought I was coming down with something, it became my supper and lunch the next day and I was back to 100 the following day. Thanks for your list.

      1. And thanks for your list as well. I have tried the exotic teas or the echinacea. I like to make my own chicken soup each week, so maybe that gives me an advantage.

  7. There’s a lot of wisdom here. I’m a fan of the 4-point plan, but I struggle with the stress piece. I practice yoga and meditation, but I’m not consistent enough in doing it daily. Thanks for the insights and reminders. Your writing has clarity that makes it a pleasure to read.

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