Fall has fallen into place. The days are getting shorter, temperatures are vacillating and the threat of a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies and COVID-19 are all about to mingle. It's a lot to contend with, but there are a number of simple things we can do to stay healthy this fall, say public health experts.
TODAY spoke with Lorna Thorpe, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the division of epidemiology in the department of population health at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, M.P.H., a professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Medical Center, both in New York City, to find out what we can do to try to stack the odds in our favor. Here are their tips for boosting physical health, mental health and immunity throughout the autumn season.
1. Get a flu shot
Both experts emphasize that getting a flu shot this fall is paramount. “One of the challenges is we really don't know what the risk of having the flu and COVID — either back-to-back or at the same time — is going to be,” Kachur told TODAY. “Even simple respiratory infections, like colds, could make you more susceptible to some secondary infections. Sometimes people get bacterial pneumonia after they have the flu or a cold, so preventing colds and flus is important for that reason as well.” If you do have a flu shot and still get the flu, for example, Kachur said there is good evidence that suggests the severity and duration of the illness will be lessened.
2. Wear a mask and wash your hands
The steps we’re already taking to protect ourselves from COVID-19, like diligently wearing masks in shared spaces and frequently washing and sanitizing our hands, will help protect us from other types of illness too. “The mask works primarily by blocking the particles that we expel when we breathe, cough or speak,” said Kachur. He added that wearing a mask in a public space, even in the lobby of your own building, can not only help keep you from infecting others, it may help protect you from infection as well, since the mask can reduce the number of viral particles you breathe in. “There's a theory with many respiratory viruses — and we're still understanding how it can be with COVID, but the fewer particles of virus that you inhale, the less likely you are to develop a severe illness if you do get it.”
3. Don’t overdo it with alcohol
Many people have reported that they’ve been imbibing more during the pandemic. And while a "quarantini" or two may help take the edge off some of your COVID-19-related stress, it’s not the healthiest way to cope. Drinking alcohol, especially excessive drinking, can weaken your immune system and lower your body’s ability to fight off infection, said Thorpe. “This is an important time for us to not be using alcohol as a crutch and to be drinking in moderation,” she said.
4. Dial down your stress
Numerous studies suggest that psychological stress can contribute to reducing immunity. The problem is, as Thorpe pointed out, people seem to be experiencing significantly more stress this year. “We have seen, for a number of reasons, many Americans reporting that their mental health is worse off as a result of the pandemic,” said Thorpe. “Stress is really a factor that influences our physical health and our mental health. The steps that we can take to reduce that agitation, such as limiting intake of the news cycle, really is important.” There are a number of self-care strategies that can help reduce stress. However, said Thorpe, if you’re feeling depressed, it’s important to seek professional help.
5. Stay in touch with your favorite people
Maintaining connections with the people who are important to you may be more important than you think. For one thing, it can help promote better emotional health, said Thorpe. She pointed out that there’s a growing body of research that suggests connectedness can also play a role in improving health outcomes. “It may not be easy to be in the room with as many people as we'd like to be,” she said, “(but) it makes many of us feel not only mentally healthier, but safer.”
6. Get plenty of quality sleep
There are a lot of things to lose sleep over these days, but both experts pointed out that a good night’s sleep is crucial to maintaining good health. Sleep helps your body regenerate itself — and getting enough sleep is key to fighting off pathogens, they said. “Scientifically,” Kachur added, “we know that immune function is improved in people who are well-rested.” Adults should aim for at least seven hours of sleep a night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
7. Load up on fruits and veggies
Boosting your vitamin intake through the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is one very easy — and tasty — way to diversify the nutrients you’re getting and help boost your immunity. “Fall is a great time for vegetables,” said Thorpe. She even suggested considering a plant-based diet, which, compared with the standard American diet, “is not only healthier but better for our environment,” she said.
8. Make sure you exercise
Physical activity is a great way to boost immunity, get fit, reduce stress and stay heart-healthy, said Thorpe. “It really promotes endorphins that improve mental health, can also induce weight loss if weight loss is necessary and maintain muscle mass for different people,” she said. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week (ideally a mix of aerobic and strength-training activities), according to the CDC.
9. Get outside every day
The ability to go outside for a bike ride or a hike this spring and summer had a tremendous impact on people, observed Thorpe. “We have increasing and abundant evidence that spending time in nature is both good for the body and the mind,” she said. If you’re going to be exercising outdoors this fall, be sure to follow appropriate social distancing guidelines and consider wearing a mask to stay safe.
10. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D
This essential vitamin helps you develop strong bones and plays a role in supporting immune function. More recently, it has been linked with better outcomes for people infected with COVID-19, though more research is necessary to better understand whether — and how — it may help. You can get vitamin D from certain foods, like fortified dairy products, juices and cereals, fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, and some mushrooms. Your body can also make vitamin D when it's exposed to sunlight. “Vitamin D, though added in milk, is important in immunity, but a lot of us just don't get enough of it in our everyday diet,” explained Kachur. He suggested taking a half-hour walk outside every day to get your dose of vitamin D from sunlight — or trying a supplement, especially on long dark days. Just be sure to clear it with your primary care doctor before you start taking vitamin D supplements.
11. Consider additional nutrition supplements
There’s promising research on the efficacy of B vitamins and zinc for supporting the immune system and helping to shorten the duration of a cold. However, Kachur noted that while it likely won't hurt to take them, the mechanism of how they may help remains unclear. If you’re considering adding B vitamins or zinc to your supplements regimen, consult with your doctor to be sure they won’t interact with any other medications you might be taking.
The threat of COVID-19 on top of our usual cold and flu season the pressure is on to be more vigilant about our health, but it's always a good idea to practice healthy habits. Even if you do get a cold or the flu, the healthier you are when it starts, the better the outcome is likely to be, said Kachur. If for that reason alone, let’s all do our best to stay as healthy — and happy — as possible this autumn.