Just this year, after almost a decade of living with autoimmune disease and getting annihilated by the cold and flu season, I had a bit of an epiphany. Well, it was more of a “DUH” moment…
You see, I have successfully been able to avoid the flu for a few years now, but I’ve almost always been struck by the common cold. The problem is that this seemingly innocent little bug lingers for weeks and sometimes even months.
Oh, is it frustrating. My recovery is ssssooo slow and exhausting. I lose my voice and my nose gets all raw and red. As a result, I cover my face in globs of shea butter and people awkwardly stare at my shiny face.
On top of it, I almost always have a flare of my various autoimmune symptoms and it feels like forever before I’m back to normal.
And yet, I see other people around me – like my husband, Frank, or my kids, and they have the same cold. But they are done with it in 24-48 hours!
Turns out, a cold triggers my immune system, and when my immune system is already out of balance, and you know… attacking my organs and tissues due to my autoimmune disease, the common cold can make things go extra-haywire! Given that I am the most autoimmune-prone in my household, it makes sense that I get hit far worse than the rest of my family.
It finally clicked. My immune system is a bit occupied, so throwing a virus (whether that be a cold or the flu) into the mix really causes it to flare.
Thankfully, last year, after understanding this, I decided to do a little experiment to see how successful I could be at preventing the colds. My experiment gave me interesting results, and ultimately led to the tips I share below.
The best part about these tips is that they are NOT immune stimulating. Some of the common flu prevention tips, even the natural ones like using elderberry syrup, can really rev up an autoimmune-prone immune system… causing flares.
I think you’ll actually be surprised at just how simple all of this is. You’ve probably already heard the majority of it! But it might not seem so easy when you have holiday treats staring you in the face. Decisions, decisions…
5 Tips for Preventing Colds & Flu When You Have an Autoimmune Disease
1. Reduce sugar, alcohol, and caffeine intake.
I told you it wasn’t easy! This portion of the protocol is exactly what I experimented with last year.
Let’s talk about a frequent cycle so many of us may fall into:
Overindulge in sugar (it’s Christmas, after all!) → drink fun, sugary, alcoholic beverages (it’s the best time of the year!) → stay up wayyy past bedtime → drink some coffee in the morning to get through the next day
Think about all of the Holiday events starting in October and continuing for 3 months:
Halloween and loads of candy, cider, donuts, etc., followed by Thanksgiving and lots of pie, then all of the Holiday gatherings in between for work, school, friends, and family, and then finishing it off with an all-night New Year’s Eve celebration.
All of this sugar, alcohol, and caffeine doesn’t play nice with our bodies! Not only do we now have to process and battle the inflammatory response caused by all these “goodies”, but then we have to fight off the viruses that everyone is carrying!
Even those of us following a life-long restricted diet such as the Paleo diet or the Autoimmune Protocol diet, can still find ways to overindulge in at least one of these things. I know I’m all about the AIP Pumpkin Pie during Thanksgiving. I also like cherry pie. And lots of other treats that I make… and have all to myself because apparently everyone thinks that anything lacking gluten or dairy can’t possibly be good. ?
My point is that we stretch our body way too thin during flu season, expecting it to keep up and then we are angered when it fails. Maybe it’s time to instill a little balance…
My personal experiment:
In years past, I’ve picked up on a very unfortunate correlation between my sugar intake and the timing of when I got sick with a cold. So, even though last year I was on the Autoimmune Protocol, I still decided to embark on a very unscientific personal experiment, and purposely overindulge on sugar three separate times (usually in the form of multiple slices of pie).
Whadyaknow… every single time, I was sick within 24-48 hours after. Every single time!! And that’s just sugar – not alcohol or caffeine.
I wish it wasn’t true. But… it’s time to face the facts of my life – if I want to avoid the common cold, I need to avoid the sugar. Or at least dramatically reduce it. And I have a feeling that this isn’t something that just applies to me… hint hint (wink wink – picking up what I’m putting down?).
2. Prioritize sleep!
For real, ya’ll. Sleep is another thing that falls to the wayside during the Holiday and cold/flu season. And it’s just not worth it! I don’t know one person who loves to be tired, especially someone with an autoimmune disease.
We need quality sleep so that our brains and body can detox, repair, and do things like… fight viruses!
Now, I know this can be complicated, because it’s not always just as easy as lying down and going to bed. I think a lot of us are challenged with falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up. Everybody hop aboard the struggle bus.
But, there are some tips, supplements, etc. that can really help. If you struggle with the mechanics of sleeping (like helping your body and mind unwind), then this article might spark your interest:
Our favorite tip? Wearing these awesome, super stylish amber tinted glasses 2 hours before going to bed, especially if we’re working on our computers. The blue light from computers, TVs, phone screens, etc. throws off our bodies’ ability to release melatonin (the hormone that helps our bodies prepare for sleep).
Try a pair and you’ll see how much of a difference they can make. Frank even wears them at work now during the day (he says it’s to spread the message, I think he thinks he looks good)!
3. Manage stress (the right way!)
The sugar-alcohol-caffeine cycle I mentioned in tip #1 can sometimes have a driving force – STRESS.
Stress from cold weather, driving in the snow, buying gifts, staying on budget, meeting with family (who’s company you may or may not enjoy), and hitting end of the year goals.
By the time Christmas rolls around, you’re like “GIVE ME ALL THE PIE!!!” because it’s the perfect time to eat your stress away. I know this because it happens to me (I really like pie… in case you haven’t figured that out yet).
Stress is a normal part of life, but when it becomes chronic or incredibly overwhelming, it can actually be a driving force for an autoimmune flare… and if you catch a virus on top of that – disaster!!
Our bodies get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, we have trouble sleeping, we get really tense, maybe angry, and everything just breaks down and stops working like it should.
So, what are your options besides sugar, alcohol, and other things that do you no good?
- Daily prayer
- Chiropractic care
- A daily health or mental health journal
- Simplifying your schedule
- And many, many more.
4. Focus on gut health.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave (no judgement), then you’ve probably heard about supporting your gut health at least in some fashion – whether that be probiotics, fermented foods, or the super popular fan favorite: store bought kombucha tea.
And you might have also heard the concept that’s been thrown around for years now: 70-80% of immune cells are in… you guessed it, our gut1!
Then, the double whammy – if you have autoimmune disease and are still suffering from symptoms, particularly digestive symptoms, your chances of having poor gut health due to “leaky gut” are pretty high.
So, if the gut is out of whack, then the immune system is also out of whack, and all of the defenses towards the cold and flu are weakened. And you know what contributes to poor gut health??
Sugar (and other foods like gluten, for example, depending on the person), alcohol, caffeine, stress, lack of sleep… ahhh! Are you seeing the trend here? It seems we have come full circle, my friend.
Tips 1-3 work together to create a healthy gut and therefore a healthy, strong and balanced immune system ready to battle the cold & flu. It’s amazing.
Now, here’s the thing… sometimes repairing a leaky gut isn’t just as easy as following tips 1-3 and reducing sugar, managing stress, and sleeping well (but those things certainly do help a ton). Sealing up your gut might take some extra work because that process is going to be totally unique to you and your diet, possible infections, etc. So, I highly recommend working with a qualified practitioner or health coach to address this. But, Chris Kresser outlines the general process in this post.
5. Use Targeted Nutritional Supplements, Homeopathy, and Food-Based Supplements
I jumped on the supplement bandwagon way back when I learned that many people with autoimmune disease have common nutritional deficiencies like magnesium, vitamin D, B12, etc. And I am a huge fan.
Supplements took my autoimmune healing to a whole new level, and they are super helpful during cold and flu season, especially since some of us live in the frozen tundra for 6 months and don’t see any sun (vitamin D). Ever.
In fact, some functional medicine doctors even have their own flu prevention or “winter stress” protocols, so this is something you can always ask your doctor or check out on their websites and blogs.
I think the biggest warning here though, is that some of the more common “immune boosting” supplements that people turn to during cold & flu season might not fare well for those of us with autoimmune disease (you can read more about why that is in this article (be sure to also read Part 2!). So be sure to do your research before jumping into any supplements.
Keep the Flu Away this Season!
Don’t be scared, just be prepared! You can take the right precautions to stay well and still enjoy the colder months.
By focusing more on the very basic necessities our bodies crave – sleep, low stress, a nutrient-dense diet, and extra supplemental support to fill in the gaps, you’ll be on your way to the healthiest flu season yet!
- Furness, J., Wolfgang, A., Kunze, A., Clerc, N. The intestine as a sensory organ: neural, endocrine, and immune responses. American Journal of Physiology. 1999 Nov. Retrieved from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpgi.1999.277.5.g922.
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Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits. Consider me, and my husband, Frank, your autoimmune disease health coaches. Are you ready?!