In 2016 I set a new record – the worst kind – I got sick more than I ever had before in a year.
A total of six instances that averaged about a week each. 40 days in which I was ill enough to skip running, some of which I was bad enough to call in sick to work or at least work a partial day. This was an outlier year – my typical year involves one cold that knocks me out for about a week.
Though I usually try to fight off colds without intervention from a doctor, this year I gave in a number of times and got on meds. On the third trip I asked my doctor what was up and he calmly explained that the combination of kids, an open office and public transportation and marathon training were doing me in.
So armed with that information, and since health was my theme for the year (great timing), here is my approach to try and avoid getting sick as much next year.
I view getting sick as a two part equation – how strong my defenses are and how strong the attack is. My job is to ensure that on as many days as possible, my defenses are stronger than that the attacks coming at them. Here are a few ways I am doing that.
Providing My Defenses With What They Need
Ensuring My Body Has Adequate Nutrition
The immune system is my internal defense against colds. It can only operate at full strength if the body has all of the necessary building blocks – in a body those include the macronutrients as well as a number of vitamins.
So in order to make sure my defense is strong, I am making sure all of the building blocks are there in ample supply. I am usually pretty good at supplying my body with everything it needs through a well balanced nutrition, but have lately been double checking my math.
The one substance I do not get a ton of from food and do not have ready access to in Seattle is vitamin D. Because of that I’ve decided to supplement it with a daily vitamin. This isn’t something I view as a long term solution, I don’t believe vitamins are an efficient a source of nutrition, but vitamin D is one I’ve heard uptake from vitamins works decently.
Drinking A Ton Of Water
Along with nutrition, I’ve found that drinking enough water is a great way to keep my immune system strong. The way the body uses water, maintaining salinization levels is a top priority and then supplying other systems comes after that. In my non-professional experience, even running 10-15% low on water intake can reduce my body’s ability to operate near capacity greatly, which I suspect is a result of critical illness defense systems being the first ones which water is taken from.
As a side note, I prefer to drink body temperature water. I’ve found it creates less strain on the body to intake.
Limiting Defense Drainers
Along with reinforcing my defense, in order to keep it strong I need to ensure I am not wearing it down myself. These next three items all relate to that – I have found that no single one wears me down completely, but all together they can combine to weaken my immune system. Part of my strategy is to monitor all three and if any one takes a hit, to ensure the other two do not simultaneously.
Monitoring Health Draining Substances
I have noticed that a few substances, when ingested, can affect the strength of my immune system and overexposure to them can make it vulnerable.
Sugar and alcohol are two that I watch the closest. In my experience, I don’t consume enough of either to totally take down my defenses, usually it is a slight increase in either along with a few other external factors that all add up to a weakened immune system.
Rather than eliminating both from my life completely, I try to maintain a normal low level of consumption for each and drop to near-zero levels as needed. For example, if someone in my family or that sits near my at work gets sick. Essentially this is a boost through omission of a normal negative.
Keeping My Sleep Average Up
One of the other ways I tend to wear down my immune defenses is by not sleeping enough. It usually isn’t a one night thing, negative results will often occur after a busy period in which I sleep towards the lower limits of my range for multiple nights in a row. Sometimes that is because I am up late doing something, other times it is because I am up at night or early in the morning, mostly due to child-related things.
I’ve found that if I run thin margins of sleep, inevitably a bad night will occur with one of my kids and I won’t have the sleep reserve to withstand it. That will result in my getting sick.
My approach to maintain this is to make sure my three-day trailing hours of sleep is within a normal range. This means that if for some reason I sleep an hour less than I like one night, I need to make sure to sleep my normal amount or slightly more the following nights. Since wake up time is not in my control and usually around 7am, that sometimes means I need go to bed at 9pm in order to catch up.
Limiting My Intense Training
When I was training for a marathon earlier this year I ran about a dozen runs of 20 miles or more. That takes me around 2.5 hours and usually involves some stretches of increased intensity. The result is that my body is extremely worn down. I have hard from other marathon runners that after races they often get sick, due to the strain of the race on their body. My training regimen had me hitting near-race effort three weeks a month for six months.
In order to keep my defenses strong, I am not going to do that again. I don’t have the margin available to be running myself ragged like I would if I were a professional runner that had all day to recover – or a non-parent that had predictable sleep and fewer germs in the house.
If I do come to a stretch of time where I decide to take on some intense training again, I will do so knowing I need to be running optimally in items of the other defense drainers on this list. That means lots of sleep, no alcohol and very low sugar. In my experience I can handle one of those things being sub-ideal, but not two or more.
Minimizing Attack Vectors
Now that we’ve addressed, how I am preparing my defenses, my immune system, we look at the side of the equation that has to do with what is attacking those defenses. There are parts of this I can control.
The volume and intensity of germs I am exposed to from touch is much greater than those that are airborne. It is much more likely that I touch and object and then touch my mouth and get germs that way than it is that I simply breathe something in.
Because of this, I have recently started washing my hands like a doctor – both in frequency and process.
The amount I am washing my hands has probably increased by an order or 3-5 times. I wash them more often randomly, and also after touching things that I wouldn’t have thought twice about previously – riding the bus, cleaning up toys, using a conference room phone, cleaning a child up, etc. I now think about these things as dirty and treat my hands the same way you would if you had paint on them, I try to touch only what is necessary until I can wash them.
It might sound a bit germaphobic. Whatever it takes.
One thing I’ve been cautious of is drying out or roughing up my hands too much. I’ve heard that if you wash your hands too frequently you can actually make them rough and make it easier for germs to stay on them. The goal of washing isn’t to scrub them raw, it is more to do a rinse that slips off anything clinging to them. I am still trying to figure out the best soap for at home – I am often at a sink where I don’t have a choice.
This post isn’t about what I do when I am sick, but I want to mention an item that has recently been migrating away from being a sick-time only process. You can look up what a neti pot is elsewhere if you aren’t aware.
My doctor mentioned to me that doing a sinus flush when I think I am getting sick can be a great way to flush germs out of there early so they don’t have a chance to reproduce. That makes sense. I think of this a lot like washing my hands, the goal is to minimize the time of exposure.
As of now I have started using a neti pot as early as the first signs of being stuffy, but I might start using it in a more as-needed defensive manner, or even as a regular cleaning.
Although I stated above it is much more likely that I will get sick from physical contact with a germ saturated surface, airborne germs are still an issue.
To decrease the amount I am exposed to, I try and get fresh air daily. If nothing else, that gives my body a half hour to an hour where it is being exposed to air that doesn’t contain as many or the same germs.
We are also running a few devices in the house to keep the air as germ free as possible. We recently got a dehumidifier because we read that germs can survive longer and in higher quantities in air that is humid. We are trying to keep the house around 40-50% humidity, which is sometimes difficult in wet Seattle. We also have a UV air purifier which we run at times to help clean the air.
In the summer I am more apt to leaving the windows open and airing out the house, but that is a hard proposition when it is 35-40 degrees outside. We should probably consider doing room-by room airing during the day when certain rooms aren’t in use. The toll on the heat bill is likely worth the savings in sick time.
What I will say about all of these steps, is that my intensity ebbs and flows, as I think it should. When those around me are sick, I go on high alert and really double down on things, where as I take some time to relax a little if the threat seems low.
Kids all healthy, maybe I’ll stay up late and have a beer tonight. One of the kids has a cold? Probiotics & neti pot, then a 9pm bed time – just to be safe.
What am I missing? What else do you do to avoid getting sick?