With seasonal flu season upon us, the gold standards of flu-prevention such as vigilant hand washing and flu vaccination become increasingly important.
In addition to these tried and true techniques, however, research suggests a number of complementary therapies that can help prevent and overcome the cold and flu blues.
From listening to good music to beefing up your sex life, there are a number of unexpected ways to boost your immune system and help ward off illness this winter.
A natural reaction to nasal congestion can be to want to "clear it out" with nose-blowing, but hard blowing can only make symptoms worse by pushing virus-laden mucus further into your sinuses, according to doctors.
To test this notion, researchers at the University of Virginia conducted CT scans and other measurements while subjects blew their noses, sneezed and coughed. Coughing and sneezing didn't have much of an effect on nasal cavities, but nose blowing built up enormous pressure, propelling mucus deeper into the sinuses.
"Not blowing your nose hard is good advice," said Dr. Bill Schaffner, chairman of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University. "Pushing the mucus back into the sinuses will lead to more prolonged symptoms. Gentle blowing of the nose, just clearing the front of the nose, seems to work better. If you do it in the shower or under moist, humid conditions when the sinuses are already loosened, even better."
Using nasal decongestants to help drain mucus or rinsing the nasal passages with salt water are other options.
Listening to relaxing music seems like no-brainer stress-buster, but research shows that 30 minutes of listening to soothing "environmental music" actually boosts the immune system's production of illness-fighting proteins, immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA acts as an antibody, binding to pathogens when they first enter the body and calling forth the immune system cells needed to destroy them.
In a study from Wilkes University, salivary levels of IgA were significantly higher for test subjects who listened to this type of music when compared to those who listened to the radio or sat in silence for 30 minutes. What is environmental music? It's often playing in spas and usually intermixes relaxing instrumental music with sounds of nature.
Authors cite the ability of music to alter mood and emotional states as a possible explanation for this benefit. A 2003 review of several studies testing this benefit concluded that in general, music listening has a positive impact on IgA and mood.
Singing along might also confer a benefit to the immune system: A 2004 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that singing in a choir boosted IgA levels in the hour after singing.
Though vitamin C has notoriously been the go-to vitamin when a cold is coming on, the evidence supporting the supplementation of vitamin C for colds and flu is inconclusive. Surprisingly, vitamin D, usually known for bolstering bone health and preventing rickets in children, has been shown to reduce the risk of catching colds during flu season.
A 2009 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that those with low vitamin D levels were 40 percent more likely to report respiratory infections. In those with asthma, low vitamin D levels increased likelihood of respiratory infection five-fold.