Cold and flu season is upon us, and experts have warned it’s going to be tough. In addition, RSV is rising and Covid remains an ongoing threat. What can you do to avoid getting sick?
Doctors and public health professionals are giving the usual recommendations: wash your hands, wear a mask, get vaccinated, eat nutritious food and get enough sleep. They are all important.
But something is missing from these tips — another step you can take to boost your immune system, which most people don’t consider a health habit, even though research has consistently shown its effectiveness.
The secret line of defense is human connection.
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The value of relationships
Since close contact with other people is typically how viruses spread, it may seem counterintuitive that connection could prevent illness. But sooner than physical connection, I mean emotional link.
Feel loved. Feeling supported. Knowing that there is someone you can turn to for help. Having a sense of togetherness and community.
These are ingredients for social health: the dimension of well-being that comes from connection. If you think of physical health as our body and mental health as our mind, then social health is about our relationships.
It’s easy to assume that relationships only matter for mental health and happiness, but that’s a mistake. Relationships can also get under your skin and affect your physical health, including the susceptibility and severity of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. At its most extreme, connection helps determine how long you live.
Support like a shield
When it comes to this cold and flu season, countless studies over the past 40+ years have found links between social support and the body’s ability to fight off viruses.
For example, when participants in one study were exposed to a cold virus, those who were highly social were less likely to develop symptoms. Similarly, older adults showed stronger antibody responses to the flu vaccine — meaning they were less vulnerable to getting sick — if they were married, especially if they were happily married. In contrast, students with small social networks who felt lonely had a reduced antibody response to the flu vaccine compared to their more connected peers.
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Interestingly, having diverse social ties can be very protective. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon asked people about their different types of relationships, including with significant others, family members, friends, colleagues and community groups, then gave them nasal drops containing a cold virus. People with more types of social ties were less susceptible to colds, produced less mucus and spread fewer viruses.
What explains these results? One theory is that we register negative social experiences, such as social isolation or exclusion, as threats. This stress causes inflammation and weakens the immune system. Compound, on the other hand, can reduce inflammation while building immunity through exposure to more viruses.
Of course, connection is not a panacea. Even those of us who have close relationships, often spend quality time with family and friends, and feel supported in our communities will inevitably get sick at times.
But as you take steps to optimize your immune system and avoid getting sick this winter, it’s worth thinking of connection as a health habit, prioritizing your relationships and strengthening your social health. In turn, your mental and physical health can also benefit.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always talk to your healthcare provider about your own health.