December 9, 2021

How to Maintain Good Immunity This Winter

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, Medical Director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they discuss what we can do to maintain good immunity this winter.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • If weather is connected to the common cold.
  • What we can do to improve our immune system during the winter.
  • What we could be doing to negatively impact our immune system unknowingly.
  • Recommendations on what we can do to feel better sooner if we do happen to get sick.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast episode 95. Coming up, we discuss the importance of what we can do to maintain good immunity this winter.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. This is a podcast that’s dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and wellbeing through small healthy habits we can start implementing right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica, and every other week we sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics of nutrition and fitness and a lot more. On this episode, we’re diving deeper into how we can set our immune system up for success as we navigate the winter season.

Chuck Gaidica:
With me today is Medical Director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker. Dr., good to have you with us.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Hello. How are you? And thanks for having me on this morning.

Chuck Gaidica:
I am doing well. It’s so good to have you back. I think that we think about all these things this time of the year, although we can have sniffles other times of the year, and do you still have children around the house?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Not now. They’re adults and out of the house. I’m one of those in empty nesters, but I do remember having them around the house, and yeah, kids carry colds. They get about five to seven colds a year, so they are carriers.

Chuck Gaidica:
Is that right?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yeah. Yep, they do.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, well, for my wife and I, we are empty nesters officially, but you see then there’s the unofficial part where we’ve got four grandkids and a bouncy chair in the family room and two car seats back in the car, and so we are exposed to all that stuff all the time now all over again, but it’s a joyful season.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Oh, absolutely.

Chuck Gaidica:
As a doctor of internal medicine, you must hear about this question a lot about immune system, because it runs deeper than just sniffles we’re talking about. Of course, we’re coming through this pandemic season, so we can feel tired at times, run down, feel sick. CDC says millions of people develop just the common cold every year in America alone. So, what does this tell us about the season? Does it really have something to do with the shift in the weather, or is that just my mom and dad yelling at me when I was a kid, put your coat on or you’ll catch a cold?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
You’re right. That’s something that my mom told me as well, “Put your coat on.”

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Especially a native born Michigander, we’re used to the winter seasons, but that’s a myth. The cold weather itself does not contribute to colds, colds are passed on by other people through viruses. There are about 250 cold viruses, believe it or not, and the most common being the rhinovirus. So the cold weather itself does not cause the cold, but just being in close spaces as we approach the winter season where it endures a lot more. School has started, so children are indoors more, and that itself, we’re more prone to pick up a virus that way.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Viruses are passed from people through coughing and sneezing. We don’t always cough into the crook of our arm, which we do suggest now, and we can pass those germs onto doorknobs or keypads and keyboards, et cetera. Those viruses can last on those surfaces for several hours, so just the cold weather itself has not been proven to cause a cold.

Chuck Gaidica:
So when it comes to our own bodies and our immune systems, what are the things that we can be doing holistically? The common sense stuff that can kick our systems into higher gear to combat the … well, this blows is my mind when you say we’ve got 250 different viruses for the common cold alone. Here, I thought all the hand washing and sanitizing I’ve been doing would take care of everything, right? But not so much maybe.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, no, I think you’re doing the right thing. Like I say, having those viruses on doorknobs or sneezing into our hand, not using tissue to sneeze into. We can pass those viruses along, so good hand washing with warm soap and water. We do suggest washing your hands for about 20 seconds, and that means singing happy birthday twice. That’s how long 20 seconds would be. Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, they have to be at least 60% alcohol to be effective, and nowadays using masks are important, social distancing.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
As a matter of fact, in 2020, the flu was almost down exponentially, because we were wearing masks and protecting ourselves, we’re social distancing and washing our hands. So those are just some common sense things that we can do, and then overall, increasing our immune system, just practicing a healthy lifestyle is very important.

Chuck Gaidica:
So even when the weather gets cold and the skies get cloudy, and we know that season in Michigan, it gets here in November and doesn’t leave till April, can we still go out for walks? Can we try to get some sunshine on us? I mean, does that help our immune systems by trying to go out and do things that we may typically do in the spring and summer, but we may have to force ourself to do more in the winter? Does that make sense?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Oh, absolutely. All year we should be out exercising, but particularly in the winter months, it’s okay to get out and walk, bundle up of course, stay warm. But walking itself, exercising itself can boost our immune system, and especially trying to get some sunshine can help. A lack of vitamin D has been shown to decrease our immune system, so getting vitamin D can be helpful and getting sunshine or sunlight is a way that our body produces vitamin D. We can also get vitamin D in food, such as with fatty fish, some of our foods are fortified with vitamin D. If you can’t get out in that sunshine, take a multivitamin with vitamin D.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, and that’s a real thing, especially for us here in Michigan, where the clouds come in. I know you like gardening, but you’re not able to just get that sunshine by default oftentimes, so you’d maybe have to work at it when the sun breaks through those clouds and go for it.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Absolutely. Get out and exercise, walk around your block, go to a local park if you can. But getting out in the winter is probably even more important, because you’re not exposed to the sunshine, you’re indoors more. Get the kids out, bundle them up. I know our kids tend to stay inside a lot more in the winter in front of the computer playing games and that sort of thing, but get them out at least a half an hour five times a week or more if you can. That goes for adults too. Exercise itself is important, and we do suggest exercising at least 30 minutes five to seven times per week.

Chuck Gaidica:
It’s funny, you’re saying get out there and go for a walk. I remember a few years ago I had a chance to interview Dr. Oz, and he’s in Manhattan at the time and he’s doing a show and I said, “What do you do to stay healthy during a break?” He said he takes a break from recording his shows. He said, “I go out on a park bench in the park even in the middle of winter with a parka on, and I roll up my pant legs and I roll up the sleeves of my coat, and I just sit there in the sun for a few minutes to soak it up.” I thought, it’s New York, so I’m not sure that that looks strange to people.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, it may not.

Chuck Gaidica:
But his point was what you’re saying. He was saying, “I go for walks, but then I also sit down and I just take a few minutes.” I’m sure there’s some mindfulness involved, but he literally meant kick up the vitamin D machine in my body in the middle of winter. I thought, it’s kind of funny to think about, but he had his own system, right? It works. Yeah.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. That’s okay, if you’re looking a little weird, go for it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. So, you mentioned video games or maybe being too bundled up. Are there things that you think that we unknowingly do that are keeping our immune systems in check? We’re not helping ourselves at all. Are there things that we can dial down on that we should be dialing down on to help our immune system kick up?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, I would say dialing down maybe smoking. Nicotine itself can decrease our immune system, smoking in general. Whether it’s marijuana nowadays or vaping and things like that can inflame our lungs, and that in itself can make those viruses stick more closely to our lung lining and our nasal passages. So, that would be one thing to dial down. Alcohol, of course, we always suggest that in moderation. Moderation means one drink per day for a woman, two drinks a day for a man. But if you can avoid alcohol, especially during the winter months, because that can really decrease our immune systems.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
So dialing down on things like that, and our stress. Stress causes fatigue, it can wear us down. So, if you can find some way to take some time during the day just to kind of do some mindfulness like Dr. Oz did by going outside and sitting on that park bench for half an hour or so. Deep breathing exercises. Just take a deep breath every so often, just to kind of decrease that stress level, because that can contribute to decreased immunity.

Chuck Gaidica:
Are some of the old school remedies, I guess is the way I would look at them, I would think that they’re just helping you with symptoms, but maybe not. So, these are going back all the way from my parents back to grandma, right? It would be things like chicken soup or a matzo ball soup. Is there any indication that actually having broth or those kinds of things that we think of when we get the sniffles or a cold are helpful to our system systematically more than just opening up your nasal passages? Is stuff like that actually good for you beyond the obvious that it tastes good?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, studies are still being done. We can’t say for sure if chicken soup prevents a cold, but it can comfort you. The steam from the soup helping to comfort your throat and things like that. There are some studies that do suggest that chicken soup can be a treatment for a cold, but we don’t have definitive studies proving that.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Other things like ginger can settle the stomach if you have nausea. We talk about things like zinc and echinacea and vitamin C. Of course studies are still being done, so we can’t say definitively that these help, but it probably doesn’t hurt to take some of these things. Now, there have been studies that show that zinc can decrease the length of a cold. For instance, if you start taking a zinc supplement at the start of a cold, that may decrease the time that you have a cold. Colds usually lasts between five and seven days, so it may decrease the timeframe.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, as consumers and then as people who are just watching the news even a little bit, we’re being inundated with all kinds of things. I walked into one of the major drug chains the other day, and from the aisles of cold and flu medicines to the end aisles, it’s all the stuff with the zinc and the vitamin C and there’s that. Then there’s kind of a pitch, how about you get your flu shot today and how about you get your COVID booster?

Chuck Gaidica:
I mean, there’s just a lot of stuff that’s coming our way, and as consumers, you do have to stop and think, well, what do I do now? And what are the things I can do to prepare that maybe aren’t a shot, but are holistic? So some of the stuff that you’re talking about is very helpful for all of us, because we can strengthen our bodies when we work at it just a little bit.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Oh, absolutely. A healthy lifestyle is key. Unfortunately in this country, we have an epidemic of obesity, so that’s something that we can all work on. That’s just by practicing a healthy lifestyle, including more fruits and vegetables in our diet, which they’re chock full of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin A, vitamin C, some of the B vitamins are very important in boosting our system. Trying to eat more of a plant-based diet is very important.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Of course exercising. As we mentioned before, at least 30 minutes per day most days of the week. But when you have a cold, we can do all the things that we can do to try to prevent a cold, but sometimes that virus just kind of gets into our system and we develop a cold, so there are some things we can do to help us feel better.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, and let’s go through that list again. If you were to hear me sniffling or you knew I had a cold, what would you tell me to kind of go through a list of things that I should be doing that I can treat the cold? So I’m going to try to eat better if I feel well enough to eat, but what else should I be doing as a checklist?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, as a checklist, the most important thing to fight a cold is to get proper sleep. That is something that a lot of us don’t do, but we do suggest at least eight to 10 hours of sleep, especially when you have a cold, that’s important, and to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, hydrate yourself to help clear that mucus, it helps prevent the virus from attaching to our nasal passages and our throat passages.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
So staying hydrated, avoiding drinks with caffeine like coffee or tea, because they can dehydrate us. That caffeine in coffee or tea can dehydrate our bodies, and that makes that virus attach more to our passages. Then we talked about chicken soup, the ginger, things like that, avoiding alcohol, but there are over the counter remedies that we talk about. If you’re really feeling bad, you can purchase decongestants, which can help improve your breathing, take away that nasal stuffiness. Saline nasals sprays can be helpful.

Chuck Gaidica:
Are you a fan of neti pots?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yes, I am a fan of neti pots. That does help, and you can use those freely. They don’t cause adverse side effects, but they can help thin that mucus so you’re not so congested, you can breathe better and sleep better.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, it was a very weird introduction. My brother, I think, is the one who introduced me to … and if anybody’s never used one of these things, it really looks like a miniature plastic or little metal tea kettle that you’re going to pour warm water that you’ve added a bag of saline salt basically. You’re going to pour it in one nostril and it’s going to come out the other.

Chuck Gaidica:
To me, when he first told me about this, I thought this looks like an old episode from The Three Stooges. I’m going to pour water in my nose, it’ll shoot out my ears or something. When you use it, and we have one here in the house, it actually does work. It does clean things out and you can breathe better, and it just works well. There’s no downside that I can see.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Absolutely, it helps. It really does.

Chuck Gaidica:
So as we start to think about other things in our internal environment, not the outside air, does it help that we’re humidifying? I know some people run right out and buy a vaporizer if they don’t have a built-in humidifier in their heating system. Does it help that we have more humidity or average humidity in the air inside our home or apartment?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
It does help. Especially in the winter, the air is drier, and that’s another reason that the virus kind of attaches to our nasal passages or respiratory passages is because the air is drier in the winter, so it does help to humidify your home. If you can have something on your furnace attached, or if you can purchase something at your drugstore to kind of humidify the room, especially the room that you’re sleeping in, or jumping in a warm shower can help, that humidification from the shower. Of course, you want to dry off very well once you get out of the shower. So you got to humidify yourself, just like you have to hydrate yourself to keep your body moist.

Chuck Gaidica:
That’s a good way to look at it, yeah. I remember, and I don’t know if you have any home remedies that are either your own concoction or that go back in your family. It seemed to me that every winter my dad walked around smelling like BENGAY all the time, right? I mean, he must have been prone to colds and he’d wrap an old T-shirt around his neck, and it was that smell that you know what’s coming, and the vaporizers are on.

Chuck Gaidica:
We grew up in a very small home, a very tiny house, little two bedroom house, and I just think about these remedies that we get in our minds, that whether it’s a little brandy and honey in your tea, or whatever it is, do you have any home remedies that come to mind that even go back to other family members as you were growing up that actually work?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, yeah, people talk about hot toddies-

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
That can work. A little concoction can help, but of course, everybody needs to be careful about drinking alcohol. So we don’t recommend it, but it can help just kind of clear your nasal passages and help you feel a little bit better. Maybe help you sleep a little bit better, but just use that, of course, in moderation. My grandmother used to slather us with Vicks VapoRub.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Yeah, and a little dollop under your nostrils that burned.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yeah, a little dollop under your nostrils.

Chuck Gaidica:
As a kid, you’re like, “Oh no.”

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Just breathing that in would help you breathe a little bit better. Just from that perspective, it was helpful, and just having your grandma’s warm hand on your chest was comforting. I know my mom, to help prevent colds, she would give us cod liver oil every morning during the winter months, and I think that helped.

Chuck Gaidica:
Is there anything to that?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
I think it did help. Cod liver oil has omega-3 fatty acids, I think it did help us. It didn’t taste good. She would mix it with a little bit of orange juice, so that concoction, I think, probably helped us. We didn’t have as many colds, I guess, as the average child might have. So might be something to that, so something to look into.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Yeah, and you don’t hear about that much anymore really, you hear about let’s have salmon, or like you said, let’s have fatty fish or you can find it in some vegetable ideas or grains. But yeah, thinking about taking cod liver oil, we never did that as a kid, but I do remember it being talked about in the family, that it was one of those things that people took. You kind of held your nose, pinched your fingers on your nose and just took it.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
That’s for sure, because it wasn’t the best tasting, but I think overall it was a healthy thing to do.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Well, as we wrap up here, you’ve already given us the checklist, well, you’ve given us so much, but the things we should be thinking about right now for any kind of virus that’s coming into the house, let’s talk a little bit about that, and then this idea of, again, maybe the top one or two things we can do to kick up our immune system.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of viruses to think about nowadays. Between the cold viruses, which I mentioned 250 of those and the influenza viruses, and of course we’re in a pandemic with the COVID-19 virus, so the best thing to do is try to prevent getting those. That’s to boost your immune system by getting that vitamin D, getting out and exercising, eating a healthy diet full of dark green vegetables which are chock full of vitamins and minerals.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Nowadays we wear a mask. I do recommend that, because you’re not breathing out the viruses and you’re not breathing in the viruses, and social distancing as much as we can. So, just practicing healthy lifestyle. If you happen to get sick, of course hydrating yourself, avoiding caffeine, which can dry us out and getting all the sleep that you can. Another thing to mention, stay home if you’re sick, don’t pass those viruses on to other people.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, well, great advice. It’s so good to have you. I’m not quite sure I’m going to run out and get my cod liver oil yet, but it’s good stuff. It brings back lots of memories that’s for sure. Just grandma’s touch, I think we should all have a grandma touch somewhere along the way, right?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Absolutely.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, thanks so much for being with us today. It’s so good to talk to you again.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
You too. Thanks for have me.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, sure thing. Dr. Lynem-Walker is Medical Director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We want to thank you for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast, it’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like the show, you want to know more, check it out at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You could leave us a review or rating on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, and you can get old episodes, new episodes on your smartphone or tablet. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica, stay well.