We’re coming to that dreaded time of year again – ‘flu season. Medical professionals will need to brace themselves for the inevitable influx of coughs, colds and the ‘flu, and will soon face more requests for antibiotics, ‘flu shots and doctor’s notes than anything else.

As a General Practitioner, the two commonest issues I see are upper respiratory symptoms and low back pain. I often joke with my students that if they learn how to deal with these two presentations, they can probably manage a third of my clinic.

But the influenza virus is something different. Unpredictable, virulent, and seemingly innocuous, it can cause anything from a mild sniffle to period of almost total incapacitation.

Yet we all know a few people who never seem to get coughs and colds, even in the height of a ‘flu epidemic. We assume that they must have a strong immune system. Or are they just lucky?

Well, in my opinion it’s more than just luck. It comes back to understanding some very basic principles about health.

In 1948, the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This powerful definition was written into the WHO constitution and has remained unchallenged for almost 70 years.

So by this logic, if we constantly work on supporting our physical bodies, take better care our mental and emotional well-being, and review how we are interacting with our social environment, then by definition we would move towards health.

Sounds simple? That’s because it is. And once I understood these principles, my own health improved enormously. In fact, I have not have a cough, cold or ‘flu in the last six years. And that’s despite seeing at least five cases of respiratory infections every day, more in the winter months.

Using these principles, there are some very simple things anyone can do to avoid the ‘flu, going beyond the traditional information we hear about hand-washing, barrier nursing, ‘flu shots and dietary supplements.

So here are 5 steps that anyone can follow to help avoid catching ‘flu this winter:

1. Take regular exercise. As doctors, we still don’t fully understand how exercise helps to boost the immune system, but the scientific link is widely accepted. Moderate exercise for 20-30 minutes each day, six days per week was recently shown in a US study to reduce the chances of developing ‘flu by 50%. Be cautious though, as there is evidence that regular strenuous exercise can actually harm the immune system and make us more prone to illness.

2. Drink more water. Unless there are medical contraindications, I encourage people to drink at least 2 liters of water every day, or 8 glasses. By improving blood circulation and supporting the nasal mucus membranes, this was linked in a recent study by Dr. David Lewis to reduce the chances of developing coughs, colds and ‘flu, as well as having many other health benefits.

3. Sleep well. Taking good quality refreshing sleep each night allows the body to recover, repair and heal from daily activities. Sleep deprivation is proven to have an adverse effect on your immune function, and personally I recommend a good 7-8 hours of uninterrupted nightly sleep. Remember that sleep is about both physical and mental rest. Ensure you allow your mind to become still as you fall asleep because a racing mind at night will certainly keep you awake.

4. Meditate. A study in the Annals of Family Medicine showed that daily meditative practices reduced both the frequency and severity of colds and ‘flu by helping restore mental and emotional well-being. In fact, Dr. Bruce Barrett found this to be even more effective than exercise as a preventative measure. Try a minimum 30 minutes per day regularly and see how much better you feel.

5. Review your social interactions. In my professional experience, the greatest contributory factor to most illnesses is stress from our environment, and I strongly recommend stress reduction methods. As every day can potentially bring stress into our lives, every day should also include activities to help release that stress. The truth is anything can cause the feeling of stress if we allow it to. So remember to create time for yourself every day, decide whether you are going to allow things to bother you, never put too much on your plate, make time for people you love, and most importantly, have fun!

I believe if you follow these simple steps alone, you can not only reduce your chances of catching ‘flu this winter, but also improve your health and well-being without needing to rely on doctors. 

Because if you really think about it, great health care doesn’t always start with the doctor. It starts with us and the individual choices we make. Health can be very inexpensive. But sickness will certainly cost us.