Gone are the days when a sneeze elicits a simple “God Bless You.” Even as swine flu hysteria dies down, germ-spreading sneezes and coughs are more likely to provoke muttered curses and an exodus toward the door than a polite nod for the Lord to watch over you. 

Media hype and confused public health directives aside, swine flu, or H1N1 influenza, is a serious issue.  People are taking all kinds of measures to keep from getting ill.  Pharmacies have run out of Tamiflu as panicked citizens medicate, even in the absence of symptoms. But taking unnecessary medications is exactly what doctors advise against.  Improper use of antibiotics has spawned drug-resistant strains of flu, and ordinary viruses have mutated into stronger terminator-like super bugs, which we don’t have a vaccine for. 

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And taking antibiotics is hard on the body.  They can weaken our immune system leaving us less able to fight off germs.  The result is that we’re more susceptible to opportunistic illnesses that often come with more serious symptoms, complications and even death.

Michael Jackson-like germaphobes have taken to sporting surgical masks for protection. But most experts agree that ordinary surgical masks are largely ineffective.  The generic masks don’t provide a high level of particle filtration or secure seal on the face and won’t protect your airway from infectious airborne particles.

There has even been talk around the Web about the benefits of throwing a “flu party,” akin to "chickenpox parties," where sick children are placed with healthy ones to infect them with the chickenpox virus in order to get the sickness out of the way. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that since it’s unknown how an individual will be impacted by the infection, it would be a big mistake to put adults and children at risk.

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So what can you do to avoid the flu? The best defenses are your natural ones. Strengthening your immune system will do wonders to ward off the flu and other pesky illnesses. The immune system is made up of a collection of different cells that work together, but it’s the white blood cells, called lymphocytes, that are the army in charge of fighting off bacterial and viral infections.

Overall good health translates into a healthy immune system, but there are some specific things that you can do to increase your resistance.

·        Manage stress.  When the body is overly stressed, it releases a steady stream of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, which negatively impact the body's ability to stay well. 

·        Get your rest, every night. Prolonged sleep deprivation wears down the immune system while getting adequate helps to boost your defenses. 

·        Get some exercise.  In addition to helping maintain physical well-being, regular exercise is good for emotional health and relieving stress.

·        Wash your hands often. Vigorously wash your hands with soap and warm water several times a day, especially before and after eating or touching your face, nose, mouth or eyes or when you’ve been in a large crowd.

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·        Drink plenty of water.  The human body is made up of roughly 70 percent water, and we need water for our bodies, specifically our immune system, to run efficiently.  Dehydration is one of the most significant factors when it comes to impaired immunity.

·        Get essential nutrients from plant-based foods. The best source of immune-boosting nutrients comes from fresh fruits and vegetables. Aim for 8-10 servings a day.  And if you’re feeling rundown, give yourself an extra jolt by adding natural immune-boosting extracts such as Echinacea, astragalus, garlic and tea tree oil.

·        Keep your colon clean. If your digestion is sluggish and weak, your colon is impacted. So even if you have the healthiest diet, you might still be lacking nutrients. Poor digestion and elimination can make you more vulnerable to flu and other illnesses, so consider adding a probiotic supplement and increasing fiber intake to keep your bowels moving.

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·        Have some sex. (Do you really need a reason?) Or just reach out and touch someone. Activities like sex and physical touch including hugs and handshakes result in the release of endorphins and the natural brain chemicals that boost IGA, a protein from the immune system thought to play a critical role in keeping pathogens from entering the body.  

But remember, swine, avian or other flu outbreaks are a yearly occurrence, so try not to hit the panic button.  And if you do, wash your hands afterward.

Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.