It’s the holiday season! As we anticipate holiday parties, gatherings and events, it’s a good time to think about proactively supporting our immune systems so that we don’t catch a holiday cold or flu virus.

And despite what Mom may have said, bundling up before going outside when it’s cold isn’t exactly a silver bullet solution. The reason more people get sick in the wintertime isn’t because it’s cold – but rather because we spend more time inside in close quarters with family, friends and coworkers and are therefore exposed to more germs.

The immune system can be a bit of an enigma: When it’s functioning properly, and we remain healthy, we don’t even notice it. But as soon as we catch a cold or flu virus, we realize we could—and probably should—do more to help support our immune systems.

The human immune system is a complex interactive network of organs, cells and proteins. The National Institutes of Health reports that about 80% of immune system function occurs in the gastrointestinal system. The immune system’s white blood cells originate in bone marrow, lymph nodes and the spleen, then travel in both our blood vessels and lymphatic system to protect different areas of the body from viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances that could cause illness or disease.

How can we boost our complex immune system network?

There isn’t a single magic pill to enhance immunity—though your local vitamin store might advertise otherwise. Instead, it’s important to take a holistic approach to overall lifestyle and make small changes that can have a big impact.

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. This seems simple, but bears repeating: Our hands come in contact with a multitude of high-traffic surfaces such as door handles, pens, computer keyboards and bathroom surfaces that harbor viruses and bacteria. Wash your hands under warm water with soap and don’t scrimp on lathering time – you need at least 20 seconds to get the job done properly. Here’s a fun tip: Sing the “Happy Birthday” song in your head (or aloud if you prefer!) twice while lathering your hands in order to properly cleanse them.
  2. Get your Vitamin D.  Up to 90% of American adults have a Vitamin D deficiency, and it’s worse in winter than in summer when exposure to moderate amounts of sunshine fuels our body’s natural Vitamin D production. Research continually shows that low Vitamin D levels make us more susceptible to illnesses including the common cold, respiratory infections and the flu. It’s important to supplement Vitamin D3 (the more absorbable form of the vitamin) and good food choices. According to the USDA, good food choices for raising Vitamin D levels include fish such as halibut, carp, eel, mackerel and salmon, in addition to raw maitake, crimini or portabella mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light (ask your organic grocer). In addition, many eggs, milk and orange juice products are fortified with Vitamin D.
  3. Eat your fruits and veggies. Regular nourishment with nutritious, whole foods—preferably organic—is an immune system best practice. The foods we eat can provide the micronutrients that our immune systems need to function properly. These seven are top choices:
    1. Sweet potatoes (for Vitamin A)
    2. Berries (Vitamins C and E)
    3. Mushrooms (help in maturation of white blood cells)
    4. Carrots (Beta-carotene; eating them raw is best)
    5. Kiwifruit (Vitamins E and C)
    6. Spinach (Vitamins E, A, C, K and beta-carotene)

While getting these nutrients from fresh, whole, organic foods is preferable, if you’re just not a veggie lover, taking a daily multivitamin is another way to incorporate these important vitamins into your diet.

  1. Conquer micronutrient deficiency. Deficiencies of specific micronutrients have been linked to lower immune response. These include zinc, selenium, iron, folic acid, copper and vitamins A, B6, C and E. Once again, a daily vitamin and mineral supplement may hold the key to ensuring your body has what it needs.
  2. Incorporate Ginger and Garlic. Ginger is known to support the bodily processes for breaking down accumulated toxins, while garlic is converted to sulfur compounds that support your body’s white blood cell functionality. Enjoy a mug of ginger tea and spice things up with a garlic-based sauce at dinner to incorporate these two immune-friendly foods.
  3. Proactively Choose a Healthy Lifestyle. To support your good health and immune system, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, get 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly and take steps to minimize stress such as mindful meditation. If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
  4. Don’t smoke. If you think of your immune system like Superman, protecting the body from evil viruses, smoking is its kryptonite. Cigarette smoke is rife with more than 4,000 chemicals—including 43 known to cause cancer—that assault and weaken virtually every single bodily system, including the immune system. Thus, smoking can make you more susceptible to every illness, from the common cold to cancer, and also weakens the body’s ability to fight them.

It can be a challenge to maintain good health throughout the holiday season, but by taking these steps to help boost your immune system, you’ll be prepared to meet that challenge!