Preventing Holiday Colds

A time to walk in the light

Posted Dec 27, 2015

     Hale and Hearty Holidays

cathedral of winter/
Source: cathedral of winter/

It’s winter, time for holiday coughs, colds and flus - and ways to prevent them.  True, it does not look like winter; Christmas time temperatures in the seventies across the northeast US should give even the most hardened global climate change “hoaxist” real pause.  But though cold weather with its changes in nasal and sinus temperatures, does make life easier for some cold viruses, colds and flus will arrive even if the temperatures are balmy.  So what can you do to prepare when you’re hugged by all your fellow office workers who just hugged their snorting grandkids?

Plenty. Yes, wash your hands – liberally.  Make sure you get enough rest, as poor sleep, even over short periods, makes life easier for colds to advance and invade.  You try to keep as regular schedule as you can so that the inner clock mechanisms that time your life have the chance to keep immunity sharp.  And you attempt to not imbibe too many immunologically compromising drugs - which includes natural pesticides like tobacco and marijuana and holiday elixir alcohol.

Yet there’s something really simple to do.  You move.  Because moving teaches the immune system.  And if the immune stops learning, we stop, too.

         Appalachian Spring

Five years ago researchers at Appalachian State asked a thousand people to keep activity and infection diaries over three months.  Those who moved around – as in a twenty minute walk during the day – had half the number of colds than those who didn’t.  They also were about half as severe.

Last week Gretchen Reynolds put out an article in the New York Times entitled “Exercise May Starve a Cold,” a good piece with a misleading title.  Exercise does not “starve” colds. Plus the research described concerned bacterial infections, not colds – in mice.

Yet the article began to provide a mechanism  for how exercise is a form of learning for the immune system – with potentially great benefits for people who walk to work or go up and down steps.

Genetically identical mice were forced to swim.  That’s hard for a mouse.  Forced swimming is part of “learned helplessness” paradigms used to create “depressed” mice who act in ways depressingly familiar to depressed humans. 

Yet the swimming mice demonstrated thoroughly different immune responses to their non-swimming brethren.  When infected with staphylococcus aureus – one of the more common causes of nasty bacterial infections in humans – they immune reactions were modulated.

Which meant less lung damage – and more active and healthy mice.

So why would forced swimming make a mammal less likely to get and stay sick?

         A Different Way of Learning

Most people associate learning with school.  You study calculus; you are “educated” by reading the classics.  Some will point out you can “learn” to play basketball or ride a bike, but it seems an insufficiently cognitive, academic action to create true “learning.”

An unfortunate assumption.  Because the body learns all the time.  In fact, it learns, or it dies.

Unlike most calculus texts, the environment changes continually.  New virus species are formed.  New mutants appear hourly.  New ways to infect people are produced.

People understand this - look at AIDS.  But with the appearance of colistin resistance in many highly infectious bacteria, we are beginning to enter the post-antibiotic age – when the miracle drugs of the twentieth century fail in the twenty-first.

 Yet there’s a lot we can do beyond getting drug companies to explore medications that won’t necessarily give them blockbuster profits  but will only save millions of people.  We can protect our immunity but letting our immune system learn.

Which it does – every time you walk or move. Which forces us to deal with all the new bugs and chemicals that are out there.

The  body learns all the time.  We are a continually rebuilding, regeneration information system, remaking ourselves as the environment around us is remade.

Many people have a hard time thinking of matter and energy as “information.”  So try this – see yourself as a kind of software. You can think of your body and genetic material as an operating system.  But just as you do when accessing software, you direct how that software is used.  And fortunately for us, since most of our bodies are replaced very rapidly,  we get to direct that system and its rebuilding. A lot.

So when we walk, particularly outside, the learning is immense. Thousands of artificial chemicals are met immunologically, classified, sifted, treated as friend or foe.  Trillions of other organisms – from viruses to fungi – are encountered and engaged, with billions of new antibodies formed to deal with them.  Muscles and tendons and joints are used repetitively and novelly, all leading to a more quickly responsive regenerating capacity.

For living things learn.  Most of the learning never gets registered in forms readily described in language.  Yet the immune system learns by actively engaging and moving through different environments – whether it’s coughing infants in the living room or walkways of cities and parks.

This wondrous system of recreation keeps us alive.  It makes us anew day by day.  And by the simple act of moving, we can make this “unconscious” learning more effective and efficient.

And keep ourselves more hale and hearty today, and for the next string of holidays in the year to come.