Fortifying your immune system and receiving the flu vaccine are critical components of the fight against illness. Dr. Travis Stork presents common sense tips on how to protect you and your family during cold and flu season.

The immune system is something that most of us probably don’t think about much until something goes wrong, even though its working for us each and every day to fend off illness. The important role it plays in keeping you healthy is magnified during the winter months, when cold and flu can damage your health and leave you down for the count.

While its makeup is extremely complex, the immune systems main function is actually quite simple: Detect foreign agents such as bacteria and viruses, identify them as a threat and mobilize forces to fight them off. Unfortunately, life isn’t always so simple. A number of our common behaviors work against our immune systems ability to defend against infection and even chronic illness, particularly during the sniffle season. So how can we avoid sabotaging our immune system? Adopting some healthy-living strategies both physical and mental is the first line of defense.

Maintenance is key

Your good and bad habits all correlate with how healthy you are and how effectively you can build and maintain a strong immune system. I like to stress that the goal shouldn’t be to boost your system, but instead to keep it in good condition and functioning properly; an overactive immune system can actually get you in trouble. The main lifestyle-related factors are typically a balance of both physical behaviors and mental outlooks that can determine whether your immune system is able to keep infections at bay.

Staying active is essential. Its been shown in many cases that staying active is key to maintaining highly functional white blood cells, which are the soldiers of the immune system. If you’re a couch potato, you’re also making your immune system sluggish and increasing your risk of illness. Just 30 minutes of physical activity a day something as simple as a short walk is directly linked to improved immune function.

Watch your weight. If you’re overweight or obese, that may mean your body is in a chronic state of inflammation. That distressed state can hamper your immune system and in turn put you at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, further decreasing your ability to fight off infection.

Eat nutritious meals. A well-balanced diet made up of a variety of whole foods naturally keeps your body’s nutrients in balance. Avoid high-sugar foods, as excess sugar has been shown to suppress the immune system. I recommend a diet that covers the rainbow: brightly colored fruits and vegetables that are loaded with phytochemicals, which act as antioxidants to optimize your body’s ability to fight off infection as nature intended.

Remember to stay hydrated. This can be easy to ignore during the cold winter months since we may not feel as thirsty, but don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids except for the sugary kind! I also believe in keeping nasal membranes and sinus passages hydrated and clear of congestion. For this task, I carry a saline nasal spray with me at all times to flush away germs, allergens and irritants; neti pots can also be really effective for sinus congestion.

Don’t touch your face. When you’re traveling or in a public place, try not to touch your eyes or nose after being exposed to potentially germy surfaces. That door handle you just touched could be loaded with a cold virus which loves to infect through the mucus membranes of your eyes and nose! I use my little finger for tasks when I can, since I don’t typically touch my face with it. Hand sanitizer can come in handy, but good ol soap and water has been shown to be just as effective in taking care of germs.

Don’t stress out. Chronic stress taxes your body with a fight or flight response and places you at greater risk for illness by suppressing your immune system. I preach (and practice) relaxation techniques: Head outside for a walk, get away from your cell or email, or just have a good laugh. Set aside a little time each day to relax and your immune system will reap the benefits.

Get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep can also stress your body, leading to inflammation and increased susceptibility to illness. You should try to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night to keep your immune system in working order.

Don’t skip the flu shot

By far your best defense against catching the flu is getting the annual influenza vaccine, which is why I’m surprised each year at the number of people who don’t get it. The vaccine gets your immune system ready for battle in case you do get exposed to the flu. One common myth is that the flu shot can infect you with the flu, but that’s simply not true. An inactivated flu virus that is not infectious is introduced into your system, allowing the body to develop antibodies to the influenza virus during the days and weeks after vaccination. If you end up coming into contact with the flu, these antibodies have built up and are ready to fight it off effectively.

Can you still get the flu after getting vaccinated? The answer is yes, as each annual vaccine is designed to protect against what is predicted to be the most common influenza virus. So the vaccine is no guarantee you’ll avoid the flu, but it does greatly reduce the risk and if you do catch the flu, your symptoms will likely be less serious. Remember, the sooner you can get vaccinated, the better you’ll be protected as influenza begins to spread during the fall and early winter months. With rare exceptions, the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone older than 6 months of age. It’s particularly important for people with an elevated risk for serious complications from influenza or their caretakers, including pregnant women, health care providers, parents of young children and adults over the age of 50 with chronic medical conditions.

Remember, the sooner you can get vaccinated, the better you’ll be protected as influenza begins to spread during the fall and early winter months.

Illness is inevitable

Even when you make it a daily priority to build up your immune system, the reality is that you’re going to get sick with the common cold from time to time. In fact, worrying about this possibility or becoming a full-fledged germaphobe will actually increase your stress levels and just may lead to a prolonged bout with the cold or flu. If you get sick, continue to do the things that optimize your immune system and focus on things that feel healthy to you: Get plenty of rest, enjoy a soothing bowl of chicken soup or a cup of hot tea, and remember that your body needs time, since many colds last seven to 10 days and a cough can linger even longer. Given that colds and the flu are going to happen, keeping your immune system healthy and in balance is your best defense.

Dr. Travis Stork, M.D., is a board-certified emergency room physician and the host of the Emmy Award-winning TV series The Doctors. The New York Times best-selling author of The Lean Belly Prescription and The Doctor Is In: A 7-Step Prescription for Optimal Wellness, Dr. Stork graduated Magna Cum Laude from Duke University as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned his M.D. with honors from the University of Virginia.