I’ve been sick a total of one day in the past 10+ years. Use these ten simple, practical steps that I use to help you feel your best and avoid getting sick.
This isn’t a post about how special I am. I’m not. I’m a normal guy who has taken a keen interest in human health and wellness because I like to understand how biological systems operate in order to better make sense of the world around me — and to live the best life I can.
Health factors you can’t control vs ones you can
As a foreword, I should mention that there are at least four factors that contribute to our health and wellness that we all have/had zero control over:
1. Natural Birth
Research shows that the bacteria you’re introduced to in your mother’s birth canal during birth has an enormous impact on charging your immune system, which has a positive, lifelong impact on your health.
Breast milk provides far more than nutrition, it’s a living microbe-rich substance that also helps in immune system development (among many other functions).
In my opinion, our culture places far more emphasis on genes than environmental factors in explaining human outcomes – at least relative to what research would support. For example, different research teams have concluded that as much as 90% to 95% of cancers are caused by environmental and lifestyle choices, at least 90% of Type 2 diabetes is preventable, etc..
In short, the illnesses and diseases that kill by far more people than anything else in the US are almost entirely the result of environmental factors, not genes. Nevertheless, genes can and do impact our health outcomes, and we don’t get to choose our genes.
You might have had the most thoughtful, healthy parents in the world or you might have an excellent diet and exercise regimen, and you still get sick… or worse. Every outcome has a cause, but that doesn’t mean we have the ability to track down the cause(s) or prevent it.
Think about how unlucky the children were who may have crawled around in lead-based paint dust prior to 1978; how unlucky the kids were whose bedrooms were sprayed with DDT to keep the bugs away back before Rachel Carson came along; etc.. What unknown risks are we unknowingly taking today that we’ll look back on in 50 years and say, “wow, I can’t believe they used to do that.”
I fully acknowledge these four uncontrollable factors. However, what this article is about are simple, practical steps you can take to make yourself healthier and avoid getting sick. Think of it as helpful tips to do the best you can with the cards you’ve been dealt. (No, I’m not going to tell you things like “don’t smoke cigarettes” because I’m going to assume you’re smart enough to know that already.)
10 Ways To Avoid Getting Sick & Improve Your Quality of Life
I used to get sick about once every year or two (cold or flu), but since adopting these practices I’ve only been sick once in ten years (a one day stomach bug likely from a restaurant meal/mild food poisoning).
1. Don’t ever touch your hands to your mouth until you’ve washed your hands.
Do you chew your nails? Nibble your fingers? Put your fingers to your lips when you think? Pick up a sandwich to eat after touching the restaurant door handle?
If so, you’re very likely introducing a big load of pathogenic bacteria or viruses into your system, especially if you do this during cold and flu season. Just think of all the door handles, faucets, chairs, railings, etc you touched before touching your mouth – how many people (and sick people) touched those before you did?
Your immune system might be able to fend off these invaders, but why take the risk? Washing your hands with warm soapy water (or using a good hand sanitizer) after you’ve been in a public environment is good practice. Just as hospital and restaurant workers have sanitation guidelines that have drastically reduced infections and illnesses for their patients/customers, you can likely enjoy a big reduction in illness with this step.
2. Get dirty – especially kids.
This might seem antithetical to the first recommendation, but people/children living in hyper-sterilized environments actually get sick more frequently than people who do not. This phenomenon is explained by the “hygiene hypothesis,” aka the biome depletion theory.
Humans are basically a giant garden of microbial life; among other functions, our microbes serve to protect us, produce helpful pharmaceuticals for us, and inform our immune system about what it needs to be prepared to protect you against. You need your microbial systems to be both biodiverse and robust or you lose the “forcefield effect” they serve.
One of the best ways to “get dirty” without introducing yourself to harmful synthetic chemicals? Organic gardening.
3. Chill with the antibiotics.
No, antibiotics can’t treat a cold or flu (viruses), so don’t ask your doctor for antibiotics to treat those illnesses. If your doc prescribes antibiotics to you to treat your cold or flu, run away because he/she isn’t being responsible. Not only are you not helping yourself, you’re potentially making superbugs that antibiotics won’t be able to kill – and those suberbugs are currently killing tens of thousands of people each year in the US alone.
Thankfully, the FDA just outlawed antibacterial handsoap for the same reasons. You can also avoid unknowingly consuming antibiotics by consuming organic meat rather than conventional meat.
When you use antibiotics, you’re also killing off good bacteria, not just the bad guys. Ironically, that means you’re making your biological system more susceptible to being overwhelmed by pathogens since your biological forcefield isn’t operating optimally. This is not to say “never take antibiotics,” only to exercise extreme discretion and take antibiotics only when they’re actually medically necessary.
4. Elderberry syrup.
One of the reasons we garden is to grow incredibly high quality medicinal foods. One of our favorites is elderberry (the varieties we grow are ‘Adams’ and ‘Johns’. The flowers make delicious liqueurs and sparkling cordials, and the berries can be made into anything you’d make with blackberries: pies, preserves, etc. (Read our article How to grow your own elderberries.)
Each summer, we end up with a freezer full of elderberries that we then use throughout the year as an immune booster. We boil and strain the fruit, ending up with a delicious dark purple “elderberry syrup” (basically just a concentrated juice – you can read about how we make it here).
Research has shown that compounds in elderberry juice can drastically reduce the severity and duration of the cold and flu, but we take a shot glass full 2-3 times per week as a preventative–and because it’s delicious. If you don’t have a yard or don’t want to grow your own, you can also buy elderberry syrup.
5. Eat for your gut microbiome.
Even though it’s often attributed to him, nobody knows if Hippocrates actually said “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” However, modern research does very much support the notion that what you eat can drastically impact your overall health and ability to fight off illnesses.
How do you “eat for your gut microbiome,” the trillions of microbes residing in your digestive system? Eat lots of probiotics and prebiotics.
- “Probiotics” are foods that introduce beneficial bacteria to your digestive system – fermented foods and beverages are your best resources here. (This article might blow your mind.)
- “Prebiotics” are foods that your resident microbes eat for you, since you can’t digest them on your own – namely, the fiber in whole grains, fruits, and veggies. If you’re not eating these foods daily, you’re going to diminish your gut health and increase your likelihood of getting sick.
Three recommendations here: 1) read the book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz; 2) get a good German crockpot so you can make your own killer sauerkrauts for a fraction of the cost of store bought stuff, 3) get an easy to use yogurt maker (here’s the one we use and here’s our favorite yogurt starter culture). (2020 update: Actually, scrap the yogurt and make your own milk kefir, which is a far better probiotic than yogurt.)
6. Skip the vitamin supplements – eat a better diet instead.
Yes, there’s a whole aisle of them at the grocery store and drug store. Yes, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Yes, your mom and your best friend tell you that vitamin supplements will cure everything. But the majority of research shows that vitamin supplements are unnecessary, ineffective, or even dangerous in the long run. Unless something medically unusual is happening or you have a poor diet, you should be getting all the vitamins and nutrition you need from your food.
If you want to read more about the quack science around vitamin supplements (and the guy who started the vitamin craze before dying of cancer), check out this article in The Atlantic.
7. Sleep 7+ hours per day.
Of all the tips, this is the one I personally struggle with the most because I love to read and stay up late. Once I pick up my phone and start reading something interesting late at night, my brain wakes up and has difficulty slowing back down. The other problem I encounter as an entrepreneur is regularly working really late – because there’s always work to be done.
How much sleep do you need? It depends… According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), school-age children need at least 10 hours of sleep/day, teens need 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours.
I’m not the only one who struggles with sleep. Somewhere in the range of 40% of Americans are sleep-deprived, often chronically so. As Dr. Nathaniel Watson, professor of neurology at the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center in Seattle says, “Sleep is as important as diet and exercise to optimal health.”
Being tired impacts all aspects of your health, but it also reduces immune system function, thus increasing your susceptibility to colds, flus, and other illnesses (as well as increasing your risk for chronic life-threatening illnesses down the road).
A few tips for getting a good night’s sleep that I’ve found helpful (as an adult who needs at least 7 hours of sleep):
- Plan – If you know you have to be awake at 7am, you’re not going to have a good night sleep if you’re still working on your computer at midnight. Plan at least 1 hour of downtime before you actually go to sleep.
- Put Away the Phone – My phone is my alarm clock, but when I’m disciplined, I’ll refuse to look at it (especially news or facebook that gets my blood boiling) when I’m winding down before bed.
- Breathing – Meditation is awesome, but you can reap some serious benefits and stress relief simply by closing your eyes and doing a couple minutes of deep breathing exercises during your wind down period before bed.
- Tea – I love a cup of tea at night, especially types that have proven stress-relief and relaxation properties. My two faves (we grow mounds of both of these in our garden): lemon balm tea (tastes like citrus) and chamomile tea (tastes like pineapples and apples). (You can get fancy with more potent medicinal teas like this reishi mushroom chamomile tea.) They taste great and help put you in a relaxed mental state. If you’re older and don’t want to have to wake up to pee at night, drink your tea a bit earlier in your nightly routine.
8. Work Out Like a Beast (unless you’re physically impaired)
I don’t have time to run marathons or bike for 6 hours at a time (and I don’t really want to make the time for those things).
Thankfully, research shows that high-intensity intermittent exercise (HIIE), aka highly efficient weight training, is probably the best physical activity you can do for your health. It releases loads of good chemicals, helps you build lean muscle mass, helps you burn fat (long cardio training can actually trigger your body to store fat), strengthens your bones, lowers insulin resistance, keeps your body efficiently burning calories long after the training is over, and helps you sleep like a baby.
Exercise also helps you optimize your immune system function so you’ll get sick less frequently (if at all) and recover more quickly if you do get sick.
My wife and I get moderate exercise almost daily in our garden, but I do not sleep well unless I’ve done intense weight training. 30-45 minutes is all it takes – and we don’t have to drive to the weight room or buy a gym membership. We simply pull out our PowerBlocks and open DailyBurn on our laptop.
The best thing about Daily Burn is you can choose from a wide range of trainers and exercise routines, depending on your fitness level (from beginner to advanced). You can push yourself as hard as you want and shock your muscles with different types of workouts, rather than falling into the same routine which your metabolic system adjusts to. Maybe I’m a bit of a sicko, but I love pushing myself a little further each time, to the point of extreme discomfort, which is why I enjoy Bob Harper, Ben Booker, and Anja Garcia’s programs the most.
If you’ve got an injury or simply hate doing weight training (I personally think you can program yourself to enjoy it), you still need to find some form of physical exercise in order to keep yourself (and your immune system) healthy.
9. Junk In, Junk Out
Remember what I said about feeding your gut microbiome in tip #5? Lactobacillus spp. and Bifidobacterium spp. may be the two most important species of bacteria for a healthy human digestive system – they also serve to outcompete pathogenic microorganisms that can cause you to get sick, similar to the way that beneficial/predatory insects outcompete pest insects in a healthy garden ecosystem.
As it turns out, pesticide residue in your food and beverages is likely causing dysbiosis, aka the killing off of good bacteria and an over-proliferation of bad/pathogenic bacteria in your digestive system. That means it’s entirely possible that the pesticide residues you consume are increasing the likelihood of you getting sick.
The best way to get the most nutrition from the least calories AND to feed your microorganisms what they know how to eat (without disrupting that ecosystem with pesticide residue) is eating minimally processed organic foods, ideally supplemented from your own organic garden.
I get it: so many of us are stressed to the max, time-starved, and cash-strapped, so we take the path that appears to offer the least friction: fast/junk food. If a complete dietary change it too daunting, take baby steps:
- Month 1: Start by cutting out soda (including diet soda) and fruit juice, and replacing them with water or herbal tea.
- Month 2: Eat a small serving of organic nuts before each meal, which help you feel full and fuel your brain.
- As soon as you can (Month 3?): Cut all white bread, white rice, or any other refined grains out of your diet entirely. Use 100% whole grain organically grown alternatives instead.
You’ll soon be amazed at how much better you feel when you start to change your diet to organic whole foods and cut out the crud that’s fueling your junk food addiction, wreaking havoc on your gut microbiome, making you feel awful, and promoting illness.
My wife and I are now at a point in our lives that we hardly ever go out to eat anymore, except for social occasions. Why would we when we can make something 10x better tasting, more nutritious, less expensive, and more quickly at home that doesn’t have any pesticide residues? With rare exception, eating out is an inconvenience for us, instead of the other way around.
Better nutrition, less pesticide exposure, more robust gut flora = decreased likelihood of getting sick.
10. Be grateful, laugh at yourself, control the controllable
I know there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic or horrified about various things happening in the world. You have very little control over those things so you can’t let them consume you. That doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just means you also have to create good in the parts of the world that you can control as your #1 priority.
I am incredibly grateful every single day for my wife, business partner, best friend, and favorite Tyrant (Susan). I’m grateful for extraordinary parents that I couldn’t have chosen better if I’d actually been given the choice. I’m grateful for the beauty I get to experience each day that I walk outside into our edible organic yard. (I’m not grateful when there are ripening strawberries on our plants and the weather forecast shows 24 degrees, but I digress.)
We also laugh a lot, especially at ourselves, and more broadly at the peculiarities of the world we were born into. We don’t much care for the way things are, so we’re doing our best to change them rather than simply criticizing them. That’s why we live with a flock of hilariously goofy Welsh Harlequin heritage breed ducks on an urban organic micro-farm; that’s why we have a certified organic seed company that teaches people no-till gardening approaches (aka carbon farming). We’re doing what we can, where we can.
But we never take ourselves too seriously (when I start to, The Tyrant pops my bubble).
How do these things make us less likely to get sick? It alters the lens through which we view, process, and project our interpretation of the world outward, which in turn makes us feel and function better. When you see the positive results of the world you’re creating immediately around you, it gives you hope and momentum. All of this fuels a positive worldview and reality-based optimism (we’re not talking about the feel good rah-rah optimism that fuels speculative market bubbles and other delusions).
And, yes, this sort of worldview has indeed been proven to reduce your likelihood of getting sick while allowing you to live a longer, more satisfying life. Pretty neat, eh?
How do you avoid getting sick?
These are my top-10 tips to avoid getting sick. In my experiment of one, they’re working quite well. Do you have some tips and tricks that you use to avoid getting sick? Leave a tip in the comments!
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JohnFebruary 25, 2022 at 7:54 pm
I loved this article. Except for your misunderstanding of DDT. Most scientists actually believe DDT is the safest and most effective pest killer known to man. But, someone writes a fictitious novel, and the media tells us we’re all going to die, and we all panic and use less effective toxins that poison the land, and all life.
My grandfather was a sharecropper who used DDT to treat his 12 kids, and numerous grand-kids, for lice. None of his kids ever had cancer. My mom was the youngest to die, at 62, in a car wreck.
Aaron von FrankFebruary 28, 2022 at 12:57 pm
DDT is a tricky one because it does have specific use cases that make some sense, especially back when it was in heavy use. Case in point: getting rid of lice. However, what happened with lice is the same thing that happened with DDT mosquito eradication efforts in the tropics: insects adapt to become resistant to DDT. That’s obviously not a phenomenon unique to DDT: lice are increasingly resistant to modern permethrin-based treatments as well.
As for the relative safety of DDT, it impacts each species differently, so it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about its risk profile for all lifeforms. (See findings about DDT impacts on avian species by renowned toxicologist David Peakall and others.)
In humans, there’s certainly no evidence that normal DDT ingestion or contact is going to kill you, and it’s only considered a “probable human carcinogen” by scientists and regulatory bodies today, both in the US and beyond. However, DDT is certainly an endocrine disruptor. As such, there’s good evidence of both immediate and transgenerational/epigenetic effects. Lower semen quality, spontaneous abortions, thyroid disfunction, etc. There’s also evidence that mothers with high levels of DDE (metabolite of DDT) in their blood causes a higher risk of autism in children.
Since DDT has a soil half-life of 30 years and aquatic half-life of 150 years, it’s incredibly environmentally persistent, which is cause for concern since it: a) percolates throughout and up the food web, and b) stores and accumulates in the body fat of apex species without metabolizing.
Is it safer than the synthetic pesticides that came after it? That would have to be argued on a case-by-case basis, but the historical tendency/cycle that we seem to continuously repeat over the past century in conventional ag (and other industries) is something like this: synthetic chemical introduced with limited/no independent human health or environmental impact data > broad commercial adoption > independent research reveals problems > vested industry groups deny and obfuscate research > evidence eventually breaks through the damn of misinformation recalibrating financial risk-reward scenarios for producers > chemical banned or restricted > novel chemical introduced as replacement… and then the cycle repeats. Having recently swallowed Monsanto at an inopportune time, Bayer is currently experiencing the downside of this pattern from a financial/legal accountability standpoint.
Assuming the book you’re referencing is Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring, she may have gone beyond the data at the point of publication. However, what her book triggered was a ton of research and a thorough evaluation of the available evidence on DDT by JFK’s Science Advisory Committee, the US EPA, and court/legal system. The information that emerged largely supported Carlson’s concerns, and ultimately led to the banning of DDT.
My grandfather smoked packs of cigarettes each day for most of his life. He lived to be over 90 years old and died of unrelated, natural causes. This anecdotal experience does not lend itself well to teasing out the effects or risk profile of widespread cigarette usage across a population. Everything comes with risks and perhaps there are still good use cases for DDT. However, it is now well-established that DDT is not benign and its potential use should be evaluated with known risks in mind.
Nikki K.March 14, 2017 at 8:06 am
I’m in Greenville county, SC, and you’re the 2nd person this week who has mentioned the good quality of our water. It was news to me, and I was glad to hear it.
Great tips, too, with a couple that I’d like to implement more of. In particular, I’ve been wanting to learn to make yogurt. My own list would also include taking time to recover from stressful events (and letting go of chronic stress as much as I can), building and keeping healthy relationships with others, and drinking herbal teas.
Aaron von FrankMarch 14, 2017 at 10:07 am
Yep, managing stress and having healthy human relationships are critical parts of the pie chart. Re yogurt: we were gifted a wonderful little contraption (the product is linked in the article where we mention making yogurt) that makes it incredibly easy to make yogurt. One of the main reasons we like making our own yogurt is we can make it in reusable glass jars, rather than plastic. There’s been quite a bit of research about the health impacts that BPA and other endocrine disrupting compounds found in plastic containers and standard metal jars have on human health and our gut flora. We try our best to avoid eating any acidic, liquid, or fermented foods made/stored in plastic. We recycle, but we have no idea how much of that plastic actually makes its way back into production or ends up in a landfill or waterway. Thankfully, it’s easy to find organic grass milk now, so the final yogurt product you can make at home is as high quality as possible.
mckra1gMarch 11, 2017 at 4:13 pm
I drink plenty of water. In the summer, I infuse it with the fresh mint that grows in my back yard (or cucumbers), and in the winter, I add lemon or lime. It’s amazing how much better I feel when I stay hydrated. Good list!
AaronMarch 13, 2017 at 10:12 am
Good stuff! That’s another area where we all can do better. I’ve seen studies indicating that the majority of Americans are also dehydrated, often chronically so. Hopefully, people can access quality, lead and chemical-free water from their taps instead of having to get water out of plastic bottles. We’re lucky to live in a spot that has some of the best quality drinking water in the US, since it comes directly from pristine reservoirs in the mountains.
Aaron von FrankMarch 13, 2017 at 12:49 pm
Good stuff! That’s another area where we all can do better. I’ve seen studies indicating that the majority of Americans are also dehydrated, often chronically so. Hopefully, people can access quality, lead and chemical-free water from their taps instead of having to use water out of plastic bottles. We’re lucky to live in a spot (Greenville, SC) that has some of the best quality tap water in the US, since it comes directly from pristine reservoirs in the mountains.