When I was younger, I always assumed short-term sickness is something that just comes and goes. That it's a part of everyday living. That nothing could be done about it. That it's just the way life, world, and society worked. But does it need to be that way?
Each time I fall even mildly sick, it noticeably interferes with my happiness levels, my mood, my productivity, my exercise schedule, and my work output and quality. I have to do silly things like take sick days off of work while I rest in bed for hours on end. Was there a way to optimize my life and do away with this humanly problem?
In 2010, I made up my mind that enough was enough. I was getting tired of falling sick randomly and unpredictably. Something had to be done. There had to be a long-term sustainable solution. The status quo was unacceptable. After doing some reading and personal experimentation on the topic, I devised a plan of attack for myself. I conjectured that several common ailments such as headaches, cold, coughs, sore throats, adhoc fevers, and the flu were all preventable to a high degree. Perhaps not 100% of the time, but I'd be pretty damn happy with 95%.
The people around you are your biggest enemy in this effort. They will tell you otherwise, that such a fix is impossible unless you go live in the mountains all by yourself. There are still numerous people today who innately believe (i.e. assume) that falling sick is unpreventable. That it is not under your control and that you've just got to put up with it. Like it's a tax you must pay to live on this planet. But following the previously outlined tenets of Locus of Control, you ought to start with the assumption that control of your life and body lies within you and your circle of control, not outside. Within you lies the solution to all your personal problems. Your ego is your savior.
Optimizing for overall happiness doesn't just amount to increasing the things that make you happy in life. It also involves reducing or eliminating the things in life that make you unhappy, like debt. Falling sick certainly falls under that category as well. After all, who's happy when they're sick? It sucks every single time. Sure you get to take a few days off of work with pay, but is it worth the hassle?
In America at least, there doesn't seem to be enough emphasis placed on sickness prevention. And my understanding is that it's because the system profits from you falling sick. Every doctor visit, every medicine that is prescribed, every test that you have to undertake — someone profits off of it. The doctors, the clinics, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, etc. Stop falling sick, and the system all-of-a-sudden reduces its profits dramatically. The system effectively incentivizes you to fall sick regularly.
On the other hand, there are doctors in China who believe that it's their job to keep you healthy. So, any month you're healthy you pay them, and when you're sick you don't have to pay them because they failed at their jobs. They get rich when you're healthy, not sick. Thank God that's not the system here in America, because I'd have lost so much money over the years by not falling sick!
A few years back, I read about a health experiment where a bunch of researchers and social workers circulated a few hundred free soap bars within a small town and asked the people living there to wash their hands with this antibacterial soap at least 3-4 times a day. In just a few months, the incidence rate of infection and illness in the entire town dropped dramatically — more than 75%! Hospitals and clinics in the area went from being overcrowded to nearly empty. All of a sudden everyone in town was washing their hands with this magical "soap" thing multiple times a day. The demand for soap consequently skyrocketed. The program was so successful that it was implemented in all the neighboring towns with the same success rate.
That story got me thinking. How could such a simple change to one's personal hygiene have such a drastic effect on the entire community? Therein lies the secret of the human body. Big results are often hidden behind very small changes and minor adjustments to your life. It's the simple difference separating you from living an ordinary life and a kickass one. Preventing sickness also benefits from network effects, meaning that the more people there are in a town that don't fall sick by implementing prevention strategies, the harder it is for the next person to not fall sick, thereby accelerating the effect.
Without further ado, here's the full list of exact changes I implemented in my life over the years to reduce my sickness incidence rate from once every ~3 months to 0 times in the last 7 years (save for that one time in 2011 I got struck with food poisoning for 3 days from eating something bad at work). I'm no doctor, but I don't think you need to be one to understand the basics of how germs breed and spread from one person to another.
- Get vaccinated. Flu shots every year is a must. If you don't believe in vaccinations, it's time to read up on them. John Oliver has a good video on the topic. Vaccinations have saved the world, literally. Multiple times. And will continue to do so for centuries to come. They are incredibly effective at doing what they're designed for. Contrary to popular belief, vaccinations aren't a crutch (unlike antibiotics). They actually make your body stronger to fight the germs off rather than fighting them off on their own.
- Don't be overweight. The less resources your body needs to sustain itself, the more it can allocate to strengthening your immune system and fighting off foreign invaders when they knock on your door.
- Stop being picky about what you eat. You should be able to eat any non-toxic plant or plant byproduct, tasty or not. You want your plate to look as colorful and as random as mine usually does at work lunches. I eat equal amounts of the 20 or so veggie things that our caterers at work bring in everyday, barring nothing. It tastes better too when it's a random mish-mash of several delicious and nutritious ingredients.
- Eat your vitamins, ideally naturally from food and juices, but if not, then from supplements. Make colorful fruits your best friends. A fruit a day keeps the.. you get the idea. Without a regular intake of all the vitamins your body needs, you're essentially toast. If you don't know what vitamins you're lacking, get a blood test. Walking or biking to work gets you Vitamin D for free. Sunshine is one of the best preventative medicines out there — make sure you get at least 20-30 minutes of it everyday.
- Exercise regularly. This key hack is a critical one that seems missing in a lot of people I see who fall sick frequently. Exercise is the ultimate shield against sickness by giving your body the strength and energy it needs to fight foreign agents. You need, at minimum, 2.5 hours of exercise every week. I typically get 6-7 hours of exercise per week which is substantially higher than the recommended average.
- Avoid public transit like the plague (if you can). If you can't right now, something to think about when you move homes next. Driving, biking, and walking to work are all better than taking crowded trains or buses filled with disease-carrying hosts. If you must take public transit, watch what you touch, and watch who you stand or sit beside. If you live in a smoky or polluted area, it's time to move out as well. Your lungs deserve the cleanest air they can get.
- Wash your hands at least 3-4 times a day. Ideally with soap. Watch what you touch. Wash (or sanitize) after you've touched something you probably shouldn't have. Hand sanitizers are great when you're in a pinch, but they're no replacement for good old flowing water + soap. Try to avoid handles and knobs if possible by opening doors with your shoulder or foot, or tagging along behind someone. Most pathogens spread when you touch something touched by a sick person, and then touching your face. We touch our faces hundreds of times a day so that's probably much harder to avoid.
- Don't bite your nails, but cut them regularly. Don't stick your fingers into your mouth (or someone else's) unless they've just been washed (the fingers, not the mouth silly!). Don't sneeze into your own hands or arms. I prefer to sneeze into the ground (bending down a bit), 2-3 ft. away from me, and away from all people and food. Also, the 5-second rule isn't really a thing, so forget about it.
- Wash your hands before each meal. Especially important if you eat your meals with your hands (like me) or when eating hand-food like burgers, sandwiches, pizza, burritos, fries, etc. Use reusable chopsticks to eat instead if you have trouble keeping your hands clean. They're cheaper than silverware, take up less space, and easier to clean.
- Shower daily. Ideally with soap. Make sure to get those easy-to-miss spots and crevices like inside/behind your ears, between your toes and fingers, bottom of your feet, armpits, belly button, behind your neck, and upper and lower back.
- Sleep well. Sleep repairs your immune system after a tiring day of fighting bacteria and other germs. I have an entire post dedicated to the magic of effective sleep. The benefits are too large to mention here.
- Build your defenses. When you see people sick around you at work, ask them to go home (politely). Your likelihood of falling sick drops dramatically if there are no sick people around you, because most people get sick from other people, not on their own.
- Maintain solid dental hygiene. Dental hygiene is actually quite important to not falling sick since your mouth, tongue, and throat is a lush breeding ground for bacteria. Brush your teeth at least once a day; floss at least 3 times a week. Your mouth is a wonderful place for germs to set up shop. Evict them like a tough landlord. Don't re-use floss (hopefully that didn't need saying, but you never know). Brushing at night is more useful than brushing in the morning. Brushing after breakfast is better than brushing before. Be sure to brush your tongue as well after you're done brushing your teeth.
- Maintain household cleanliness. Keep your house and surroundings clean. Take out the trash regularly, especially the compost. Disinfect your floors with a mop if necessary. Eradicate disease-spreading pests such as flies, rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, etc. from your home.
- Limit sharing among household members. Don't share keyboards or mice. Don't share towels or handkerchiefs without washing them first. Don't share combs or hairbrushes. Don't share bar soaps, but if you have to, try switching to liquid body-wash instead. And finally, don't share toothbrushes (I thought this was a given, but apparently it is not..)
- Wash your food products from the grocery store before cooking them, even if they're organic. There's too much residue stuck to them, typically chemical preservatives, pesticides, and fertilizers. Sometimes organic food is transported with or placed beside regular non-organic food, allowing residue to transfer over.
- Avoid obviously stale food — smell suspicious food before consumption if you're concerned. If it smells bad, it's probably bad, so chuck it. Purge your fridge of rotting food every 1-2 weeks. Refrigerate leftovers sooner rather than later instead of letting it sit on the counter for hours.
- Wash your clothes and undergarments regularly. Clothes at least once every 2-3 wears depending on weather, and undergarments once every wear (except while traveling). Don't procrastinate laundry. Don't pick up dirty clothes from the laundry bag and wear them again. Wash your sheets and linens at least once every 3-4 weeks. Use separate laundry bins for clean and dirty clothes to avoid cross-contamination.
- Shut open wounds at the first instant possible with band aids. Wash wounds regularly, at least every few days, and replace with brand new band aid.
- Enforce separation. When someone at home gets sick, try to isolate/quarantine them to a single room and bathroom if possible. Swap out all their sheets and linens once they've fully recovered.
Big list, but that's it! Let me know how it works out for you. I'm still trying to learn and get better every year, so I'd love to incorporate feedback into my everyday practices. This list has been carefully nurtured by me over the years so if you follow it to the dot, you're likely to reduce your probability of falling sick to less than 5%. It's not entirely scientific, but it's based on a basic understanding of how germs commonly breed and spread in a normal city/urban environment. But miss even one of these points and the list becomes less effective immediately. The system only works if the suggestions are all followed together in unison, like a big orchestra.
Last month, San Francisco / Bay Area apparently had two strains of the flu within the same season. This was not a concept I was familiar with. I had always thought/assumed that local flu strains only mutated year-over-year. Turns out I was wrong. One by one, every one of us at work who had only had the free flu shot at work many months back began to capitulate and fall sick. As people started to disappear from the office, I sat back, smug with myself, thinking I was immune because I had gotten the shot. I assumed the others hadn't, or were somehow weaker than me. But alas, I too started to feel the symptoms eventually. The only person who didn't get sick in our team area was the person who had procrastinated his flu shot and had just gotten one a couple weeks prior (which worked out to his advantage in this case).
That morning when I woke up feeling tired, sweaty, and with a deep voice, I sensed the impending disaster. I knew what I was up against — I had seen and felt this pattern all too often in the past. But this time I knew what to do. I fired the sirens and promptly initiated my emergency anti-sickness protocol. I wasn't ready to give up my amazing 7-year streak just yet. Preventing sickness is the ideal case, but failing that, you should at least try to fight it off as a last resort before falling prey to the virus. When you feel as though you're just about to fall sick, acting swiftly and doing the right things can sometimes reverse the sickness. If you're lucky, you can make your body fight the invaders effectively. Here's the protocol I followed on that ill-fated day last month:
- First things first, I called in sick at work that very morning. I wasn't actually sick just yet, but I was getting pretty darn close. My home is a much more sanitary environment than the office, so I knew if I wanted to have any hope of recovering by the end of the day, it had to be done from home. I also didn't want to become contagious in case I did fall sick.
- I kept drinking and sipping an excess of water the entire day. Water seems to be the magic potion to all poison.
- I had a light lunch that day so as to reserve body resources for fighting rather than digesting.
- I took a short 30-minute nap in the afternoon 20 minutes after lunch. You don't want your pre-sick day to get too long, otherwise you risk tiring yourself out.
- I did some easy coding work on the computer so as to keep my mind active. You don't want to sleep in all day unless you're already sick.
- Once I started feeling slightly better, I engaged in some light exercise by going for an uphill walk in the afternoon, taking in some much-needed fresh air. This got my spirits up and my body alert. It also got my heart moving and blood flowing. I did a few dumbbell lifts as well for good measure.
- Most important of all, I took no meds that day. It was important that my body knew how to fight off foreign bodies on its own, without external help. Those battle skills will hopefully come in handy the next time they're needed.
I crossed my fingers and went to bed early that night, praying I would feel better soon. The next morning, I woke up feeling fantastic! I had successfully warded off what felt like the beginning stages of a flu. I didn't have to take another sick day off from work, and I was active and productive at my desk all day that day, my life having returned to 100% normal.
Perhaps it is a bit daring to assume you can play God and control the fate of your own body. And perhaps it is. But as a species, that's exactly what we've been doing for centuries with medicine and science. I like to think of myself as living proof that the right habits and the necessary changes to everyday activities can reduce your incidence rate of sickness to nearly 0%. It may not be good enough to prevent cancer, but if you can go without falling sick for years on end, you get to enjoy the compounded benefits of a happy, healthy life. As a bonus side effect, you're also helping make sure you don't get people around you sick by acting as a host or carrier. The less sick everyone around you is, the more the system tolerates imperfectness with you following the anti-sickness regime outlined above.
So, why not give it a try? What's to lose after all? At worst, you continue falling sick at the same rate as you do now. At best, you'll never fall sick for years on end, and then get to write a blog post like this one about how you've never fallen sick in almost 7 years.