Winter is on its way, but that doesn't mean you have to start spending quality time with a box of tissues. Instead, take a few simple steps now to stimulate and strengthen your immune system. You'll sidestep more bugs—and if you do end up getting sick, you'll recover more quickly.

A good germ-fighting foundation starts with the three basic techniques that, most likely, you picked up from Mom:

  • Wash your hands. Scrub with soap for a good 20 seconds—especially after using the bathroom, before eating, or after being around someone who is ill.
  • Keep mucous membranes moist, so they can better block viruses from entering the nose, eyes, and mouth. Drink plenty of water, wear lip balm, and use a humidifier during cold, dry weather.
  • Get enough sleep. Most people need seven to nine hours a night. You'll know you're well rested if you don't need an alarm to wake up in the morning.

Read on for more tips to help keep you cold free.

Give gargling a go

  • Gargling daily with plain water cuts your chances of coming down with a cold—and if you do get sick, the symptoms will be milder. Gargling thrice daily reduced common colds by 36 percent in one clinical trial of 300-plus garglers, presumably because the gargling action thwarts the ability of viruses to take hold and multiply (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2005, vol. 29, no. 4).

Switch to green tea

  • Green tea (Camellia sinensis) stimulates the immune system to fight off germ invaders. The polyphenols in green tea also damage bacteria's cell membranes and interfere with the ability of viruses to enter human cells.

Check out homeopathic "flu shots"

  • Instead of conventional flu shots, in her Easton, Maryland, private practice, Molly Punzo, MD, often recommends Influ-enzinum, a milder, homeopathic version that's made from each year's synthetic flu vaccine—but in such minute quantities, there is no chance of adverse reaction. "Take monthly doses of 30C or 200C when the flu season begins," she says. "And take it more frequently should the flu become prevalent in your area or immediate social or family network." (For patients with high-risk conditions such as heart disease or asthma, Punzo recommends getting the conventional flu shot, as well.)

Try contrast hydrotherapy

  • This simple morning-shower technique can strengthen your qi (or vital force) by stimulating circulation, says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women's Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005). First, get the water as hot as you can tolerate. Let it splash down your spine while counting to eight. Then quickly turn the shower to cold and count to eight again. Alternate hot and cold at least three times, ending on cold.

De-stress

  • Stress—whether physical, emotional, or mental—is a major drain on immune power. Stress management options range from yoga and tai chi to moderate exercise or writing in a journal. Even ten minutes of daily meditation can be a powerful tool to calm nerves and promote health.

Take American ginseng

  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) provides a one-two punch: It boosts immunity and helps fight off viruses. In one recent study, 323 healthy people took 200 mg daily of an American ginseng extract (or a placebo) from November through February (Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2005, vol. 173, no. 9). Compared with placebo takers, ginseng users had fewer colds and reported fewer "sick" days. Try taking capsules or tablets providing about 2 grams of dried root powder daily or 3–5 ml of tincture three times a day. Benefits should kick in within a week or two; continuous use is safe.

Balance your workout

  • Regular, moderate exercise is another cornerstone of a well-running immune system. Even a daily brisk walk could dramatically cut your number of sick days during an average winter season (Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2003, vol. 2, no. 5). On the other hand, you can get too much of a good thing. Prolonged and intense exertion (training associated with marathon preparation, for example) can impair immunity for up to three days after an especially strenuous bout. So if you're in training, aim to get 500–1,000 mg of vitamin C and 100–400 IU of vitamin E, to help your body recover as quickly as possible.

Don't forget your multi

  • A high-quality multivitamin/mineral supplement provides a great base for boosting immunity. Make sure your multi contains between 100 percent and 300 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of key building blocks such as copper, selenium, zinc, and the B-complex vitamins.

Get the giggles

  • Funnily enough, humor and laughter actually bolster immune function (Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 2004, vol. 42, no. 3). Laughter clubs are sprouting up everywhere—more than 5,000 in 40 countries (www.laughteryoga.org). Why not find one near you? Or just rent a silly movie and laugh yourself healthy.