Fiann Ó Nualláin says there are dozens of foods that can help you fight off the armies of bacteria and viruses that attack your system in winter.

This weekend’s topic is warding off winter bugs. No, not the garden variety, but the human kind. 

Yes this is the season of the winter vomiting bug and other Norovirus outbreaks that cause everything from sniffly nose to the runs. 

However, the garden and pantry can boost our defences and help us keep our energies up for weeding, propagating and enjoying the garden. In fact enjoying the garden may be what the doctor ordered.

The winter vomiting bug is a name given to seasonal outbreaks of Norovirus but in fact, it is the same agent for gastroenteritis and sundry digestive system upsets. 

It presents with stomach pain, cramping, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting with ancillary symptoms of elevated temperature, dehydration and fatigue. It is highly contagious. 

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

Incubation is on average 12 to 48 hours, with the illness normally persisting for one to three days but it can, with younger children and older adults, extend for four to six days. 

Age can affect symptoms too, with diarrhoea more prevalent in adults and vomiting the main symptom in children.

So, as gardeners what can we do? What in the garden is to our advantage? 

Well if you don’t have an elderberry, order one, it is still okay to plant out. If you have one, I hope you made some jam from the berries earlier in the year. 

If not, your local health store will help you out. The phytochemicals in elderberries have the ability to disarm viruses, including norovirus. 

They stop the virus from replicating and the high vitamin c content supercharges your immune system to kill off all the nasties.


This is still a good weekend to plant out garlic sets. Garlic actually benefits from a period of cold, which prompts stronger growth later in spring. If your soil is heavy and holds water, try growing them in containers with good drainage. 

Raw, chopped or chewed garlic contains the immune boosting allicin which boosts the disease-fighting capabilities of white blood cells.

It’s a killer on the tongue to try munching a raw clove, but make a pesto or salad to dilute the sharp taste and burning sensation. 

Cooking kills the active ingredient — so it has to be raw. 

What I love about garlic is that it activates what scientists call our natural killer cells — if that doesn’t inspire confidence. 

A real killer on the tongue, killing the nasties but also improving the good gut flora that traditional antibiotics normally decimate. 

Plus the bad breath will keep loved ones away and limit the contagion factor.

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

There are many antimicrobial herbs that we can cultivate in the garden and many that overwinter in a polytunnel or bright porch. 

My favourites are oregano, rosemary, lavender, thyme — all great in cooking and simple teas — all have phytochemicals that damage or destroy viral particles. 

All are still for sale in the garden centre this week and even in some supermarket chains.

They will look great in a windowsill planter until ready for garden planting in spring and make a great Christmas present too, nothing says I care like a care package of plants especially ones that keep you fit and well. 

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

I say ‘nothing’ — if we discount chocolate, sex and a good book — and not necessarily in that order. Might I recommend one of the Holistic Gardener books (Mercier press) — hint hint ... if there’s no chance of nudge-nudge.

Back to reality — rosemary tea helps break down all those comfort food fats that we will be soon indulging in. 

Not just waist line defence for vanity sake, but helpful because it is a sluggish digestive system and adding extra weight can lower your body’s natural defences to colds, flus and winter ailments.

Thyme is especially good, as it is also an immunostimulant and naturally bactericidal, fungicidal and antiviral — its phytochemicals actively kill microbes and trigger the formation of more white blood cells.

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

When we get sick our body sends what are known as macrophages to eat up the invading bodies — rather like the Pac-man game — to munch all the dots and get you to the next level. 

However, it is a slow process and sometimes those dots replicate faster than we can manage or the illness overwhelms the system.

Thyme actually speeds up how our macrophages munch and destroy. Oregano acts in a similar way. 

When it comes to growing immunostimulants, it is not just garlic and thyme, you can opt for some pretty ones too like echinacea.

Traditionally used in supplement form to build up white cell count, echinacea is renowned for fighting infections. 

It is full of an antibiotic phytochemical called echinacoside, capable of destroying or limiting a broad range of bacteria, fungi and protozoa, and also viruses. 

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

Echinacea not only agitates the immune system into creating more T cells, it also boosts the ability of our macrophages to physically destroy and remove viral content from our system.

All these plants share traits that help your natural healing to be more effective. 

Many conventional medicines are about killing everything off or dulling the pain/ symptoms long enough for the illness to run its course. 

As a gardener I learned to feed the soil and not the plant for a better outcome. 

I take that philosophy into other aspects of life. Treat the cause, not mollify the symptoms, should be the role of healthcare.

Now I know I rattle on a lot about getting outdoors to boost your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. However, sticking the last of the tulip bulbs down can combat the sniffles. 

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

It is not so much the vitamin D we get from a touch of sunshine , it is not even the endorphin boost we get from blue sky or the serotonin release we get when we touch soil — its actually the touch of cold this time of year that may just do some good.

There is an old Irish saying “green winters — full graveyards”. 

Cold suppresses garden pests and diseases but also human pathogens too. Viruses and bacteria thrive in warmth and a bit of cold knocks them off kilter. Now don’t try sitting in the fridge.

Hypothermia or serious drops in the body’s core temperature actually suppresses the immune system and that’s the grain of truth in the myth of going outside with wet hair or no coat causes colds. 

Just go for a walk or do a bit of deadheading.

Cold weather actually stimulates the immune system and in response to the slight chill, we also automatically raise our levels of norepinephrine which plays a role in positive mood and our capacity to concentrate (don’t need the flu tablet with extra caffeine) and which sends blood to the muscles and has the knock-on effect of not just an elevated sense of wellbeing, but has a detox and decongestant action.

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

Don’t overdo it, but a spot of light gardening may be as good a medicine as laughter, and perhaps better than a pharmaceutical cocktail. 

No matter what the winter ailment —coughing, sneezing, snotting, vomiting, diarrhoea and if you’re like me, crying — then the big issue is dehydration. So drink plenty of fluids. 

It doesn’t all have to be plain water. Don’t be afraid to start by having a cup of tea — an amino acid vital to optimal immune system functioning known as L-theanine is abundant in black and green tea. 

I’m a fan of green tea. It not only stimulates the liver to secrete interferon (our natural virus killer), but it contains many potent antioxidant compounds to neutralise free radicals that inhibit the healthy functioning of our immune system. 

If you are really suffering, then coconut water is restorative and full of electrolytes to rehydrate. 

Chamomile tea can settle the stomach and calm nerves.

Good clean food will ward off winter bugs and viruses

If you are not up to raking a few leaves, then you might like to try rice water (the water you have boiled rice in), as it supplies some nourishment to the convalescing system and it also helps to constipate — meaning less diarrhoea. 

Apple cider vinegar is a natural detoxificant, which cleanses without depleting vital nutrients from the system.

The body needs calories to fuel its recovery, so starving is not an option. No matter how bad you feel — try something. 

If you can, get some vitamin B6 into you. It is found in sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds as well as nuts and raisins, it supports immune function and mood. 

Take a duvet day but have a celebration snack/ meal. 

Doing something positive eradicates negative loops. 

Real food is real health. Enjoy both.


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