Winter is here and suddenly everywhere people are sniffling, spluttering or complaining of feeling groggy and achy.
Colds, and the more severe flu, are a common part of winter and most of us fall prey at some point or other, but taking action now could help keep these bugs at bay. And at the centre of this strategy is the immune system.
“The immune system is made of specialised cells and tissues that protect the body from invaders like bacteria and viruses, parasites and fungal infections,” explains Mel Wakeman, senior lecturer in applied physiology at Birmingham City University.
“It’s able to detect the presence of foreign bodies and mount an attack in an effort to destroy them and limit any damage they could cause. And it’s heavily involved in healing and repair processes.”
These bacteria and viruses exist all year round, and — despite the common myth — getting cold and wet doesn’t make us more likely to catch them, but these bugs do affect us more during colder months.
“We tend to close the windows and turn on the heating, creating stuffy environments that bugs will thrive in,” says Wakeman. “Having the heating on dries out our mucosa [the cells that line the back of our throat, windpipe and sinuses] making it easier for bugs to infect us. Viruses like the common cold and flu invade the mucosa and start growing, causing us to feel unwell. We also tend to have a more indoor lifestyle when the weather’s colder, so infections spread much more easily as we’re in closer proximity to each other.”
Other aspects of winter— like boozy Christmas parties and rushing all over the place trying to get everything done — can also suppress the immune system, leading to us feeling more run down and prone to infections.But there’s plenty you can do to support your immune health, and hopefully enjoy a less bug-burdened winter.
“It’s well established that better nourished people get less sick, so ensuring your diet’s packed full of highly nutritious foods is a good start, especially as it becomes more tempting to spend cosy nights in with the wrong types of comfort foods as winter closes in,” says Rob Hobson, a public health nutritionist.But don’t wait until you start sniffling to think about reaching for the healthy grub, make it a long-term strategy. “It’s not so much about ‘boosting the immune system’, but more like keeping it working effectively,” he adds.
Christine Bailey, director of Advance Nutrition Ltd, agrees that you need to start now to “keep your immune health functioning well throughout winter”.
We all know the importance of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, but remember that balance is key and including wholegrain foods (like brown rice and wholegrain pasta) and oily fish (a top source of essential fatty acids like omega 3, which is also vital for good immune health) will help ensure you get a good range of nutrients.
Ensure your iron levels aren’t lacking either— red meats are known as an important source of iron, but dark, leafy greens, beans and tofu are also high in iron, especially important if you’re a veggie or don’t like red meat.“Winter’s a great time to start cooking hearty stews, soups and casseroles using in-season root vegetables and pulses which provide a good source of immune-friendly nutrients,” adds Hobson.
“We should all consider taking vitamin D supplements. Nearly half of us have low levels of this sunshine vitamin in winter, and research shows that people with low vitamin D tend to get more respiratory tract infections,” says Hobson.
Bailey agrees vitamin D is vital, pointing out a 2011 review highlighting its role in reducing the risk of bacterial and viral infections “through the production of the compound cathelicidin [a naturally-occurring anti-microbial and anti-viral]”.
Vitamin C, she adds, is the vitamin most commonly used to support immune health. “Several studies show that vitamin C enhances the immune system and helps defend against infections,” says Bailey. “It’s known to increase the production and action of white blood cells, including the ability of neutrophils [a type of white blood cell] to attack and engulf viruses. Not only does it seem to prevent flu, it can reduce its duration and severity.”
While some vitamins and minerals play more leading roles in immune function, getting a broad range is key to optimum health.
“In the run-up to winter, try a broad spectrum multivitamin and mineral supplement,” suggests Hobson, “which will provide a good back-up to make sure you’re getting everything you need. Try choosing one to suit your age.” Another tip, from Bailey, is to take a rainbow approach to eating, so make your meals a colourful affair. “Phytonutrients found in colourful vegetables are key to a healthy immune system,”, she advises. Vitamin A and beta carotene-rich foods, like vibrant carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash, not only contrast beautifully with deep-green veggies like broccoli and stark white garlic, but combinations like this will please your immune system too.
FROM A TO ZINC
Another big mover and shaker in the immune supporting mineral zinc. “Zinc is known to support the healing of tissues, particularly the reddened and inflamed tissues often associated with a sore throat,” says Bailey.
“Taking zinc supplements appears to improve the immune response in fighting viral infections; it prevents viruses from replicating and attaching to cells.”
Good dietary sources include many types of seafood, nuts and seeds — particularly pumpkin seeds and cashews — lean cooked meat and dark, leafy greens like spinach.
GUT TO IT
In recent years, ’good bacteria’ and ‘probiotics’ are phrases most of us have become familiar with.
But while boosting gut health has certainly been a trend in the food and supplements world, the role the gut plays in the immune system is nothing new.
“Maintaining a healthy gut is key to all aspects of nutrition and wellbeing, and our good bacteria appear to play a role in maintaining a strong immune system,” says Hobson.
Good food sources include natural yoghurt with live cultures and certain other dairy products and miso soup. Investing in a high-quality probiotic supplement can help maintain healthy gut bacteria balance.“Look for a supplement with strains such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium,” Hobson suggests.
MOVE IT, MOVE IT
Working up to exercise during winter, when it’s cold, wet and dark, is a challenge, but your immune system will thank you for it.
As well as being vital for long-term health, regular physical activity’s important for short-term immune function too. Some experts believe it helps flush bugs from the lungs, and getting your blood pumping means those all-important white blood cells are circulating more effectively.
You know how exercise increases endorphins, those natural mood-boosters? This also means that stress hormones are slowed down, and chronic stress is associated with a suppressed immune system.
So not only could exercise help you stay well through winter, but as a bonus, it’ll help offset the winter blues too.It doesn’t have to mean slugging it out at the gym or going running — even a daily 15-minute walk makes a big difference.
Or find a work-out tutorial on YouTube – you could do that while the dinner cooks.But getting outdoors while it’s light, if you can is a good idea, to get some air into your lungs and top up on vitamin D.
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