Take precautions to ward off a cold or flu and try to inoculate yourself against feeling down during the long dark nights and you should significantly increase your chances of staying well all winter
- Around 80 per cent of infections – and that includes respiratory illness like coughs, colds and flu – are transmitted by touch. One study showed that by washing hands at least five times a day reduced cases of respiratory illness by 45 per cent.i
- It is estimated that in the UK more than one in 10 adults over 40 is deficient in vitamin D.ii Low levels of vitamin D are most likely in the winter and have been linked with feelings of depression and low mood.
- According to one study those of us who sleep around six hours or less nightly are four times more likely to catch a cold compared to those who get a good seven hours or more. iii
1. Enjoy the sunshine vitamin
‘Vitamin D is vital for immunity, as well as for healthy bones’, says GP and Medical Nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer adding ‘deficiency is one reason why some people experience frequent coughs, colds, respiratory infections and even asthma attacks at this time of year.’
Most of us make enough vitamin D in the summer (it is created in the body when UV light hits the skin) but we can become deficient between October and March (particularly as there are few food sources). This is why Public Health England recommends we all take a 10mcg supplement at this time. There is also increasing evidence to show the relationship between low levels of vitamin D and depression – so if you regularly feel down when winter sets in it do get your vitamin D levels checked out. iv v For an easy way to get enough try sugar-free ‘chews’ like Healthspan Super Vitamin D Gummy, £9.95 for 90.
2. Listen to your gut feelings
It can be easy to overlook the fact that our digestive system contains over 70 per cent of the body’s immune system cells – making good digestive health vital when boosting your body’s ability to fend off infection. Eating a balanced diet (most nutritionists tend to agree a traditional Mediterranean is the model we should aspire to) is necessary for good digestive health and optimum immune function. Eating plenty of probiotic foods including natural yogurt, kefir (a fermented yogurt drink, available from health food shops), miso and sauerkraut or taking supplements (particularly after a course of antibiotics or stomach bug which can wipe out all your healthy bacteria) will help encourage healthy gut flora. You can also create a yogurt-style probiotic drink by adding milk or yogurt to powdered probiotics like YoGo Pro 2 Million Live Cultures Natural, £19.99 for 20 sachets.
3. Eat more porridge
Not only is this warming and filling, the beta glucan contained in porridge oats is a type of fibre with antimicrobial and antioxidant properties that researchers believe could enhance the immune system. It is not entirely clear how it works on immunity yet but one school of thought is that it enhances natural killer cell function making your body better able to fight off disease and infection. Head of Nutrition at Healthspan Rob Hobson says adding seasonal berries and seeds to your morning porridge will add to its immune-boosting vitamin and antioxidant levels.
4. Have a cuppa
A component within ordinary tea and green tea called L-theanine has been found to prime the immune system to attack invading bacteria and viruses.vi Both of these teas are rich in antioxidants and polyphenols thought to have anti-inflammatory properties which can help boost the body’s immune system response. Research suggests drinking five cups a day is helpful. Stick with your preferred tea or try T+ Immunitea Green Tea with orange and blueberry, £3.69 from Holland & Barrett – a blend of green tea, Echinacea and ginseng with immunity-enhancing vitamin C. Or Yogi Echinacea Immune Support tea, £2.39 (available from health food stores).
5. Get eight hours in
Research has shown how the effect of sleep deprivation on the immune system actually mirrors the effects of physical stress.vii And a recent study involving 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep patterns showed the one who slept less had a more depressed immune system. viiiWhen we sleep protective cytokines (proteins which help with cell communication during the body’s immune response) increase and inflammatory cells (implicated in all kinds of illness) decrease – so you can see how not having enough can potentially result in compromised immunity. Have trouble sleeping? Soak in a muscle-relaxing bath adding either Epsom salts or magnesium flakes or try Kneipp Mineral Cold Season Bath Crystals naturally high in trace minerals and made with eucalyptus oil, £8.95 (from Holland & Barrett).
6. Put your winter head on
‘Lack of energy, feeling unmotivated and many of the symptoms people struggle with in winter can be linked to how the season’s affect our brain activity’, says Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll. Changing your mind set plus getting outdoors is key to fighting these feelings. ‘A Danish study showed that people who work outdoors are somewhat protected from low mood associated with winter-time which highlights that even in winter it is important we go outside and engage in some sort of outdoors activity’, says Dr Arroll ‘We may dread winter, but If you continually tell yourself how horrible it is, chances are it will feel grim. Try and change your internal monologue about this time of year.’ And if you need further incentive to get out and exercise one study shows those who do it at least five times a week spend 43 per cent fewer days with upper respiratory infections like colds and flu.
7. Take Echinacea
This herbal remedy has been used for centuries for its immune-boosting effects. A review of studies from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy in 2014 concluded Echinacea could reduce the chances of catching a cold by approximately 58 per cent and reduced the length of it by 1.4 days. Try A.Vogel Echinaforce Hot Drink, £9.99 and Echinaforce Echinacea Drops, £4.15 for 15ml.