With the days getting shorter and the air getting colder, we tend to become more susceptible to winter illnesses. This can be due to factors such as lack of sunshine (and subsequent lack of vitamin D), spending more time indoors with poor ventilation, as well as comfort eating and indulging in alcoholic drinks during the holidays.
But we need not succumb to colds and flu during the winter months if we work on strengthening our immune system throughout the year.
My top tips for boosting our own body’s ability to fight illness in the winter are:
- Open your windows for 10-20 minutes every day Even in the bitter cold, airing out your house every day will get rid of condensation (which leads to mold), toxins, dust, viruses, bacteria and indoor air pollution, all of which can have a negative effect on our health. Central heating also tends to dry out our mucus membranes, form a mechanical barrier for pathogens entering our bodies.
- Boost your nutrient status by eating a variety of vegetables (and some fruits). Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and critical for immune health. Vitamin C rich foods include leafy green vegetables, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, brussell sprouts, oranges and kiwis. Including zinc-rich foods such as seafood, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, lentils, grass fed beef and lamb can help with immunity provided by your mucous membranes, including the gut lining – which we know is fundamental for immune health. Vitamin A, found in liver, cod liver oil, and orange produce such as carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin and sweet potatoes are also important to include for immune health (as well as skin and reproductive health). Eating cooked vegetables and stewed fruits in the winter helps with digestion and keep us warm!
Reducing foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates is helpful as these foods will negatively impact your white blood cells (needed to attack pathogens) as well as your microbiome – which we know now is a key player in immunity.
- Ensure you are adequately hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Central heating tends to dry out our mucus membranes, form a mechanical barrier for pathogens entering our bodies. Including plenty of non-caffeinated fluids such as filtered water, herbal teas and infusions, soups and broths into your daily diet can replace the ones lost during fevers or from your body making mucous.
- Minimise stress, as stress depletes nutrients important for health defence, such as Vitamin C, zinc and magnesium. Easier said than done, but one important thing to remember is that most stress is a mindset – your brain cannot distinguish from actual stress (i.e. being chased by a bear) and perceived stress (i.e. sitting in a traffic jam) and will activate the same physical stress response system, which can have damaging repercussions on your health. Look at including mindfulness and relaxation in your daily life and working on a mindset shift.
- Exercise has a profound effect on immunity. Whilst strenuous exercise has been shown to temporarily suppress our immune function, regular, moderately intense exercise is beneficial. As little as 30 minutes of walking five times a week can increase white blood cells and antibody response, whilst acute bouts of moderate duration (<60 minutes) and intensity (< 60% VO2max) will positively impact our natural killer cells, neutrophils and macrophages.
- Sleep well Getting a regular eight hours of sleep and finding time for rest and relaxation replenishes the immune system and improves resistance to infection. Lack of sleep depletes many nutrients and can increase the body’s production of cortisol – our stress hormones. If you are struggling with your sleep, look at practising good sleep hygiene such as avoiding screen use 2 hours before bed, dimming the lights in the evenings and keeping your room temperature cool.
- Consider taking an immune tonic. One of my favourite immune tonics for the winter is elderberry syrup. You can make this yourself by simmering some dried elderberries until half the liquid has absorbed and mixing the decoction with equal parts honey (this is a lovely recipe), or you could purchase elderberry syrup (I like Pukka). I also love cod liver oil for a multitude of health benefits (including hormonal, skin and immune health) – my favourite brands are Rosita and Dropi. Echinacea root tincture is fantastic for cold and flu and bacterial infections or for general immune strengthening.
Zinc and immune function: the biological basis of altered resistance to infection. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9701160
Water, hydration and health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/
Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26477922