There has never been a better time to focus on our health and immunity. Helping to support your immune system will increase your chances of staying healthy and will help you to avoid nasty infections, bugs and illnesses.
“Our immune system is an incredibly complex system involving many different parts of the body working synergistically together, on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” comments Hannah Braye, technical advisor at Protexin, the manufacturers of Bio-Kult and Lepicol. “As with all aspects of health, prevention is better than cure. Rather than waiting for the first signs of a sniffle, its best to take preventive steps to support the immune system throughout the year to keep pesky infections at bay.”
“Many people ask why there are so many more bugs flying around in the autumn and winter and what they can do to try and stay well,” comments Jenny Logan, technical training manager at Natures Aid. “There are a number of reasons why cold and flu season typically starts in the autumn. Firstly, viruses do not replicate well in high UV, so summer weather tends to keep them under control. Also, the rhinovirus and coronavirus, which are the two main agents of the common cold, flourish in cool weather. Additionally, September is the time when children go back to school and are placed at close quarters, creating the perfect environment for the spread of any infections. We adults also will start to spend more time indoors with windows closed, making it more likely that we will breathe the same air as someone who has an infection.
“The best way to try and prevent all these infections from affecting us is to make sure that our immune system is in tip top shape. The job of the immune system is to identify bacteria and viruses and get rid of them; the better the immune system works, the less infections we get.”
“It is during winter that we are most at risk of picking up an infection,” confirms Emily Blake, member of the clinical nutrition team at BioCare. “In general, it is always best to start boosting our immune system a few months ahead, to prime it for the winter period and hopefully prevent us from catching an infection in the first place. Nutrition, lifestyle and food supplements are your allies when it comes to optimising your health during winter, especially your immunity, digestion and mood.”
One of the best ways to support your health ready for the winter season is to eat a healthy diet, rich in nutrients.
“Taking steps to improve your diet is the first step to improving immunity, as the immune system requires a variety of different nutrients to function optimally. It’s best to steer clear of processed foods, simple sugars and refined carbohydrates (breads, pasta, biscuits, cakes etc) as these are known to feed unwanted bacteria and yeast in the gut, encouraging their growth over beneficial immune supporting strains,” explains Braye. “Instead focus on getting lots of colourful fruit and vegetables and good quality protein such as organic meat, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and legumes as these provide the building blocks and co-factors for immune cells. Of the micronutrients, zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E, and B6 and folate are particularly important. Vitamin D is also a critical nutrient for the immune system.”
“Eating a whole foods diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds will help to give your immune system a boost,” agrees Anna Jones from Naturally Healthy News. “Choose plenty of foods with vitamins A, C, D and E, magnesium, selenium and zinc which support a healthy immune system.”
It is particularly important to focus on vitamin D during these darker, colder months. Greg Weatherhead, BetterYou’s in-house nutritional expert, explains why: “This vitamin is crucial for activating immune defences and without sufficient intake the immune system will not be able to react to fight off infections in the body. The amount of sunlight in the UK depletes from October, so this combined with our increasingly indoor lifestyles and processed diets means that we do not get enough of this vital vitamin. Public Health England recommends that everyone in the UK should take a vitamin D supplement from October through to April with ‘at-risk’ groups such as those with darker skin or those leading an internal lifestyle to supplement all year round.”
Another essential vitamin for immunity is vitamin C. “Vitamin C contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system, contributes to reduce tiredness and fatigue and protects our cells from oxidative stress. Vitamin C also contributes to normal functioning of the nervous system, as well as normal psychological function; it contributes to normal bone tissue, collagen formation, and healthy teeth and gums,” comments Martina Della Vedova, nutritional advisor at Nature’s Plus. Vitamin C can be found in foods such as raw red peppers, kiwi fruits, berries, kale and broccoli.
Zinc and B vitamins are also vital at this time of year. “Zinc, which is found in seafood and wholegrains, plays a role in several immune mechanisms within the body, specifically helping white blood cells to produce antibodies to fight off winter bugs,” explains Weatherhead. “B vitamins are vital for energy production with vitamin B12 being great for boosting the immune system and helping to combat tiredness and fatigue. Vitamin B12 can mainly be found in meat products which is why it is important for vegetarians and vegans to monitor their intake of this nutrient.
“Magnesium is also great for overall health and wellbeing. With a reputation as a natural relaxant, it can have a huge impact on the quality of sleep we are able to achieve. Sleep has increased importance throughout the winter months as it’s during this time our body is able to return to its normal state each day while releasing important hormones, restocking energy stores and battling any infections. Magnesium is needed by the body to maintain a state of complete rest and low levels of this mineral can lead to restless muscles that can keep us awake at night. The best way to supplement magnesium is transdermally (through the skin) as it’s absorbed through the skin, bypassing the digestive system, delivering the nutrient straight into the body tissue providing a fast and effective dose directly to where it’s needed.”
Della Vedova also recommends B vitamins as well as omega-3: “B vitamins are essential for the normal function of the immune system, including folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B12 and vitamins B2, B1, B6 and B5. Foods rich in vitamin Bs are dark leafy greens, eggs, lean meats, seagreens and whole grains. Omega-3 are great anti-inflammatory nutrients which can be found in wild fish, organic lean meats, eggs, walnuts, linseeds and chia seeds. Omega-3 are very important for the health of our nervous system and brain as well as our eye health.”
Another key nutrient to top up with is selenium. “Selenium is one of the most important minerals for the immune system, and it is recognised that many of us are low in this nutrient, because the soils have all been depleted,” comments Logan.
There are other natural remedies which are known for supporting and strengthening the immune system. Experts recommend opting for beta glucans and elderberry.
Logan explains: “Beta glucans are commonly found in mushrooms and yeasts and have actually been used in immune support supplements for years. Over 600 studies highlighting their effectiveness have been published, which show that taking beta glucans can reduce the number of infections suffered by 25 percent, as well as reducing the severity and duration of any cold or flu. Elderberry has also been shown to be effective at fighting infections, in fact some studies have shown it can carry the flu virus out of the body.”
Blake also suggests trying beta glucans as well as L-lysine. “Beta glucans can help to reduce the occurrence, symptoms and duration of upper respiratory tract infections and colds, so increasing our intake of them through food (e.g. mushrooms) and supplements can be helpful at this time of the year. L-lysine is an amino acid which can protect us from viruses. For example, it can help to protect us from pesky cold sores by inhibiting the replication of the herpes simplex virus which causes them.”
There are other amino acids which can be helpful. “The amino acids arginine, glutamine and cysteine are important to maintain for immune health,” comments nutritionist Rose Holmes, education and training manager at Rio Health. She also recommends drinking chlorophyll: “Regular intake of a nutrient-dense, chlorophyll drink may help – providing alkalising and detoxifying action alongside being nutrient-rich.”
The health of our gut is a major determinant of our immunity. Live bacteria have been shown in many studies to strengthen our immune system and reduce our risk and improve our recovery from various types of infection.
“It’s a good idea to work on encouraging a healthy microbial balance in the gut to support immune responses,” confirms Braye. “Over 70 percent of our immune cells reside in the lining of our guts and are supported by our beneficial gut bacteria. A 2014 systematic review found that the average duration of respiratory illness, the number of days of illness and the number of days absent from day care/work/school are significantly reduced with live bacteria supplementation. As different bacterial strains have individual beneficial effects, multi-strain products are believed to have more positive benefits overall, supporting the immune system in a variety of ways.”
Diet and Lifestyle
In terms of diet, Holmes advises avoiding processed foods: “A diet high in processed and non-organic foods will contain many ingredients that the body has to work extra hard to process. The detoxification system can become overloaded, impacting immune health.”
“Plenty of vegetables and seasonal foods is the number one rule,” comments Della Vedova. “Seasonal foods are the most nutrient dense and easily digested and absorbed options for the current time of the year. Starchy foods such as pumpkin, squash or sweet potatoes, together with more meaty dark green leaves such as spinach and endive, nuts such as walnuts and hazelnuts and homemade stewed apple or pear dishes or kaki fruits are all rich in fibres and very warming, but also loaded with beta carotene, antioxidants and precious minerals such as potassium, calcium, zinc and magnesium and iron. Greens not only provide us with vitamins but also a full range of minerals: zinc, iodine, selenium, potassium, iron, copper, chromium, calcium and magnesium.”
A variety of herbs and anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and chilli can also be added to meals and drinks to support immunity further.
In terms of other dietary and lifestyle changes, focus on staying hydrated, try to manage stress and exercise regularly. “Keep the body hydrated with around six large glasses of water each day,” advises Jones. “Manage stress and practice relaxation techniques daily to help keep the immune system strong and aim for around seven to eight hours of sleep each night, as tiredness can put a strain on the immune system. Exercising daily with walking, swimming, yoga and pilates are all good options to improve your health and wellness.”
Holmes also recommends drinking herbal teas: “Adequate hydration is especially important; in addition to water, choose non-caffeinated herbal teas like pau d’arco and cat’s claw that contribute to immune defence. Cat’s claw has been shown in studies to increase white blood cells so may help the body to fight infection.
“Pau d’Arco has broad-spectrum anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-fungal effects and has been traditionally used for colds, flu and other upper-respiratory tract infections. Pau d’Arco is available as capsules as well as tea.”
If you do struggle to sleep, it’s a good idea to avoid technology before bed and to sleep in a dark room. Blake explains: “Sleep is our body’s golden opportunity to rest and repair, and poor sleep is a common driver of a weakened immune system. Establishing a regular sleep-wake cycle, avoiding technology in the hour or so before bed, and making sure you sleep in a dark room, alongside increasing your intake of calming nutrients such as magnesium and L-Theanine, can be a great starting point.”
In terms of specific things to include in your diet, experts recommend garlic as it can help stimulate the immune system. “Garlic has a host of health benefits including immune-boosting, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal effects. It contains a compound called allicin which has been shown to be beneficial for the immune system so increasing your intake may boost your body’s ability to fend off germs,” comments Weatherhead.
Braye adds: “Other natural remedies thought to help fight off infections ginger and turmeric (anti-inflammatory) and chicken stock/soup (providing collagen and other nutrients to support the gut lining and shown in one study to increase certain immune cells).”