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Body

‘Boost’ your immune system for the winter months  

Colds can spread like wildfire over winter – with many experts agreeing that the main reason for this is that people stay indoors more.

Being in closer proximity to others makes it easier for germs to spread. There is also some evidence that being cold makes our immune system less able to fight infection.

However, despite all the bold claims made by products in the supermarket, there is little evidence that one particular supplement will provide a ‘boost’ to your very complex immune system. In fact, your immune system might not really appreciate a ‘boost’ – an overstimulated immune system would cause you to feel constantly unwell with cold-like symptoms. An overactive immune response can be problematic and is at the root of some diseases such as lupus, arthritis and diabetes.

Rather than spend a fortune on commercial products that have unproven benefits, what is more likely to keep you well (and your immune system functioning) in the winter months is following these simple suggestions:

1) Practice good hygiene

Coming into a contact with a surface, object or person that’s been contaminated with bacteria and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes can lead you to picking up an infection. Wash your hands well before eating and always after the toilet, being in a public place or on public transport. According to Heather Leslie, director of infection prevention and control at Benenden Hospital, hand hygiene is vital for avoiding cross-infection. She says that drying hands after washing them well with soap is also vital as wet hands can help bacteria spread.

2) Eat a balanced and healthy diet

Stock up on lots of fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter months when it’s tempting to eat stodgier food. Ensuring your body gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs will help avoid stress to your immune system. Eat lots of oranges or other fruit high in vitamin C such as kiwis, says Frida Harju-Westman, nutritionist at the global health app Lifesum.

“While the effectiveness of vitamin C is not proven to increase immunity, it is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which are key when it comes to your body fighting infections,” said Harju-Westman, “Vitamin C is also a highly effective antioxidant, packed with nutrients that protect the body against reactive oxygen species, which are generated by immune cells to kill pathogens. Because our bodies don’t produce or store vitamin C, it is a good idea to add a daily intake to your diet.”

3) Sleep well (and avoid stress)

A good night’s sleep will help you fight infections. Lack of sleep can cause the body’s immune system to go into overdrive, much in the same way as stress affects our body. Stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. With lower lymphocyte levels, you are more susceptible to viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.

4) Stop smoking

Of course, quitting will help your health in innumerable ways. However, scientists at Yale University have also found that when they encounter a viral infection, smokers’ immune systems go into overdrive. “It’s like smokers are using the equivalent of a sledgehammer, rather than a fly swatter, to get rid of a fly,” said the research report’s lead author Jack A. Elias.

5) Get the flu jab

As we get older, our immune system becomes less effective at fighting infection. While an otherwise healthy individual will recover from the flu after a week, the virus can be quite severe to certain groups. Over-65s, pregnant women and anyone with underlying health conditions or weakened immune systems are more likely to develop potentially serious complications such as pneumonia. It’s recommended, therefore, to take up the flu jab if it is offered to you.