Winter-proof your health
At this time of year we are 80 per cent more likely to catch a cold, yet by looking after our immune system, seasonal colds and flus can be kept at arm’s length. All that’s needed is a little expert know-how, says Julie Penfold.
Tweak your diet
What you eat during the winter months is an important first line of defence against getting a cold. “Eating enough vitamin A is essential as it helps to keep your nose and throat healthy,” says Nichola Whitehead, specialist dietician at the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. “To get your daily recommended intake (0.6mg for women/0.7mg for men), you could eat one large sweet potato in a healthy shepherd’s pie or add a large handful of spinach to a stir-fry or salad.”
Another important element is vitamin C. “It’s been shown to reduce the incidence of colds by as much as 50 per cent in athletes,” says Nichola. “You can get your daily recommended intake (40mg according to the Department of Health) in a small pepper or a handful of strawberries.” Vitamin C supplements are of little benefit, however, says Dr Rob Hicks. “The evidence does not support that vitamin C supplements can help to ward off a cold.”
Vitamin D is needed to stimulate the cells that fight infection and we get most of this vital vitamin from the action of sunlight on our skin. While your diet is unable to provide all the vitamin D you need, foods such as oily fish (salmon and mackerel), eggs and fortified breakfast cereals can give you a little additional support.
If you don’t mind smelling a little pungent this winter, garlic can improve the ability to fight infection. “It’s been shown to reduce the risk of the common cold by as much as 60 per cent,” says Nichola.
Minerals and herbal supplements
Important minerals include iron and zinc. “If you’re deficient in iron, your immune system works less efficiently,” says Nichola. Good sources of iron include liver, beef, beans, nuts, dried fruit, whole grains and dark green leafy vegetables. “Zinc has been shown to reduce the incidence and may shorten the duration of a cold. Men need 5.5 to 9.5mg of zinc a day, while women require 4 to 7mg. Good sources include meat, shellfish, milk, dairy foods and bread.”
Echinacea is a supplement that’s a popular choice to support the immune system. However, the jury is out on its effectiveness. “Echinacea may help in preventing a cold and may shorten duration and lessen symptom severity, but the evidence is limited and conflicting,” warns Dr Rob Hicks.
Be germ savvy
Cold and flu viruses are most commonly spread through touch. “When your hands come into contact with virus particles on hard surfaces such as door handles, they are introduced to your body when you touch your face,” says Dr Lisa Ackerley, environmental health practitioner. “We touch our faces many, many times during the day and often don’t realise we’re even doing it.”
Virus particles can lurk anywhere that it’s possible to touch, this includes handrails on public transport, access buttons on doorways and machines at the gym. Cold viruses can survive for over seven days on hard surfaces though considerably less on cloth surfaces.
“You can control your environment and protect against cold and flu viruses by washing your hands regularly,” advises Lisa. “When you’re out on the move, use antiviral gel and wipes.”
We all know exercise helps to keep us healthy, but during the winter months a slightly more measured approach to keeping fit may be in order. “Too frequent high-intensity exercise or extreme sports such as regular marathon or ultra-running is thought to impair the immune system,” says fitness expert Laura Williams. “Stress hormones released during this type of exercise can also weaken the immune system. To avoid this, you should ensure you balance higher intensity sessions with slower-paced, easier ones and when you’re tired or feeling under the weather take it easy.”
“One of the best things you can do to protect yourself from colds and flu is to make sure you get plenty of sleep every night,” says Lisa Artis at The Sleep Council. “Lack of sleep suppresses your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections and metabolic and hormone changes. Research has found that getting a good night’s sleep strengthens the immune response; this suggests that the release of certain hormones during sleep boosts the immune system.”
The flu jab
The annual flu vaccination is given free on the NHS to at-risk groups (listed below) and can also be purchased at pharmacies for around £10. The sooner you are vaccinated, the better, but you can still request a jab up to the end of flu season in February and March.
For children, the flu vaccine is routinely given as an annual nasal spray. It’s provided to healthy children aged two, three and four years, plus children in school years one and two.
“The vaccine stimulates the body to make antibodies (proteins that fight against bacteria and viruses) to combat the latest flu virus strains,” explains Dr Rob Hicks.
The jab is free if you're in an at-risk group:
• Anyone aged 65 and over
• Pregnant women
• Children and adults with an underlying health condition
• Children and adults with weakened immune systems
• The very overweight
• Carers, healthcare or social care workers with patient contact
This article first appeared in issue 33 of Benhealth magazine (published November 2015).