Winter is well and truly upon us in here Northern Hemisphere. People are sniffing, coughing, spluttering and sneezing everywhere you go. A cold every now and then (say two or three times a year) is normal - in fact, they’re good for our immune systems (including children).
However, some people may be heard complaining about having a colds all winter - one after the other, or being unable to shake their child's cough. Cue sleepless nights, fatigue the next day, aches and pains and poor appetite and whatever else comes with a cold/flu depending on the virus. Yes, it’s a fact: 66 to 75% of colds are caused by 200 different viruses which is why there is no effective antiviral for the common cold. For the flu, a jab may be on offer, but the leading doctors only recommend those for people at high risk, given the potential for side effects and development of resistance.
So, what can you do when it’s cold and damp and you have to go to work, the kids have to go to school and the bugs surround you? You can put these tips to use - some simple, good food and nutrition tips to help strengthen your natural defences this winter:
1) Drink plenty of fluids, especially warmer fluids. It can be difficult to stay hydrated through the winter months with central heating so make sure you drink enough liquid. 8 cups is the classic recommended intake…but for real measure, take your body weight in kg, multiply by 31, that gives you the mls of water you should drink per day: e.g. a 55kg person x 31 =1700ml (just over a litre and a half). For those of you who don’t like drinking plain old water, try jazzing it up with a squeeze of lemon or orange, or infuse a bottle of water with pieces of cucumber, mint or strawberries. Try and stay clear of concentrated juices and squash or cordial as these contain too much sugar – bad news for energy swings and vitamin C uptake by the body. If you must drink them, water them down 1:3 juice:water. Tea and coffee don’t count as fluid because, with their diuretic effect, they actually take water out of the body. Soups and broths with fresh vegetables (batch cook and freeze), green tea and herbal teas, especially ginger and echinacea or hibiscus, are also great ways to keep the fluid intake up.
Eat a protein with each meal and snack. Protein is made up of amino acids and these guys are the building blocks of life. All of our our immune cells and detoxification systems need those aminos to function properly. Beans, pulses (peas!), seeds and nuts are good vegetable protein sources. With animal proteins, remember to keep ‘clean and lean’ – do this by choosing organic or wild meat with the excess fat removed.
Season your food with garlic, onions, ginger, turmeric and cayenne pepper. All of these have antioxidant, detoxification and antimicrobial properties. In fact, the rawer the garlic the better (choose a parsely sprig after to neutralise garlic breath!)
Increase your vegetable and fruit intake. 5 a day is really the absolute minimum; if you want to be really healthy then have 6 or 7 differently-coloured vegetables and 2 or 3 pieces of fruit. So that’s 3 veggies (roughly the size of a handful) with each lunch and dinner, a piece of fruit as dessert or with breakfast or as a snack (remember to have nuts & seeds). Fruits and vegetables are packed with all of the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to help keep the colds away.
Cut out the refined carbohydrates and simple sugars. Vitamin C and glucose (sugar) have the same receptor sites on a cell. Vitamin C is imperative to proper immune function, so the more glucose (sugar) you put in the system, the less chance there is for the vitamin C to bind to receptor sites and the higher chance you have of catching a cold or the flu or getting rid of one quicker. What's more, refined carbs and sugar e.g. cake and cookies lead to major energy spikes and dips, the last thing your body needs when it is already run down and sick. So, replace refined ‘white’ carbohydrates with whole ‘brown’ ones that provide the important B vitamins and have a slower release of energy and sugars.
Get enough of the good oils. Fats are not all bad. We absolutely need the essential fatty acids for optimal immune function; three portions of wild oily fish a week will do it (or good quality, odour free, fish oil/flaxseed oil supplement). Also, add a handful of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds or almonds to meals or snacks (or in a dressing most days).
Consider cutting down or removing dairy while congested. For a lot of people, dairy (milk/cheese/yoghurt/cream etc) causes excess mucous in the system – not helpful for when you are already suffering from congestion. Try swapping cow's milk for oat milk or coconut milk for a while and see if it helps. Many people find that dairy foods cause congestion when they haven’t got a cold and opt for other calcium rich foods like leafy greens, oranges, sardines, broccoli, dark leafy greens, fortified oatmilk, seasame seeds and nuts instead.
Get enough sleep. Sleep is vital for proper immune system function, as this is when the body really has a chance to rest and repair. Aim for seven or eight hours a night, preferably 9-10 to 5-6. Turn any screen off an hour or more before bedtime and read a book or listen to calming music. Perhaps try some breathing exercises. Remember to stop and take a few deep breaths during the day also to ‘reset’ and help with stress levels.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise will keep you in optimal health, but if you are run down then excessive exercise will be an added stress on the system. So, keep fit but don’t push yourself when you feel a cold coming on. Above all, listen to your body.
There are many reasons why your immune system might not be fighting off illnesses and keeping you in good health as it should, such as nutrient deficiencies (vitamin D and zinc are key players), a compromised digestive tract (70-80% of the immune system lies in the digestive tract after all), adrenal strain, intolerances/allergies… the list goes on.
Your guide to living whole and well. Emma Olliff is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, wellness expert, food lover, and advocate for healthy living!