It’s that time of year again: Everywhere around us, people are sneezing and sniffling. If you’re in close quarters – like on the tube, on planes, in lifts or an open-plan office, you’ll want to be able to trust your immune system to fend off the viral invaders. Here’s our 5 tips on how you can boost your immunity.
1. Wash your hands more often
This is one of the simplest and most effective measures to protect yourself from infection. Doorknobs, handrails, shopping trolleys, money and other surfaces that the general public come into contact with, are where germs are transferred. Wash your hands every time you get in from somewhere and before every meal, including snacks. There’s no need to use anti-bacterial soaps. Regular soap is cheaper and will do a good job. There may even be some health concerns about anti-bacterial soaps as highlighted in the US by the FDA.
2. Load up on immune-boosting foods
Your immune system needs certain nutrients, especially antioxidant nutrients, to help it do its job. The best-known ones are the vitamins A, C, E and the minerals zinc and selenium, which are often even sold together as a cold-and-flu supplement. Vitamin D also plays a pivotal role in resistance to the common cold.
While these nutrients are available as supplements, they are not going to replace a healthy diet. This means eating mainly natural foods, such as fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds as well as natural fats. Processed foods often lack vital vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin C has the reputation as the vitamin you need to prevent catching a cold, but scientific research suggests that it is more effective at helping you shake off the cold sooner. All fresh fruit, veg and herbs contain vitamin C. Rose hips, acerola cherries, lemons, oranges, papaya, yellow peppers, chillies, blackcurrants, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley, and thyme are particularly rich sources.
Vitamin A is found only in animal foods (meat, fish, dairy, eggs). However, the body can create vitamin A from beta-carotene, a plant nutrient found in red and orange fruit and veg and dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, watercress, kale, etc.). Fat improves the absorption of beta-carotene, so toss your steamed carrots in olive oil or butter and add some dressing to your salads. Good sources of beta-carotene are red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, sweet potato, swede, papaya, apricots, carrots, and butternut squash.
Vitamin E is, like vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin. (Be careful if you follow a low-fat diet as you could become deficient in the fat-soluble vitamins.) You’ll get vitamin E from nuts, including almonds, macadamia, and walnuts, or seeds, such as pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds and their cold-pressed oils. Avocado and oily fish – e.g. salmon and trout – are also good sources of vitamin E.
Vitamin D, too, is fat-soluble, but it doesn’t naturally occur in many foods. Most of our vitamin D is made in our skin, but it needs sunlight – and therein lies the problem. In the Northern hemisphere, we don’t always get enough sun, especially in the winter. If you have dark skin, your body will find the generation of vitamin D even harder. Most of us in the UK are actually deficient in vitamin D. It is easy to supplement, but we recommend that you test your levels first to avoid taking too much. (We can include vitamin D testing in our Health Checks).
The best food source of selenium are Brazil nuts. Other good sources are yellowfin tuna, but also other fish, plus ham, pork, beef, turkey and chicken, eggs, yoghurt, brown rice and whole oats, baked beans, mushrooms, bananas, lentils, cashew nuts. Be careful with supplementing selenium as toxicity is possible.
Zinc is another mineral needed to maintain immune function. It is not difficult to meet your requirements as long as you eat a healthy diet. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish – especially oysters -, eggs, dairy, whole grains, nuts and seeds, pulses, dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) and some vegetables, such as potatoes, green beans and kale.
3. Have fresh ginger every day
Ginger is a potent anti-viral herb, which works by stopping viruses from adhering to the mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract. Our secret recipe for a fabulous cold-busting remedy is:
Juice a generous chunk of ginger (about the size of 2 thumbs) and a lemon (peel off the yellow skin but leave as much of the white pith as you can). Add a teaspoon of Manuka honey (also anti-viral) to the juice and whisk or shake in a clean jam jar until the honey dissolves. Keep in the fridge and take a tablespoon full several times a day.
We start taking this at the first sign of a cold, and more often than not, it knocks it straight on the head. If you don’t have a juicer, make ginger tea with lemon and Manuka honey. This is good, too, but not as potent as the fresh ginger juice.
4. Take immune-boosting herbs
There is conflicting research on the efficacy of echinacea, although a recent review concluded that 2,400 mg/day work well for prevention of the common cold, while 4,000 mg are needed during acute stages of the cold. Another useful herb is elderberry, which was found, like vitamin C, to reduce the duration of a cold.
A powerful anti-viral herb that is less well known in the UK than echinacea, but possibly more effective, is the rockrose or cistus plant. It is a rich source of polyphenols, plant nutrients that have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. In southern Europe, cistus tea is widely used as a home remedy for viral infections.
Have a lie-down, tuck yourself in, drink plenty of fluids (some ginger and some cistus tea, for example) and snooze. For many of us, this is easier said than done, especially if you have young children, but any amount of rest that you can snatch is better than nothing. If you’re sick, do call in sick rather than try and impress your boss by staggering into work. Your co-workers will thank you for not bringing your cold virus into the office, and in any case, the job you’ll be able to do with a stuffy head and a runny nose may not be up to your usual standard. So, stay at home, rest and get well.