As the weather gets colder and we retreat indoors, we are much likely to come down with seasonal colds and even the flu. Read on to learn our top tips to support your own immune defences naturally.
How common is the common cold?
Most adults will get 2 – 5 colds per year and school kids (and teachers!) will catch double this. The average cold can hang around for 7 – 10 days. By the time we are 75, most of us will have had about 200 colds. That’s about 2 years coughing and sneezing.
The difference between a cold and the flu and why it’s important
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and flu. However typically with a cold, symptoms will come on over a few days and will be milder, like a runny or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms usually develop quickly and include fever, chills, muscle aches, headaches and tiredness. The flu itself can cause serious respiratory problems and can also have very serious associated complications like pneumonia, especially in those under 5 and over 65.
It’s probably inevitable that you are going to come into contact with people with a cold and the flu, so taking some steps to support your immune system now may help your natural defences to fight off more bugs.
So what can help?
Sleep deprivation suppresses our immune function, both in terms of our ability to fight off infection and our ability to recover quickly when ill. People who are sleep deprived even get less protection from flu vaccines? Getting at least 7, ideally 8 hours sleep every night helps to support immune function.
Exercise can also help and studies show that people who exercise moderately five days a week are less likely to get colds or flus. However intense bouts of exercise, like the marathon coming up next weekend, can temporarily suppress immune cells so if you are planning on participating, think about increasing your intake of immune boosting foods and nutrients.
Vitamin D – the sunshine immune booster
One of the first nutrients we look at to boost immune health is vitamin D. Known as the Sunshine Vitamin, we get most of our vitamin D from sunshine on our skin. A study from Trinity College published last year showed that at least 1 in 4 Irish adults is vitamin D deficient in the winter months and it’s even more common in the elderly. It’s also more common in vegans, breast fed babies, people with sallow or darker skin who need 20 – 50 times as much sun to make the same amount of vitamin d and in people who avoid the sun whether for religious reasons or by slathering on high sun protection factor.
It’s not usually obvious if you are low in vitamin D., although symptoms can include non-specific aches and pains and recurrent immune issues.
Food sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, oily fish like salmon and mackerel and egg yolk. However, many people benefit from supplementing during the winter. If you are going to supplement chose D3 rather than D2 as it is more than 80% effective at raising vitamin D levels. But don’t take very high doses without testing your requirement as vitamin D is fat soluble. This means you can store excess in your body and it can cause kidney issues, although toxicity is extremely rare. We offer vitamin D testing via a simple blood sample. Contact us on email@example.com or call 01 4020777 for more information.
It is recommended that all babies in Ireland be given 200 IU vitamin D daily. Irish guidelines are currently being updated and are likely to be similar to those in the UK. Public Health UK recommend that all adults and children over the age of 1 take 400 IU daily. However if you are deficient, this is very unlikely to be enough to raise your levels into the optimal range.
Vitamin C – in more than just oranges!
This nutrient is essential to our immune health. Vitamin C deficiency is much more unusual than Vitamin D deficiency, although we do occasionally see it in clinic. One sign can be bleeding gums and severe vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy. Smokers and heavy drinkers are more likely to have low levels of vitamin C.
Many fruit and veg including kiwis, kale, mangos and peppers, strawberries and broccoli have more vitamin C than an orange. Avoid orange juice and eat a piece of fruit instead. One glass of orange juice contains about 6 tsp of free sugar.
Boiling vegetables significantly reduces their vitamin C levels. Steam if you want to lose the least amount of vitamin C. Ideally also include some raw fruit and veg in your diet too.
It’s important to increase vitamin C as soon as symptoms start to help shorten the duration of colds. Amounts starting at 200mg can be helpful. Unlike vitamin D, vitamin C is water soluble, so we can easily excrete any excess.
Vitamin C is included in our Functional Nutritional Profile, a comprehensive test looking at your levels of key vitamins, minerals and essential fats. Contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01 4020777 for more information.
The friends in our gut
Our gut is responsible for up to 80% of our immune function and the 500+ different species of bacteria that live in our gut play an essential role in keeping our immune system working properly. Ideally, we want good levels and good diversity of bacteria and these can be reduced by stress, a diet low in variety (important for diversity) and prebiotics, the food for beneficial bacteria, found in pulses, nuts and seeds, onions, oats, bananas.
Most of us know that antibiotics reduce levels of beneficial bacteria. However, lots of other commonly used medication have a similar effect, including antacids like Rennie and Gaviscon and stronger proton pump inhibitors like Nexium and even hormones like the pill.
Having probiotic foods and drinks that contain beneficial bacteria can help to build our levels. These include natural yoghurt, buttermilk, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir and miso.
Four easy ways to include probiotic foods in your diet
- Include some natural yoghurt in a fruit smoothie
- Mix light miso paste with peanut or almond butter to make a savoury spread for oatcakes
- Add ½ tbsp. sauerkraut or kimchi to a sandwich or salad
- Make your own probiotic cream cheese with herbs (labneh) in a few hours with just a few minutes of hands on time
Drinks marketed at boosting your beneficial bacteria like Yakult and Actimel can be high in sugar. They can contain 2 – 3 tsp per small bottle and are an expensive way of increasing bacteria.
If you have had to take antibiotics, take a probiotic supplement for at least a month to replace beneficial bacteria. A good quality probiotic supplement will contain a number of different bacteria – at least 5 billion microorganisms per gram. We frequently recommend NHP Advanced Probiotic Support and Biokult Multistrain probiotic.
Our new GI Map Test can check your levels of beneficial and other bacteria. Contact us at email@example.com or call us on 01 4020777 for more information.
Mushrooms are used medicinally in many cultures. However, science is only now catching up with the ways in which they actually help us. Most research has been carried out on mushrooms like Lion’s Mane and Coriolus that we don’t usually eat here. Shiitake mushrooms have been shown to provide important immune support and are licensed for treatment of some forms of cancer in Japan. They also have strong antiviral properties. The common button mushroom can also promote immune cell production. Try to include in casseroles, soups, with an omelette or use supplements for more targeted support. We work with experts including Dr Trevor Wing and Dr Martin Powell to use medicinal mushrooms to support specific immune issues.
Take a few steps now to get your immune system in fighting form to keep you healthy this autumn and winter.