The colder months are well on their way. Our expert tips on how to look after your immune system might give you some extra support as flu season approaches.
The evenings are getting darker, the days becoming ever-colder, and coats and boots are slowly starting to re-appear in our wardrobes and shops. And, as we adjust to the chillier weather and begin the countdown to Christmas, it’s probably time we start preparing ourselves for our winter colds, too.
We are naturally more susceptible to colds during the winter, but there are ways to fight back. While “boosting your immune system” may be a phrase that is repeated all too often, it is definitely still one we should pay attention to. According to Dr Sarah Brewer, a GP and the medical director of vitamin and supplement brand Healthspan, a strong immune system is the key to staying healthy no matter what the elements throw our way, because it “protects against disease by recognising and attacking infections”.
She explains that it functions in two ways: the ‘natural’ or ‘innate’ immunity (protections that are programmed into all of us as general defences against disease) and ‘acquired’ immunity (specific measures in the body aimed against a particular infection once we have encountered it for long-term immunity, which is how vaccines work).
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What are the signs of a low immune system?
When we talk about a ‘low’ immune system, what this really means is that you are more likely to experience symptoms when exposed to a common cold virus or bacteria. So, the most common sign that your immunity is low is that you have frequent or prolonged colds (the average is around one cold a year, lasting seven to 10 days).
Why is my immune system low?
There are many reasons why someone might have lower than usual immunity, but Dr Brewer says that “one theory is, as people get older, they develop more vitamin and mineral deficiencies that contribute to reduced immunity with higher levels of inflammation”. She points to a recent study from Oregon State University which found that people aged 55 and over who took a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement for 12 weeks were able to fight off infections twice as fast as those taking a placebo.
But it’s about more than just nutrition. Have you ever noticed that you get wiped out with a cold just before a job interview? That’s because stress has a huge impact on our immunity, says Dr Brewer: “Numerous studies have demonstrated that long term stress has the ability to reduce the functionality of key components of the immune system which can, in turn, leave you open to infection.”
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And you’re also not imagining that you get more unwell in the winter than the summer. That’s because viruses can survive longer outside the body when temperatures are reduced. “Inhaling cold air reduces immune responses within the nasal lining and a lack of sunshine lowers your levels of vitamin D, which also impairs immunity and, of course, we spend more time cooped up together indoors so that infections can spread,” says Dr Brewer.
How can I support my immune system?
Getting in the right nutrients is essential for optimum functioning of the body – including the immune system. Vitamin D and vitamin C are extra important if you think that you need an immune system boost. Analysis has shown that taking vitamin D supplements can reduce your risk of experiencing at least one respiratory infection, including the common cold, influenza or pneumonia, by a third, and other studies show that vitamin C suppresses the activation of viral genes so that cold viruses cannot survive in cells.
While the NHS recommends taking a vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter months, we should also try to focus on “eating a Mediterranean style diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, onions, garlic, oily fish and wholegrains” to ensure that we are giving our immune systems the nutrients it needs to function, says Dr Brewer.
Other lifestyle tweaks you can make to support your immunity include exercise, which can neutralise the harmful effects of stress hormones. “Exercise should be non-competitive, so avoid over-training and marathons [to boost immunity] as physical stress suppresses immunity and increases the risk of developing symptoms when exposed to a common cold virus,” Dr Brewer advises.
And get some sleep! “During sleep, your body secretes hormones involved in fighting disease. People who sleep for 7 to 8 hours have better immunity than those who are sleep deprived, and tend to live longer, too.”
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Then there are natural supplements you can take. “I always keep some Pelargonium extracts on hand to start as soon as cold or flu symptoms develop,” says Dr Brewer. This is a traditional herbal remedy from a South African geranium, and clinical trials show that it is effective in treating acute bronchitis, sinusitis, tonsillitis and the common cold.
Echinacea, another licensed herbal medicine, is also a popular cold-beater. “It has a natural, antimicrobial action, increases the number and activity of white blood cells involved in fighting infections, and has an anti-inflammatory action to reduce symptoms if an infection takes hold,” explains Dr Brewer. Echinacea has actually been shown to reduce the chance of developing a cold by 58% and shorten the duration of those that do occur by 1.4 days.
And, at risk of sounding like Boris Johnson, washing your hands is essential, as is wiping down keyboards, doorknobs and phones. Dr Brewer also urges everyone to talk to their doctor about getting an annual flu vaccination.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).