If you manage to get through winter without catching a single cold, the flu or something worse, there’s probably a good dose of luck involved, because the viruses that bring on those coughs, sniffles and more serious respiratory illnesses can spread very easily.
So, the number one way to ward off infection? Stopping the spread of bugs in the first place, by practising good hand hygiene, covering your mouth if you’re coughing and sneezing, avoiding close contact, and trying not to spend all day long cooped up in confined shared spaces (often easier said than done, of course).
That said, there are things we can do to help support our immune systems. Diet isn’t the be all and end all (rather, it’s just part of the picture within a healthy lifestyle), but what we put into our bodies no doubt plays a part.
Basically, in order to get the most out of the nutrition you consume, it’s important to look at the whole picture, including getting enough sleep and exercise, not smoking or drinking too much alcohol, and keeping stress in check.
Foods to eat to improve your immune system
But what does an immune-supporting diet look like? Here are some top tips…
Balance is key
“A balanced immune system requires a balanced diet, hitting all the macronutrients and micronutrients to support the metabolic and functional demands of the immune system,” says Macciochi. This means eating a wide range of foods, including fibre, which is vital.
“Adequate fibre and phytonutrient (found in fruit and veg) intake nourishes the microbiome, keeping our barriers to infection robust,” says Macciochi. This, she explains, allows key protectors like the gut and lungs to produce bioactive compounds with broad-ranging health benefits, including boosting the number and health of our immune cells.
Feed your gut
“Even with a healthy diet, our nutrition is only ever as good as our gut microbiome,” says Macciochi. “The bugs in our gut are responsible for the production and bioactivity of many of the nutrients from the food we eat. A healthy microbiome is a diverse one and relies on us eating a diverse diet.”
While nothing beats a good diet, the microbiome-feeding pre and probiotic supplements industry is booming. Our microbiome is unique to each of us, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really work, but some high-quality supplements could have some benefits.
“Stick to preparations that contain well-researched bacteria strains – such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium – in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving, such as Healthspan Super20 Pro (£18.99 for 60),” suggests Healthspan nutritionist, Rob Hobson.
Vitamins and minerals
Getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals is essential for optimal overall health and function, but certain nutrients may play a more direct role in helping us fight bugs. “Vitamin E, iron, zinc and selenium are all required for the production of antibodies that fight infections. Vitamin C and zinc have been associated with the reduced risk of infection and length of colds,” explains Hobson.
Oils, nuts, nut butters and seeds will help with vitamin E. “Extra virgin olive oil is the best oil to use on a daily basis and contributes to vitamin E intake,” adds Hobson. “Nuts and seeds can be blended into smoothies or sprinkled over roasted winter veg or frittatas. Nut butters also make a good breakfast spread on wholemeal bagels, topped with banana.”
Wholegrains and wheats (oats, brown rice and bulgur wheat) are loaded with selenium, meanwhile. And when it comes to vitamin C, red peppers, citrus fruit, berries, kale, broccoli and potatoes are all strong contenders. When berries go out of season, Hobson suggests using frozen ones (ideal for jazzing up porridge, blitzing in a smoothie or even the odd winter crumble).
“Dark green, leafy veg like kale are widely available in winter and can be added to soups, stews and casseroles,” says Hobson. “Potatoes are also rich in vitamin C, and nothing beats mashed potato as the ultimate winter comfort food.”
Shellfish, eggs, dairy, pulses, tofu, red meat and wholegrains all aid zinc intake.
Watch those iron levels
Low iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, and with plant-based diets increasingly popular, it’s easy to fall short, as red meat is one of the best-known sources of the stuff.
However, it is possible to get enough iron without eating red meat – beans, eggs, pulses, lentils and oats all also pack an iron punch.
“Serve non-meat sources of iron with vitamin C, which helps the body absorb this nutrient,” suggests Hobson. Beans also help keep protein levels up – key, alongside iron, in stable energy levels and overall healthy functioning.
Constantly exhausted and struggling with low energy? If you think you might be lacking in iron, see your GP – some people do need to top-up with iron supplements but it is always best to seek a professional diagnosis and advice.
Vegan diet zapping your energy? Here’s how to combat meat-free fatigue.
“Dried spices often get overlooked but they are a rich source of iron,” adds Hobson. Spices contain a range of antioxidants too, and there are good reasons why turmeric is setting the gold standard in ‘super food’ spices.
“As well as being anti-inflammatory, turmeric is a good inhibitor to vital entry into our cells,” says Macciochi. “Adding this spice regularly to meals could be useful to ward off infections.”
Top up with supplements
Nutritional supplements might often seem like little more than a marketing ploy (and to be fair, this may often be the case), but they have their place too – and it’s now recommended that UK adults consider taking a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months.
Why? Vitamin D is vital for keeping bones, teeth and muscles healthy, and just generally help keep us fighting fit – but most of our vitamin D is created by skin exposure to sunlight, and from October until early March, there simply isn’t enough of the ‘right’ sort of sunshine to meet our needs (even when the skies are bright).
While foods like salmon, mushrooms and eggs are good dietary sources, diet alone won’t provide all the vitamin D we really need.
“Opt for a supplement containing vitamin D3, which is the most useable form of this nutrient, such as Healthspan Super Strength Vitamin D3 (£4.99 for 60),” says Hobson.
Generally speaking, the jury is out on whether we ‘need’ other supplements, but there might be times when topping up with a high-quality supplement is a good idea. Hobson suggests a multivitamin as a good all-rounder.
Are you deficient in vital vitamin D this winter? Read our guide to this essential vitamin.