Charlotte Willis discovers the best ways to protect yourself against the worst that cold and flu viruses can throw at us…
Fending them off
I like to treat flu season in the same way I treat going out to clubs. Best avoided wherever possible. After all, both are extremely depressing situations where you end up hot, sweaty and spending a prolonged period of recovery in bed feeling sorry for yourself, surrounded by water and comfort food (who has time for that, quite frankly?) But, if completely inescapable, prepare your body for the worst and you’ll come out on top faster than you can say ‘bless you’.
Flu season arrives as soon as you’ve packed the last of those Christmas decorations back into the cupboard. January blues begin to set in, while winter’s harsh weather is destroying your umbrella with full force. What perfect timing for Mother Nature to deliver a foul blow to your white blood cells? Everyone around you begins to sniffle, cough and splutter, the warning signs of invasion begin signalling all around you.
Now, my fellow hypochondriacs, is the time to arm your internal army of defence with all the essential nutrients they need to build that wall and keep those viruses at bay.
An apple a day (and such wisdom)
We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for us, right? Well good, because I’m not going to waste my time preaching to you to eat more of this or less of that. In fact I’d be a complete hypocrite. It’s winter, and all I want to eat is hot peanut butter porridge and roasted root veg smothered in houmous, now leave me be. But what might peak your interest, and indeed your immune system’s response, is a few nutritional powerhouses that you can easily adapt into your regular diet and lifestyle.
There’s no doubt that a morning ritual of ionised water with organic lemon juice and apple cider vinegar while doing yoga, checking emails and meditating, is a fantastic way to start your day – that is, if you have time and money to burn. I’m more interested in the easy ways to incorporate virus-defeating goodness (no yoga mat necessary)…
Get acquainted with B vitamins
Everyone preaches fantastically about vitamin C and immune health, but in reality, the B vitamins may give you more of an edge. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is essential for the production of antibodies, which mark pathogens in your body for destruction and removal – like a bouncer, if you will.
Mushrooms, avocados, sweet potatoes and lentils are your best sources of B5. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) helps your killer T-cells (yep, that’s what they are really called) to destroy bacteria and infectious cells. Sweet potatoes, spinach, sunflower seed butter and banana are brilliant sources, and all ingredients of a great smoothie!
Ginger, Garlic and Green Tea
All of these ingredients contain a supercharged elixir of nutrients to kick-start your immune system. Garlic has been used traditionally as a decongestant and blood purifier for many generations. It contains allicin, a compound found to act in an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial way. In fact, daily intake of garlic while sick can shorten the duration of your cold by up to 70%.
Ginger and green tea are two of my ultimate cold-busting ingredients. Green tea contains catechins and other phytonutrients acting as anti-oxidants to help boost the removal of harmful toxic material from the breakdown of viruses and pathogens in the body. Add in fresh ginger to reduce inflammation and help clear the sinuses from infection.
Feed your gut
Often forgotten and neglected when we consider the functioning of the immune system, your gut is one of the most pivotal influencers on your overall bodily health.
The gut is responsible for the absorption of essential nutrients, and acts as a barrier between you and the outside world. The gut bacteria metabolise immune-supporting anti-microbial and anti-bacterial compounds, which circulate in the blood to help aid your fight against flu.
Eating a variety of unprocessed foods, raw foods and fibrous wholegrains will ensure you are getting enough soluble and insoluble fibre sources to keep the microbiome in your gut happy.
Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are all fantastic for your health. Any kind of berry will be beneficial, but in general, the darker the berry the healthier the outcome.
Berries contain vital antioxidants in their skin, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and aid the liver’s removal of toxic matter from the blood. Eating just a cupful of berries every day can help reduce your risk of infection.
Zinc – Kryptonite to your cold
Yet another reason to eat copious amounts of pumpkin butter (rejoice). Zinc is one of the most fundamental minerals to aid your immune system’s overall health. Zinc boosts the action of your T-cells and helps repair the membranes of your sinuses. You can find zinc in seeds, lentils, chickpeas and quinoa, alongside leafy greens.
Prevention is the best form of cure
As soon as you fear a cold is looming, make a few simple adjustments to your diet and lifestyle habits, to give yourself a better fighting chance. Sleeping for at least 7-8 hours a night, having a regular bed and waking time, eating every 3-4 hours and maintaining a balanced, varied diet (all the usual suspects!) will better aid your immune system’s fight to keep the pathogens at bay.
Engaging in a bout of exercise will also help to raise the body’s temperature, aiding the physiological action of enzymes. Reducing your amount of emotional stress is absolutely essential to help reduce immune suppression.
Stress, especially chronic stress, raises cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol causes your immune system to slowly shut down, and negates the production of lymphocytes (white blood cells). If you find yourself becoming sick too often, try assessing the levels of stress in your lifestyle. Stress is the body’s worst enemy, and anything you can do to lessen your levels of exposure will help you in the long-term.
Know when to give up the fight
Something my mother and I argue over until the cows come home, is the use of over-the-counter medicine during a cold or flu. There are certain times when actually allowing your body to suffer may be beneficial to your overall health outcome.
Your body reacts to infection by raising your heart rate, body temperature, and encouraging you to cough and sniffle in an attempt to rid your body of the virus. Just as someone with food poisoning needs to be sick to remove the pathogen, your body needs to experience these symptoms in order to heal. A slight fever is due to the need for your enzymes to work at a faster rate, to get rid of the infection fast.
Coughing is a healthy response to the need to clear the lungs from infection. A runny nose? Your body trying to flush out the virus. So why would we want to prevent these self-healing mechanisms taking place? Unless you have a severe fever, a chronic illness or a very heavy flu, try suffering the symptoms. Your body will be better able to regulate its recovery.
Listen to Cravings
Do you ever find yourself craving specific foods? Turns out it could well be your body trying to tell you something. During the feasting of winter we often forget to nourish our bodies correctly. Sipping one too many lemonades, opting for cold figgy pudding and a side of mince pie believing it constitutes a balanced meal.
There comes a point when our bodies will tell us enough is enough. I often find myself craving raw and leafy foods after eating a lot of cooked foods. It’s my body telling me I need a boost of vitamins and minerals from fresh, raw vegetables. If I crave sweet foods, it’s usually because my carb intake is low for the level of exercise I’ve done, or I need more calories. Salty foods such as sushi usually mean I’m dehydrated or in need of a potassium hit.
Listening to the cravings of your body is one of the most fundamental lessons in supporting the needs of your immune system and general body health. Instead of reaching for a tablet or multivitamin, try taking note of what your body is trying to tell you. Eating your way to a heightened immune system is the most sustainable way to fight infection.
About the author
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.