Cold and flu season is upon us, meaning that 1 in 5 of us are currently suffering with the telltale coughs, sore throats and congestion. Those who feel run down with these symptoms more than a couple of times each year would do well to boost their body’s defences and take natural measures to ease symptoms.
Read on for the top three ways to support your immune system and stay fighting fit this winter.
The Perils of the Party Season
Colds spread quickly in winter, as we tend to congregate indoors in large groups. This means that we need to take special care to protect ourselves against infection.
Two well-known ‘anti-nutrients’, which deplete our immune defences, are found everywhere during the party season – sugar and alcohol. Both sugar and alcohol deplete levels of immune boosting nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and selenium. Eating or drinking 8 tbsp of sugar, the equivalent of a couple of mince pies and a hot chocolate drink, can reduce the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by forty percent. Alcohol also suppresses the ability of white blood cells to multiply, meaning that infection can take hold more easily.
Avoiding sugar and alcohol completely can be hard during the party season, but a couple of simple measures will help protect your immune system. Try eating a high protein snack before a party, to reduce sugar cravings later on. Keep alcohol intake to no more than two drinks each day.
Prevention is Better than Cure
The immune system is dependent upon a whole host of nutrients to keep it functioning optimally. However, there is one particularly critical nutrient which tends to be lacking in winter months. Vitamin D levels begin to fall in October as the days get darker. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that daily vitamin D supplementation should reduce the risk of colds and flu, especially in the winter months (1).
It is difficult to obtain adequate vitamin D from food sources, meaning that supplementation is normally recommended. Public Health England recently advised that during the autumn and winter, all children and adults should be taking supplements with ten micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D daily.
Fighting the Virus
If a cold has already taken hold, there are some effective ways to lessen its duration and reduce the severity of symptoms.
Recent studies have found that probiotic bacteria have immune boosting benefits. They have natural antibiotic properties, and they help to boost the activity of white blood cells which fight off the cold virus. Taking a probiotic supplement has been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold by two days. Probiotics also appear to reduce the severity of symptoms and the incidence of fever. They are also considered safe and beneficial for children. Children taking probiotics are also less likely to suffer with fever, coughing and congestion, and have fewer days off school due to illness. The types of probiotic found to be most helpful are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium (2,3).
Other studies have found zinc to be useful in fighting cold symptoms, with zinc lozenges proving particularly useful in reducing cold symptoms and the duration of illness (4). During an infection, zinc is used by the body to activate lymphocytes, to attack and kill the cold virus. Zinc deficiency impairs cell-mediated immunity, meaning that viruses can take hold and multiply more easily.
While there is no cure for the common cold, there are certainly ways to boost your natural defences, and to quicken your road to recovery. Keeping your immune system fighting fit can help to ensure that you enjoy a happy and healthy festive break.
1. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. BMJ 2017;356:i6583
2. Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics 2009;2008-2666
3. Probiotics for prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections in children. Med 2016 95(31):e4509
4. Zinc gluconate lozenges for treating the common cold. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Ann Intern Med 1996;125(2):81-88