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7 ways to look after your immune system

Natural ways to fight off colds and flu this winter

Colds and flu are on the rise as winter sets in, which is why it's important to keep your immune system in good working order. Here are some natural ways to support your immunity.

1 Eat well
'Fruits and vegetables are a great source of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins for immune system support,' says Caroline Hind, a registered nutritional therapist from Vitaminology ( 'Take advantage of local seasonal fruit – apples, plums, pears – and leafy greens such as cabbage, as well as imported oranges that are at their best in our winter and provide a good nutritional hit to see us through the darker months. Look for a variety of locally produced, seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially those with deep colours such as the green of kale, the red of peppers and the orange of butternut squash as these are good sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants can help fight off infection. As we age and during times of illness or stress, our need for dietary antioxidants increases. Garlic and ginger have anti-infection and anti-inflammatory effects, making them powerful allies of the immune system. Chop or grate some extra into stir-fries, soups, casseroles and curries.'

2 Stock up on vitamin D
'Vitamin D deficiency is most likely to be a problem during winter months, since we absorb most of what we need through the skin over summer,' says Paula Werrett, a BANT-registered nutritional therapy practitioner and Head of Undergraduate Provision at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition ( 'It is thought that vitamin D deficiency may be associated with sub-optimal immune function and an increased risk of infection, with studies now linking vitamin D deficiency to the severity of COVID-19. Good food sources include oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon, as well as egg yolks. Vegetarians and vegans can get vitamin D through some mushrooms and some fortified foods such as plant milks or nutritional yeast. The NHS also recommends everyone to supplement with 10 micrograms of vitamin D every day throughout the winter months. However, studies point towards upwards of 100 micrograms being most optimal for human health.'

3 Cut out the sweet stuff
'Infections significantly deplete the body's vitamin C stores,' says Paula Werrett. 'Sugar also competes with vitamin C for uptake into cells, so instead of an afternoon snack consisting of a sweet treat, go for citrus fruit or other vitamin C-rich foods such as berries, kiwi, mango and sweet peppers in addition to eating your greens at meal times. You will instantly add more immune-supporting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants into your diet while cutting out the foods that can leave you feeling lethargic an hour later. Studies have also indicated that oral vitamin C (2 to 8g per day) may reduce the incidence and duration of respiratory infections. However, ION always recommends talking to a BANT-registered nutritional therapy practitioner or a GP before supplementing.'

4 Take some zinc
'Zinc is fundamental to good immune system function,' says Caroline Hind. 'An old wives' tale told us lamb is good to eat when ill – we now know that lamb is a good source of immunity-supporting zinc. Food sources include meat, poultry, fish, shellfish – oysters! Care needs to be taken with zinc supplements as the body needs an accurate balance of zinc and copper. A multivitamin product will usually contain a safe amount of zinc. However, a supplement of zinc on its own can be useful at times of infection.'

5 Get enough sleep
'Sleep loss negatively affects the immune system in three ways,' says Laura Neville of The Herbtender ( 'Firstly by reducing the body's production of natural killer cells, which in turn increases the risk of viral infections. Secondly by generating inflammatory cytokines, which heightens the risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. And thirdly by reducing the production of antibodies, which help fight viruses and other infections. Aim for seven to eight hours of restful sleep daily. The adaptogen, ashwagandha, is excellent for promoting good sleep.'

6 Manage your stress
'Chronic stress weakens your immune function,' says Laura Neville. 'Try to manage your stress – simple breathing exercises are a useful strategy. We love the 4-7-8 technique. Inhale for four counts, hold for seven counts, exhale for eight counts. Performing this exercise at least four times stimulates the body's vagus nerve and triggers a relaxation response. Other activities such as shinrin-yoku – a traditional Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature using all five senses – may also be beneficial.'

7 Try some medicinal mushrooms
'Our favourite mushroom for immunity support is Chaga, a mushroom that grows on birch trees,' says Laura Neville. 'Chaga is the most antioxidant-rich superfood on the planet. Also, just like other edible mushrooms, Chaga contains a wealth of important nutrients. These include manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and phosphorus. All of these nutrients contribute to your overall health and give your body the fuel it needs to thrive. Cytokines are the immune system's chemical messengers. They are proteins that play a vital role in stimulating white blood cells, which are the immune system's first line of defence against illness. Chaga may help regulate the production of cytokines, supporting the immune system by helping cells communicate with one another.'

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