Updated: Feb 12
How to stay well this winter using the power of food and lifestyle to strengthen your immune system, feel stronger and energized.
Do you usually feel a bit tired, run down, lacklustre and tend to pick up colds, the flu or other illnesses during the winter months?
Every day we are in constant contact with bacteria, viruses, and other germs which all have the potential to cause us harm and make us unwell. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to boost your immunity this winter!
Vitamin D levels are important!
We are more efficient at maintaining our Vitamin D levels during the summer (since it’s produced after exposure to sunlight on our skin). The lower position of the winter sun means that we do not produce sufficient levels and are therefore prone to being deficient during the winter months.
Vitamin D is a very important vitamin involved in the functioning of our immune systems, and it can also decrease inflammation.
Food sources include oily fish, mushrooms, avocado, and eggs. You also might want to consider supplementing Vitamin D during October-March.
What can lower our immune defences?
Unfortunately, a number of common lifestyle choices can impact negatively on our immunity. These include excess consumption of sugar and alcohol, as well as smoking. Nutrient deficiencies, being overweight or obese, as well as having high blood cholesterol levels can also significantly reduce our immune defences.
Did you know, approximately 70% of your immune system resides in your gut?
If we support the gut’s environment and the friendly bacteria that reside there (the microbiome), we are boosting our immunity, and therefore our overall health and well-being.
How can we support our gut health?
Probiotics: they are living strains of bacteria that can help to increase the population of good gut bacteria. Food sources include kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi.
Prebiotics: they feed and increase the growth of the good gut bacteria. Food sources include cooked apples, artichokes, garlic, oats.
Which nutrients best support our immune system?
As a priority, include a variety of different vegetables, fruit, and wholegrains in your diet. If you can, aim for 8-10 portions of fruit and veg a day to really optimise your health (two of which should be fruit, the rest veg). Adopting a wholefood diet means your body gains access to a variety of immune supporting nutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, folate, iron, selenium, and zinc.
It’s also recommended to eat seasonally because the nutritional value of food is higher. Even if something is out of season, try frozen, which can actually contain higher levels of nutrients than fresh versions!
Let’s put a few of these key immunity-supporting nutrients under the spotlight!
Important for the functioning of several different immune cells. Food sources include: oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel), orange and yellow vegetables (these contain something called beta-carotene which gets converted into vitamin A), and eggs.
Stimulates the action of several different immune cells, and in addition to that is an antioxidant and antihistamine by nature. Food sources include: most fruits, including citrus fruits, berries, as well as vegetables, such as peppers and dark leafy greens.
A key mineral in immune health (it also helps in the production of stomach acid, which again supports our digestive health!). Food sources include: pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, wholegrains, eggs, shellfish and beans.
Another important mineral known for its antioxidant properties, it helps reduce inflammation and can help to regulate the immune system. Food sources include: brazil nuts, eggs, seaweed, oily fish.
Important for many reasons! One role is that it helps to convert vitamin D into its active form. Magnesium can get depleted during stressful periods, so it’s important to maintain optimum levels. Food sources include: pumpkin seeds, nuts, dark leafy vegetables, legumes.
Some other key immunity boosting foods include:
Garlic has antiseptic, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. Try adding into soups, casseroles, stew, or raw to really reap the benefits.
Ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Try adding to stir-fries, curries or grated into warm water.
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are all sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory in nature, and might support immune health.
Lifestyle habits can also support our winter wellbeing
Water is important for so many reasons - aim to drink 2 litres of water per day (and limit your caffeinated beverages to 1-2 per day at the most!).
Movement and keeping active
It’s important to stay active and exercising (outdoors if you can) can help to bolster our immune systems, and it also releases endorphins which can help boost mood.
But don’t over-exercise – excessive intense exercise can actually suppress your immune system and make you more susceptible to becoming unwell.
Make sleep a priority
Stick to a consistent sleep routine and aim to get 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night. Try and get some daylight as soon as possible after waking to support your circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle). Avoid electronic devices at least 1 hour before bedtime (the blue light they emit can really mess with our sleep patterns).
Watch your stress levels
High levels of stress on a regular basis have the power to suppress our immune function. The so-called “stress hormone”, cortisol is part of a natural response in certain situations, but pro-longed exposure can both decrease the body’s ability to fight off infections, but also cause over-activation of the immune system and inflammation.
Manage stress levels by incorporating activities such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, getting out in nature, hobbies and relaxing with friends and family.
And of course, don’t forget to wash your hands regularly for at least 20-30 seconds with warm water and soap!
Vitamin D is vital in supporting our immune health - consider supplementing during October- March.
Supporting your gut health is one of the key ways to support your overall immunity and health. Adding in probiotic and prebiotic foods is recommended.
Adopt a wholefood diet (seasonal if possible) with a variety of different vegetables and fruit as well as oily fish, to ensure that you ingest some key immune boosting nutrients, such as Vitamin A, C, zinc, magnesium, selenium, and omega 3.
Reducing your intake of processed sugar, stopping smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight can all ensure that you are setting the foundations in place for a healthy and strong immune system.
Pay attention to your sleep and stress levels and adopt habits that prioritise your sleep quality and help manage stress.
Move your body and get outside in nature as often as you can!
Which of these immune-boosting tips will you incorporate to stay well this winter?
Amy Cottrell is a passionate nutritionist who supports others to improve their overall well-being and reach their health goals through tailored, manageable and motivational support.