Beat the bugs this winter

Eating the right foods and herbal remedies can help you to stave off or treat seasonal colds, says Hannah Fearn

As the days shorten and the air begins to chill our bodies need a little extra protection to keep them healthy. This year, with many households unable to heat their homes to a cosy temperature throughout the day, how we treat our bodies and, most importantly, what we eat, can make a big difference to how well our immune systems fight off those frustrating winter bugs. With covid and flu season now in full flow, we sought out the advice of expert nutritionists to find out what simple tips can help keep your body in peak condition all winter. Cold temperatures in winter force our bodies to work harder. Beverley Jarvis, a cook and the author of Eat Well to Age Well, says the first thing to consider is how to counter the lack of sunlight, which is vital for creating the vitamin D our bodies need. That means packing meals full of red meat, oily fish, cheese, eggs and mushrooms. ‘Vitamin D is very important because it helps us to recover from illness,’ says Jarvis. ‘It is also essential for healthy muscles, teeth and bones, and can help reduce the signs of ageing.’ She recommends cooking dishes with herbs and spices that can boost the ability of white blood cells to fight off infection. These include turmeric, which is also good at reducing joint pain and inflammation – which winter temperatures can trigger – and the classic companions ginger and garlic, both known to be effective natural medicines with antibacterial and antiviral properties. All three are great immune boosters but also warm up the body, which helps all its processes work more effectively. ‘In general, foods that take longer to digest can help raise the body temperature,’ says Jarvis. ‘This is called thermogenesis. I always recommend eating porridge, as it’s a great hug in a mug, and if you have it with bananas that will give you vitamin B too. Beef, lamb and pork are all great sources of iron, which carries oxygen around the whole body. They also have vitamin B12, which is great for the immune system.’ When shopping for vegetables Jarvis says that following the mantra ‘eat the rainbow’ will ensure your basket contains the vitamins and minerals your body needs to fight off a cold. She advises older women in particular to make vegetables a large part of their diet at least twice a day, so they can be sure that each plate they eat is bursting with vitamins. At this time of year traditional winter root vegetables, such as sweet potato and butternut squash, provide extra antioxidants to fight off colds. Jarvis also recommends picking up two fruits – kiwi and mango. ‘They contain over 20 vitamins and minerals, so add them to your shopping list every time,’ she says. Back to basics A varied diet full of immune-boosting nutrients will definitely help you to ward off colds, but according to bioenergetics practitioner Simone Thomas, giving your body the best food only makes a real difference to your overall health if you start with the absolute basics: drinking enough water and getting more sleep. ‘Sleep and water are really key,’ she says. ‘If you think that 75 per cent of our immune system comes from our gut, and our hormones are created there, then all of that has a knock-on effect. Gut health is really important. The two things that can affect the gut is not having enough good-quality deep sleep, which weakens our immune system, and not drinking enough water.’ Thomas tells her clients to focus on shopping seasonally when planning meals. It’s no surprise that the roots and vegetables that are in abundance throughout autumn – kale, spinach, pumpkin, beetroot, cabbage and parsnips – are those that work to protect the body from infection. ‘Dark leafy greens are always a great choice. They give you a boost of zinc and magnesium, and these all help with immunity,’ she says. Alongside this rich mix of veggies, Thomas advises replacing mugs of coffee and tea with bone or vegetable broths. ‘These are really good if you feel rundown, you’ve got a heavy week ahead, or you’ve found out that you’ve been around someone with covid and need an extra immune boost.’ Bone broths can be made in advance and frozen in small portions, and are quick to reheat when required. If that is too much hassle, large supermarkets and health food shops sell them. However, Thomas cautions against being tempted into cutting corners over the winter months. Ready meals are convenient, but cooking fresh, organic meat and vegetables will keep you fitter for longer. ‘Pre-made meals may look healthy, but when you look at the ingredients they often contain bulking agents, salt or a lot of sugar. All of these thing have an effect on health generally and make your immune system work harder. It has to make more effort to process these kinds of foods. When we’re under the weather, the body has a choice on where to expend energy. If it’s processing these foods it isn’t making extra white blood cells.’ Herbs for health It’s not just food but also herbs that can have a huge effect on how effectively the immune system functions. Once you’ve got your diet sorted, using the right herbs to target the health issues you’re tackling over winter can help avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor, or a week laid-up with a respiratory virus. Herbalist Sebastian Pole, who runs a company called Herbal Reality, says you should look to include herbs and spices that support digestion and metabolism when seeking extra immune power. In winter, these include warming spices such as ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and oregano. ‘In winter our circulation isn’t as good, especially as we get older, so you want to keep your metabolism warm to keep your immunity going. Ginger, for example, is for warming up your inner core,’ he says. Another fiery accompaniment is horseradish, which is good for tackling colds and clearing the sinuses. Pole says its action to tackle dampness in the body helps to prevent the build up of mucus and to fight respiratory congestion. ‘These are cheap and easy to add to your food, and make it more delicious,’ he says. Herbalists like Pole advise their clients to avoid cold, wet foods such as yoghurt, cream and ice-cream in winter. Replacing treats with herbal teas can help the body’s defences, doing their bit to ward off invading viruses and bacteria. Ginger, thyme or sage teas are all very easy to make and good for immunity. Alongside a balanced diet, Pole suggests those who are particularly worried about their vulnerability to infectious diseases consider taking a tailored herbal supplement. He recommends a consultation with a trained herbalist to tackle particular health needs, but there are two easy additions that he recommends for everyone. Elderberry syrup has strong antiviral properties and is often sold as a liquid supplement with added zinc and vitamin D, while echinacea has been taken for centuries as a natural prophylactic against colds. Women’s wisdom There is hard scientific evidence behind many of the old wives’ tales about cures for winter illnesses, according to the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, a training centre for the UK’s top nutritionists. Take chicken soup, which is used by many cultures as an easy, at-home remedy for colds and viruses. It contains a large amount of protein, which is essential for the production of the white blood cells that fight infection. It is also full of phytonutrients from the chunky vegetables it contains and the stock in which it is boiled. These reduce the inflammation associated with infections, according to clinical tutor Belinda Blake. ‘There is also good evidence to show that vitamin C may help to reduce the severity and duration of infections.’ she says. ‘During the Second World War children were paid to collect rosehips, which are rich in vitamin C, to make an immune-supportive syrup for the population.’ But while a bit of winter foraging may be a mood booster on bleak days, there are easier ways to top up your vitamin C levels. Blake recommends adding citrus fruits and frozen berries to breakfast and puddings. Cooking depletes the mineral content, so lightly cooked or raw fruit can help to deliver the most benefit. New research being carried out today is revealing new things about which unexpected foods might do the most to boost sluggish immune responses. ‘The fibre in plant food also feeds the microbiome in our gut, and there is some interesting research regarding the role that these gut bacteria play in supporting immune health,’ says Blake. ‘Including some fermented foods in your diet, such as sauerkraut, live yoghurt or kefir, may therefore also help to maintain good levels of these beneficial bacteria and vastly improve your ability to fight infection.’ Who knows, in time these new discoveries may form the basis of the traditional winter home remedies of the future?

What to do when a cold hits

Even if you have overhauled your diet and organised your diary so you can catch up on all that missed sleep, sometimes you just can’t avoid a winter cold. So what can you do once one strikes?

Nutritionist Samantha Bloom recommends two easy recipes to help fight off a cold. The first is elderberry syrup. You need one cup of dry berries and two cups of fresh, with two quarts of water and 20 cups of sugar.

Start by bringing the liquid and berries to the boil and then let it simmer until it is reduced by half. This will take a few hours. When this step is complete pour the fruit mixture through a strainer and squeeze all the juice out of the berries. Discard the fruit and heat again, adding the sugar and stirring until it dissolves, then let it cool. At the first sign of a cold take two to four tablespoons of the syrup every two hours.

If your cold is already established, reach for fresh ginger. Squeeze the juice out of 50g of ginger, add the juice of one lemon, some cayenne pepper, and honey to taste. Add 300ml of hot water and stir well. Sip a little several times a day.

For an extra kick, try astragalus root – available from health-food shops – and add it to rice or as part of a broth. This can help ward off colds as they are starting. But don’t use it if you have any existing autoimmune or thyroid conditions, as the herb can act as an immune suppressant.