How to boost your immune system this winter

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Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi, explains the importance of looking after your immune system and how to keep it in the best condition for fighting off winter illnesses.

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Your immune system is built to protect you against disease. If viruses attack the body, a healthy immune system will kick in. While it’s hard to avoid all winter viruses, there are some easy ways to boost your immune system that can become part of your daily routine.

‘We’re all more likely to catch a cold or winter bug since being in isolation. As well as colds and flu spreading faster during these colder months, our immune systems are being exposed to lots more infections than this time last year,’ reminds Dr McClymont.

‘It’s natural to be worried that your immune system is low or weaker than usual, but there are plenty of things that can help our bodies fight off infection.’

Why is the immune system so important?

Our immune system can get weaker as we get older. This puts us at risk of experiencing more serious side effects of viruses like Covid-19 or developing an immunodeficiency disorder. So it’s really important to stay fit and healthy at any age.

Particularly this year with the rise of colds and flu and Covid-19 numbers still high, it’s a good time to try and strengthen the immune system to help prevent the spread of germs and protect ourselves and others.

Does my immune system need to be stronger?

‘In healthy people, lifestyle factors play a big role in contributing to the immune system – like stress, lack of sleep, recurrent illness, and poor diet. And this impact on the immune system can increase our susceptibility to infection,’ explains Dr McClymont.

But what are the tell-tale signs your immune system could do with a boost?

Constant sniffles

Having the occasional cold, especially during winter, is very normal. But if you’re constantly bunged up, your body could be telling you it’s not equipped to fight off germs effectively. Having several colds in a short space of time that linger for a while could be a sign something’s up with your immune system.

Regular infections

Similarly, having multiple infections a year in your sinuses, throat and ears can be a warning sign and suggests your immune system isn’t doing its job properly. In some cases it might be due to an underlying health condition, so it’s best to get medical advice.

Too much stress

How does stress affect the body? Long-term stress can impact your immune system as it reduces the amount of white blood cells that fight off infection. The lower your white blood cell levels, the more likely you are to get sick.

Always feeling tired

We all get tired from non-stop working weeks and having a busy schedule but if you’re feeling permanently drained, your immune system may not be functioning like it should. There are many reasons to feel constantly tired and help is available – speak to a doctor who can help you work out why your energy levels are dipping.

Tummy troubles

The gut is essential to the immune system, so if you’ve experienced persistent changes in your digestive system like diarrhoea or constipation, it may be a sign your immune system is struggling. But like with any overlapping symptoms, other causes of digestion problems like IBS or Crohn's disease need to be ruled out first.

How to boost your immune system – 5 tips

‘Lots of people want to know how to keep their immune system functioning well during winter,’ says Dr McClymont.

‘While there are many foods touted to be good for immunity like blueberries, ginger and turmeric, there are no specific diets or foods that have been directly proven to boost the immune system.’

The best thing you can do is maintain a healthy lifestyle. Here are Dr McClymont’s tips to get you started.

1. Immune boosting foods

  • The best approach is to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. All the usual suspects – lean meat, fish, grains, pulses, and 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • Try to have a mix of colours on your plate. The wider the variety of colours you eat, the more types of phytochemicals you consume, which are essential for fighting inflammation in the body.
  • If you don’t always have the fresh foods in, stock up on a few portions of frozen or tinned fruit (no added sugar) and veg. This alternative is just as nutritious as fresh, because it’s frozen so quickly after being picked.

2. Stay active

Regular physical activity is really important for boosting your immune system. So try to maintain an exercise routine at home – as long as you feel fit enough. If you’re not a member of a gym, introduce a daily walk, run or cycle, even just for 20 minutes. It’s a great excuse for getting some fresh air and vitamin D too.

3. Prioritise your sleep

There are many positive effects of sleep on the body, but it’s natural to not sleep well every night, particularly during times of stress and anxiety. That makes it even more essential to prioritise your sleep and put in place good sleep habits, like avoiding caffeine, limiting screen time close to bedtime and keeping anything work-related outside the bedroom.

4. Try to reduce stress

This is not always easy, but try not to neglect activities that help you feel relaxed like walking in nature, deep-breathing, listening to music, practicing yoga and meditating. Whatever you find most relaxing. Staying in touch with family and friends can really help manage your stress levels too.

5. Make time to talk

Just because you can’t always see people in person doesn’t mean you can’t connect. Picking up the phone to chat rather than messaging can make a world of difference to your overall health – whether it’s a quick catch up or a more meaningful conversation.

Essential vitamins for the immune system

To go one step further, make sure your diet includes a mix of these vitamins and minerals associated with a strong immune system.

Vitamin A – found in liver, milk and cheese and green leafy vegetables.

Vitamin C – found in oranges, tomatoes, kiwis, blackcurrants, peppers and broccoli.

Vitamin D – found in oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products (and sunshine of course).

Zinc – found in meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, as well as root veg, nuts and seeds.

Selenium – found in wholegrain bread, eggs, poultry, fish and shellfish.

‘A balanced diet is always the best option to boost your immune system, as well as sticking to the recommended limits for alcohol and caffeine. If you’re concerned your diet is restricted or does not cover enough of the above foods, then it’s a good idea to take a multivitamin during winter’ says Dr McClymont. ‘And to make sure you get enough vitamin D all year round, a daily 10-microgram supplement is recommended in autumn and winter. Even more so for people that don’t go outside much or cover most of their skin.’

How can a doctor help?

These ideas are a great starting point to strengthen your immune system. But if you have, or suspect you have a medical problem or a weak immune system, always speak to a GP first.

‘Lots of patients I speak to worry that they have a weak immune system if they get frequent colds or coughs, and want to know the best immune system boosters’ says Dr Rhianna McClymont.

‘But the reality is that viral infections are extremely common – especially at this time of year – and are not usually a sign of anything serious. Following the above lifestyle advice to strengthen your immune system is the best way to help prevent winter viruses and stay healthy,’

However, if you’re experiencing recurrent viruses or health problems like pneumonia or kidney infections, it could be a sign of a poorly-functioning immune system. A GP or hospital team can talk you through any tests or treatment that’s needed.

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