With the coronavirus continuing to spread throughout the world, and China in lockdown, this year’s flu season is a global health emergency.
The flu tends to hit at this time of year, and most of us will get away with mild symptoms, but even these symptoms can be enough to knock us off our feet for a few days. Eating well to help support and nourish our immune systems is always a good idea, but perhaps even more so in winter, when we are can be prone to catching respiratory infections like coughs, colds and flu.
Most flu and cold viruses are spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so good, basic hygiene is a first line defence. Hand-washing, covering our mouth and nose when we sneeze and taking care not to spread our snots and sniffles with others is not just good manners, but essential to help stop spreading bugs from person to person.
What to eat for immune support
- Pack as many different coloured fruit and vegetables into your diet as possible. This helps ensure you are getting a wide range of antioxidant nutrients that are important to help support and balance the immune system. In particular, orange coloured fruit and vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, oranges and butternut squash contain beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A – a key nutrient to help support our immune system and mucus membranes, found in the inside of our lungs, nose, throat and digestive tract to help protect us against invading organisms.
- Elderberry is well researched for its anti-viral properties, and is thought to be protective against the flu virus. It is thought to work by inhibiting viral proteins attaching and entering our cells, and has also been found to help us fight a virus once we have been infected, helping to aid recovery. Elderberry is available for health foods shops as a syrup, or in tablet form. Sometimes known as Sambucol, it tastes lovely, so is great for kids too.
- Vitamin C is probably the first nutrient most of us associate with immune defence, and indeed there is evidence to show that high doses of vitamin C may help reduce symptoms of colds and flu. Most studies have used around 1000mg vitamin C a day, and as a general daily supplement, this is fine, but some studies show that taking higher doses may be effective if we get hit sideways by a cough, cold or flu. I usually recommend taking around between 500mg and 1000mg every hour for the first five or six hours of noticing symptoms, and then reduce to 1000mg three times a day for the next few days.
- Rest is a great remedy and most of us feel better after a good night’s sleep, so if you are starting to feel run down, or a bit achey, it is a good idea to slow down, take it easy and rest.
- Probiotic supplements and foods like live yoghurt, kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut may play a role in preventing respiratory tract infections to help reduce the frequency and duration of colds and flu. Eating foods rich in probiotics is a good habit for immune support, and if you are run down, then an extra boost with a probiotic supplement may be beneficial.
- Vitamin D is key for immune support, and as most of us don’t see enough sunshine in Ireland between October and May, it is a good idea to take a winter boost of D3.
- Herbs like garlic, rosemary and thyme are not just a tasty addition to dinnertime, but they may also help support our immune function too. When cooking garlic, it is best to crush it and add at the end of cooking, as high temperatures can destroy the active ingredients.
This blog post first appeared as my column in The Irish News on Saturday 8 February 2020.