As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, the winter season brings its own unique charm, from cozy sweaters to steaming mugs of hot cocoa. However, it also ushers in a host of seasonal challenges, particularly when it comes to our health. Colder temperatures, decreased sunlight, and the gathering of family and friends for various festivities can create a breeding ground for colds and flu.
In the battle to stay healthy during these chilly months, your immune system becomes your greatest ally. And one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for fortifying your immune defences is your diet. What you eat during the winter can make all the difference in your ability to ward off illnesses and enjoy the season to the fullest.
In this blog, we will explore the fascinating relationship between your immune health and the food you consume during the winter months. From vibrant fruits and vegetables to warming spices, we'll delve into the delicious and nourishing ways you can support your immune system naturally. So, grab your favourite mug of herbal tea and let's embark on a journey to discover how to stay well and thrive during the winter season through the magic of nutrition.
Our bodies make Vitamin D from the sunshine more so than sourcing it from food, so it’s important to get out in the sun and fresh air over the summer before the Autumn sets in. Food sources are oily fish, eggs and fortified milk, mushrooms, grass fed beef and butter. Vitamin D is a pro-hormone and it contributes towards bone health by helping with calcium and phosphorus absorption, it protects against cognitive decline but also supports our immune health, particularly respiratory health. It’s made by our skin when exposed to adequate levels of sunlight. In the UK this is between April and October and we need 15-20 minutes a day with face, arms and legs uncovered, no suncream, to get enough sunlight. If you have darker skin you will need longer exposure.
When supplementing in winter the government recommends under 4’s need 8.5-10 micrograms daily and 4yrs + can take 10 micrograms (or 400 international units) to support general health. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin which means it is better absorbed with dietary fat and different people with have different levels so it’s worth getting your blood levels checked so you know how much to supplement. This involves a fairly cheap finger prick test available at your doctors or through your nutritional therapist.
Not the magic mushroom kind!! Medicinal mushrooms are making a popular come back. Traditionally used for centuries in Chinese medicine they are now available in freeze dried powder form to add to soups, hot drinks, energy balls and mushroom pate (recipe on my Instagram)
Medicinal mushrooms contain a type of polysaccharide called Beta d-glucan which gives them their medicinal properties to support immune health. Different mushrooms have benefits for different health conditions.
MM can respond in different ways to support the immune system. They can stimulate an immune response to fight infection or turn down an overactive immune system to support an allergic response. Pretty clever!
Lions Mane has been shown in studies to have anti-viral properties against MRSA.
Maitake is good for lowering androgen hormones in the condition PCOS and for helping with insulin sensitivity.
Shiitake mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins and soluble fibre which helps to keep you fuller for longer and keep your bowel movements regular!
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is packed with essential nutrients that play a vital role in supporting a robust immune system. Some of the key components include:
Fresh ginger is a good source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that enhances the body's natural defence mechanisms against infections.
Gingerol: This bioactive compound in ginger is known for its potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It can help protect your body against harmful pathogens and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Ginger contains essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, and zinc, which are crucial for immune function.
Chronic inflammation is linked to a host of health issues, including a weakened immune system. Ginger's anti-inflammatory properties, primarily attributed to gingerol, can help reduce inflammation in the body. By lowering inflammation levels, fresh root ginger can enable the immune system to function optimally.
The antioxidants found in ginger are instrumental in protecting cells from damage caused by oxidative stress. When your cells are under less stress, your immune system can operate more efficiently. Ginger's antioxidant properties can also help your body fight off infections and maintain overall well-being.
Enhancing Digestive Health
Good digestion is essential for overall health and immunity. Ginger has long been used as a digestive aid, helping to reduce bloating, nausea, and indigestion. By promoting healthy digestion, ginger indirectly contributes to immune health. A well-functioning gut is crucial for nutrient absorption and the proper functioning of the immune system.
Soothing Cold and Flu Symptoms
If you do happen to catch a cold or the flu, ginger can come to the rescue. Its anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory properties can help alleviate symptoms like sore throat, congestion, and upset stomach. A soothing ginger tea with honey can be just what the doctor ordered during illness.
Natural Antibacterial and Antiviral Properties
Ginger also possesses natural antibacterial and antiviral properties, making it an excellent addition to your immune-boosting arsenal. It can help fend off infections and reduce the severity and duration of illnesses.
Stress is a well-known immune system suppressor. Chronic stress can weaken your body's ability to defend itself against infections. Ginger, with its calming and stress-reducing properties, can indirectly bolster your immune system by helping you manage stress better.
Fresh root ginger is more than just a flavourful spice in your kitchen; it's a natural remedy with remarkable potential for enhancing immune health. With its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties, ginger is an excellent choice for those looking to strengthen their immune systems and stay healthy.
Add ginger to soups, grate into warm water as a tea with honey or mint, or combine with anti-inflammatory cinnamon into curries and stews (recipe coming up in the SHE collective recipes)
Allicin in garlic is a potent antioxidant that battles free radicals and oxidative stress. It keeps your cells healthy and your immune system in tip-top shape. Garlic's allicin is a go-to remedy for keeping your respiratory system strong. Breathe easy, knowing you've got a natural ally in your corner! The best part? You can incorporate garlic into countless dishes! Sauté it, roast it, or add it to your favourite recipes. Tasty AND immune-boosting - a win-win!
Zinc helps prevent sore throats and lower the severity of colds. It can be found in foods such as red meat, seafood, brewers yeast, whole grains, pulses, eggs and cheese. The recommended daily amount for zinc is 15mg.
Selenium is a trace mineral found in food sources such as Brazil nuts (the highest), seafood, wholegrains, onions, garlic, broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, radishes and celery. It contributes to cell growth and immune function helping to stimulate natural killer cells which fight viruses and bacteria. It and also helps with thyroid hormones and hormone- like substances called prostaglandins.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is anti-viral and anti-bacterial. It also helps with the absorption of iron to prevent anaemia and promotes the synthesis of collagen needed for repair and growth of healthy tissues so a very important vitamin. It is best taken in divided doses for optimal absorption. If taken in large doses all in one go our bodies will wee out what it doesn’t need at the time! Vitamin C can be found in blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, citrus fruit, mangoes, green peppers, strawberries, green sprouted vegetables, parsley and potatoes. I use ascorbic acid powder in juices and ice-lollies to give to my daughter for an added boost.
Quercetin is a naturally occurring flavonoid found in plant foods and helps protect the immune system with its anti-viral, anti-microbial, antioxidant and anti-allergic effects. Quercetin can be found in capers, elderberry juice, wild rocket, coriander, apple skins, carob flour, cocoa powder, asparagus, and kale. It can also be supplemented and is good support for hay fever in the summer but also not slow down the escalation of a cold in winter.
A healthy microbiome
A healthy gut contributes hugely to a healthy immune system (80% of immune system in the gut) and diet has a huge effect on gut health. The food choices we make for ourselves, and our children can determine the balance of good and not so good bacteria that colonise the gut. Foods’s high in sugar and simple carbohydrates like in ultra-processed food and snacks will help feed pathogenic bacteria, leading to inflammation and health issues. However, eating the rainbow and eating a wide variety of plant foods helps to feed the beneficial bacteria that help with healthy immune function.
Probiotics are a great way to give your body a boost at certain times of year when the immune system may be tested. It’s a good idea to start a few months in advance of when you will need the support to give the bacteria a chance to colonise the gut. But it’s never too late and taking a probiotic can help support your immune function plus help reduce the risk of allergies and food intolerances. It is also worth mentioning that if you have taken antibiotics, probiotics are useful at repairing the loss of beneficial bacteria in the gut that will have been lost when taking antibiotics. There are different strengths and species of probiotics for adults, children and specific health needs so make sure you talk to a nutritional therapist to help you choose the right one.
In summary you can support your family’s immune system to reduce severity of circulating illnesses by choosing a wide variety of plant foods including vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and legumes. Optimal levels to aim for are 2 fruit and 5-7 vegetables a day. Supplementing can be useful for the duration of an illness and probiotic supplement are useful as a preventive measure for supporting overall immune health.