Winter is usually the time when people experience colds, flu and other infections. We explain the common reasons for this and the best immune boosting foods to help to fend off illness.
How to boost your immune system
Winter is often a time of celebration but also dread for some people. The temperature drops, the nights get longer, both of which can have a negative affect on the immune system. Believe it or not, ultra-violet light from the sun has disinfectant properties and can kill bacteria, and the lack of sun in the winter increases our exposure to bacteria, at a time when our immune systems are at their weakest.
Prioritising health is essential in the winter. Keeping stress at a minimum is important as stress reduces the function of the immune system. Winter festivals can be stressful, often with weeks or months of preparation, so ensure you take some time out for yourself. Making time for meditation, gentle exercise and self-care is important to help with the management of stress and anxiety, and maintaining the function of your immune system.
Winter festivals also bring plenty of sugar. All those desserts, sweets and treats damage more than the waste line. The immune system becomes compromised with each insulin spike, so lots of sugary snacking is bad news. Try to keep sugary foods and drinks to a minimum, and if you do consume them, have them as part of a main meal.
Vitamin deficiencies during winter
Winter infections can be a particular problem if the right nutrients are not consumed. Winter poses a few risk factors for nutrient deficiencies which can easily be avoided with the right knowledge, diet and supplements. Infections usually only occur in individuals who do not provide their body with what it needs, so winter is a great time to start taking immune-boosting supplements.
Vitamin D is the most common vitamin deficiency during winter. The body requires direct sunlight on the skin to synthesise Vitamin D. The limited and weak sunlight in the winter makes this very hard for the body, and as a result, sub-optimal levels and deficiency can occur. Some people are lucky and they can store Vitamin D made in the summer, which will see them through some of the winter, however, many individuals have a limited ability to store Vitamin D, making a Vitamin D supplement during the winter essential. Discover the signs to look out for and how to tell if you're deficient in Vitamin D.
Plant-based food sources of Vitamin D are very limited - the only real source is mushrooms, however, the level of Vitamin D in mushrooms is not enough to provide your only source of Vitamin D.
Vitamin D regulates the immune system and inflammatory response in the body. The immune cells require Vitamin D for their function and regulation, so a deficiency in Vitamin D can leave you vulnerable to infections.
Vitamin D is found in large quantities in a patch of tissue called the GALT, which is also where certain immune cells are housed. Taking a Vitamin D supplement is recommended in the autumn and winter months when the level in your body starts to drop. 2500 IU of Vitamin D3 is an excellent maintenance dose for the winter months and will prevent a drop in Vitamin D levels and help to preserve the function of the immune system.
Learn more why Vitamin D is so important.
A second common vitamin deficiency in the winter is Vitamin C. Since Vitamin C is sensitive to heat, the reduction in raw foods we consume in the winter - and the increase in cooked foods - reduces our intake of Vitamin C. Sugar decreases the absorption of Vitamin C in the gut, so the additional sugar typically consumed in the winter reduces Vitamin C levels in the body further.
The body’s requirement of Vitamin C also increases in times of stress. Vitamin C is released by the adrenal glands alongside stress hormones, so chronic stress can reduce the level of Vitamin C in the body. Learn more about the 6 big signs of stress.
Vitamin C is used as a free-radical scavenger and is used directly by the immune cells. Some immune cells release toxins to destroy bacteria, virally infected cells and debris in the body. These immune cells need Vitamin C to protect them from their own toxins. In times of illness, the body requires larger levels of Vitamin C, so if you do find yourself ill, make sure you take additional Vitamin C to help your immune system fight back.
During the winter months it is beneficial to ensure your body is stocked up on a range of nutrients. Zinc is especially important for helping the immune system fight viruses such as colds, flu and cold sores. Zinc works in balance with Copper, so taking them together in the form of a Daily Multivitamin supplement is advisable.
Vitamin A is another nutrient that is often overlooked, yet essential for the immune system. A Vitamin A deficiency, or excess of Vitamin A, can both cause problems for the immune system. As such, taking Vitamin A within a multi nutrient formula, where it works in balance with other nutrients, is a great way to ensure you are getting the right level.
Best immune boosting foods
Here are 8 immune boosting foods to reach for:
1. Sweet potatoes
There is nothing as good as a sweet potato and white bean stew to come home to, or sweet potato fritters. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta carotene – an antioxidant which helps the body to fend off colds and flu. The longer the sweet potato is cooked, the more biologically active the beta carotene becomes. Try them in a slow cooker for a warm winter wonder.
Try our Sweet Potato Fritters recipe.
Ginger contains a substance called 'gingerol' which has wonderful anti-microbial effects and has an anti-inflammatory action in the body. There are few better places to start your day than a warm ginger tea. For a double dose of goodness, add a slice of lemon too. Or try our Gingerbread cookies recipe.
3. Black aged garlic
Black garlic is a fairly unusual cooking ingredient, yet it has amazing immune boosting properties. Black garlic is left to age, and the allicin breaks down into sulphur amino acid compounds which provide potent power for the immune system. Black aged garlic is particularly good at aiding in the fight against viruses.
An elderberry pie is the ultimate immune boosting desert. Elderberries are rich in antioxidants and for this reason it is used in many over-the-counter cough and flu medicines. Elderberries are a little tart on the tongue though, but be careful if adding sugar, as that could be counterproductive!
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage and is a delicious addition to any meal. The probiotics that grow during the fermenting process are excellent for the immune and digestive system. Learn more in our article 'What are probiotics'.
70% of your immune system originates from your gut, so taking time to look after it with probiotics and fibre like the ones in sauerkraut is a great place to start on you immune boosting journey. Sauerkraut is also one of 7 best foods to help you debloat.
Coconut contains substances called 'lauric acid' and 'capric acid' which convert into monolaurin in the body. Monolaurin is a substance which helps to fight viruses and bacteria, including flu and herpes viruses. Vegan coconut cauliflower cheese anyone?
A great way of adding Turmeric to your diet is Dhal - the Indian way of slow cooking pulses and lentils. Turmeric contains the compound Curcumin which is an anti-inflammatory agent.
Reducing chronic inflammation in the body allows the immune system to focus its attention on microbes that may otherwise make you ill. The great thing about Dhal is that it contains so many other immune supporting foods, so it's a wonderful way to warm you up from the inside.
Learn more in our article 5 benefits of Turmeric.
Kale makes excellent chips and is a perfect snack or side dish. Kale is bursting with antioxidants and Vitamin E which help the immune system to stay strong. Vitamin E is the main antioxidant in human blood plasma and getting enough is essential to keep you strong.
Find more fabulous recipes here.
Discover our range of vegan supplements for immune health.
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