Stay Well This Winter

Sue Hay's feature from Women's Fitness Magazine Jan 2010

When our immune system is not at its best we can become more susceptible to all the ailments doing the rounds - colds, flu or even just plain fatigue. So how do we make our immune system work more efficiently? Women’s Fitness readers already know (or should do!) that eating a healthy diet is important, along with regular exercise and a less stressful life, but there are many ways to give our immune system a boost. Here are some tips that will help to keep the bugs at bay during the winter months. 

There is little doubt that a healthy diet is by far the most effective way of strengthening your immune system. Aim to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, low fat dairy products, whole grains, eggs, fish and lean meat. Fresh fruit and vegetables, which have high antioxidant levels, are a must as they provide concentrated levels of vitamin A, C, E and beta-carotene. The best winter seasonal fruit and vegetables to boost the immune system include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbages, garlic, kale, onions, peppers, spinach, apples, Brazil nuts, clementines, cranberries,  mandarins, satsumas, walnuts and tangerines.

Essential fatty acids    
Oily fish, including sardines, herrings, mackerel, pilchards, salmon and trout, are excellent for helping to strengthen your immune system. Oily fish is a highly concentrated source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated oils closely linked to immune efficiency. Our body cannot manufacture omega-3, so it is vital that we get it from our diet. Aim to eat once a week or alternatively supplements are available for both fish oil and omega-3.

Chase away the chill with a hearty, healthy homemade soup. With the variety of vegetables around at this time of year, what could be more satisfying than a comforting bowl of goodness served with crusty wholemeal bread. Did you know that chicken soup is renowned for its medicinal properties? It’s even called penicillin in a bowl! It has been proven to help relieve colds and flu by suppressing the inflammation that exacerbates sore throats and excess mucus.

Although our body will attempt to naturally detoxify toxins through the lymphatic system, it may need a little help. An excess of toxins can cause low energy levels, poor digestion, headaches, allergies, weight gain, skin problems, etc. So who needs convincing? Drinking at least six glasses of water each day will encourage lymphatic drainage, helping to remove unwanted toxins from the bloodstream and lightening the load of the all-important immune system.

Green tea
Research shows that drinking three or more cups of tea a day is as good for you as drinking water. It is believed that flavonoids are the key ingredient in tea that promotes health. Green tea is the least processed kind of tea, as it contains the most EGCG (Epigallocatechin Gallate) of all tea varieties, which has the antioxidant power of vitamins A, C and E. 

If you want to drink AND also absorb important vitamins at the same time then a smoothie is probably the best drink for those on the go. Smoothies can be made with a wide variety of fresh, frozen or tinned fruit or fresh raw vegetables.

It’s possible to increase the strength of your immune system with some herbal power. Combining natural vitamins with some of nature’s remedies will go a long way toward preventing you from catching colds or flu, and improving your immunity during the winter.

When it comes to the immune system and natural remedies, then Echinacea comes into its own. Known as the ‘immune herb’, Echinacea’s anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties have made it probably the best-selling natural remedy. It is often used as a natural alternative to antibiotics to treat and reduce the severity of common infections such as colds and flu. Available in the form of capsules, concentrated drops, tincture and extracts, Echinacea is most effective when used as a short-term remedy until any infection clears.

Like Echinacea, garlic has a reputation as one of nature’s miracle cures. Garlic has been used for thousands of years as an antibiotic, as it features strong anticoagulant, anti-viral and antibacterial properties. Garlic contains many phytochemical compounds, one of which is allicin (released when a garlic is cut or crushed), which is believed to be responsible for its wide-ranging therapeutic properties. These compounds are thought to produce powerful antioxidant activity, helping to stimulate the immune system and mop up free radicals. One or two cloves of garlic each day, in cooking or smoothies, will help to boost your immunity, and give protection against colds and flu. Alternatively there are many forms of garlic supplements that can be taken every day.

Used in cooking to enhance other flavours and to provide a special one of its own, ginger can also help to improve circulation and digestion, and can be drunk as a herbal remedy to promote perspiration and reduce temperature from cold or flu symptoms.

‘Tis the festive season, and for most of us that means plenty of time to watch Christmas specials on TV, tuck into the tin of chocolates and indulge in mince pies drenched with double cream. And if that’s not all, we have to contend with Christmas parties presenting buffets groaning under mounds of tempting pastry and fried nibbles, and enough alcohol to see us through the next three months! So it’s not really unsurprising that many of us feel sluggish, put on weight and succumb to any ailment that’s going around at this time of year!

Party tricks
During the silly season, try to maintain your usual exercise regime if possible, or wrap up warm and go for a brisk daily walk, especially when that post-Christmas sluggish feeling sets in. If going to a party, always have a light snack a few hours beforehand so you don’t hover and overindulge at the buffet table. Steer clear of fried and pastry-wrapped foods such as battered prawns and wontons, vol-au-vents, sausage rolls and quiche. Opt instead for lean beef, chicken, turkey, ham, smoked salmon, fresh prawns, salads, French bread (without the butter), crudités, breadsticks, salsa, tzatziki or small slices of pizza.


1. Exercise is good for you!
During the cold winter months, it’s very tempting to stay wrapped up indoors. But maintaining or even starting an exercise regime will really benefit your immune system and help to fight winter blues.

2. Vitamin C fights cold & flu symptoms
Vitamin C is not proven to prevent colds and flu, but it can help to lessen the symptoms, shorten the duration and increase immunity.

3. Lower your ‘bad carb’ intake
Try to consume more complex carbohydrates such as porridge and wholegrains for sustained energy.

4. Echinacea boosts immunity
Echinacea limits the duration and severity of infections by stimulating immune system cells that are key weapons against infection.

5. Chicken Soup – ‘penicillin in a bowl’!
No, it’s not a myth or just a soothing comfort food. Eating homemade chicken soup has been proven to help relieve colds and flu.