How to prevent a cold
Discover our top tips to support your immune system and keep colds at bay, from the best foods to eat, to how much exercise you should do.
If you're determined to stay cold- and flu-free this season, there are some simple steps you can take that might help you dodge the bugs. Supporting your immunity isn't just about getting extra vitamins, although it certainly pays to eat lots of fruit and vegetables. There are other foods and actions you can take to give yourself the best chance of feeling fit and healthy over the winter months. So why not bolster your natural defences with our practical and delicious suggestions?
Read on to discover why you should:
- Eat lots of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables
- Add garlic and onion
- Meet your vitamin D needs
- Eat more oats and barley
- Include healthy fats
- Keep your gut healthy
- Wash your hands
- Keep active
- Have a hot and cold shower
- And get plenty of restorative sleep
1. Eat lots of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables
Vegetables such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash and beetroot are rich in beta-carotene which our bodies convert to vitamin A. We need vitamin A to keep the mucosal linings in our nose and lungs robust enough to defend against infection. Other foods to include are orange and red fruits such as oranges, mango, apricots and melon.
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Fruit and vegetables are also often good sources of vitamin C, which may support the immune system. Although vitamin C has long been considered a useful precaution against catching the common cold, and some people insist it can help when you've already succumbed, studies suggest that high doses of vitamin C are most relevant for people exposed to brief periods of intense physical stress such as endurance athletes, or those living in very cold environments.
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2. Cook with garlic and onion
This amazing family of vegetables contain potent oils that have an anti-microbial action, so they may help protect against bacterial and viral infections. They also support gut health because they are prebiotic – by promoting the growth of healthy bacteria.
Trials supporting the efficacy of garlic in preventing the common cold have been of poor quality up to this point, so there is little clinical evidence. But, as garlic and onion both have impressive health benefits, they are still worth including in your diet. If you hate garlic breath or that potent aftertaste, look out for fermented black garlic. It has a rich balsamic flavour and is said to be twice as active as regular garlic, without the unfavourable after effects!
Try garlic and onion in these nutrient-packed dishes:
Herb & garlic pork with ratatouille
Pepper-crusted salmon with garlic chickpeas
Mediterranean fish stew with garlic toasts
Caramelised carrots & onions
Healthy French onion soup
Artichoke, red onion & rosemary risotto
3. Get enough vitamin D through sunlight or food
Vitamin D is an important nutrient for overall health and studies have shown that people low in this vital vitamin are at a greater risk of infection. In the winter months, low levels of sunlight mean we need to obtain vitamin D from our diet. However, with only a few food sources to choose from, this can be tricky. Aim to include oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, eggs and mushrooms. Eating a selection of these foods regularly during winter is a useful way to top up your vitamin D levels.
However, because getting adequate amounts is difficult, UK guidelines suggest everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) consider taking a daily supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the autumn and winter months.
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Discover more about what affects vitamin D levels.
4. Eat more oats and barley
Oats and barley are rich in a water-soluble fibre called beta-glucans, which as well as keeping us full and satisfied, has a valuable immune modulatory effect as it helps increase the number and function of protective immune cells.
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Discover more about the health benefits of oats.
5. Include healthy fats
Omega-3 fats are essential for many aspects of health including immune cell production, which is why guidelines recommend we include fish twice per week. At least one portion should be the oily variety, such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout. If you are vegetarian or vegan be sure to include plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids like chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts and, if appropriate, consider a supplement.
6. Keep your gut healthy
We now appreciate that good gut health is critical to staying fit and well. In fact, more than 70% of our immune defences lie along the mucosal lining of our gut, so keeping it in tip top condition is a first line of defence against infection. Including probiotic foods like live yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut can help to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut. If these foods are new to you then introduce them gradually to give your digestive system time to adjust.
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7. Wash your hands (and clean your phone!)
When cold and flu season hits, it's worth paying attention to your hygiene. If you really want to dodge that cold, be scrupulous – wipe any shared keyboards and phones with an antiseptic wipe before use. Wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your face – especially your mouth and nose.
8. Keep active
Get out into the daylight as much as possible and keep physically active. Moderate exercise can help to support the immune system because it stimulates the production of white blood cells – the cells that defend us from illness. It's worth noting, however, that repeated excessive exercise can diminish the immune response, so stick to moderate levels.
9. Have a hot and cold shower
It's an unusual tip, but might be worth trying if you're really keen to avoid a cold. One study found that varying the temperature of a daily shower from hot to cold (about every 2-3 minutes) initiates an increase in white blood cell production. If nothing else, it's one way to make sure you're awake first thing in the morning!
10. Get restful sleep
There’s a close link between our immune system response and the quality of our sleep.
Studies have revealed that sleep and our circadian rhythm (the natural sleep/wake cycle) have a strong regulatory effect on the immune system. There’s still more for us to learn in this area, but it is thought that people who work shifts have an increased risk of catching viral infections. Whatever your daily patterns, give yourself the best possible chance of a good night’s sleep by ensuring a comfortable, dark bedroom and take time to relax before you retire for the evening.
Get more useful tips to improve your sleep.
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A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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