Discover top tips to support your immune system and keep colds at bay, from the best foods to eat to top up vitamin levels to how much exercise you need.
If you're determined to stay cold and flu free, there are some simple steps you can take that might help you dodge those bugs. Supporting your immunity isn't just about taking extra vitamin C. It certainly pays to eat lots of fruit and vegetables that are packed with protective nutrients, but there are other foods you can eat and further actions you can take to give yourself the best chance of feeling fit and healthy, especially over the winter months when flu season hits. Bolster your natural defences with our practical and tasty suggestions.
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.
Include these healthy recipes in your weekly meals:
2. Add garlic and onion to dishes
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 good gut health as prebiotics 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. Eat enough vitamin C
Superstrength vitamin C has long been considered the ideal precaution against catching the common cold and some people insist it can help when you've already succumbed. However, 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.
For the rest of us, eating plenty of fruit and veg every day should give us enough vitamin C to support the healthy function of the immune system. These include leafy, dark green vegetables such as chard and spinach, peppers, broccoli, peas, kiwi fruit and citrus fruits.
Try our vitamin-C rich suggestions:
4. 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, including those of the upper respiratory system. In the winter months, low levels of sunlight mean we need to obtain vitamin D from our diets. There are only a few food sources, of which the best are oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, eggs and mushrooms. Including a selection of these foods regularly throughout the winter months is a good way to top up your vitamin D levels.
Get a vitamin D boost with these delicious recipes:
Discover more about what affects vitamin D levels.
5. Eat more oats and barley
Grains such as 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 – increasing the number and function of protective immune cells.
Try these gorgeous grain recipes:
Discover more about the health benefits of oats.
6. Keep your gut healthy
It's long been known that good gut health is critical to staying fit and well. In fact, more than 60% 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 good bacteria in the gut, but introduce these foods gradually to give your system time to adjust.
Discover more gut health tips and try our recipe suggestions:
7. Wash your hands (and clean your phone!)
When cold and flu season hits, it's worth paying attention to your hygiene habits. 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 a moderate approach.
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) creates a body response of increasing white blood cell production. That's one way to make sure you're awake first thing in the morning!
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This article was last reviewed on 25 June 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
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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