Autumn is here and with it the inevitable onset of the cold and flu season. The flu tends to peak around December and wane from February/March. You can catch a cold all year round, but it does appear to be more prevalent during the cold months.
Research suggests that the flu virus thrives in colder, dry weather – having said that, it can also survive in more humid climates, so scientists are still not entirely sure how the cold and flu viruses behave in the environment. It does appear, though, that cold air affects our nasal passages, slowing down mucus clearance, which is the first line of defence when it comes to upper respiratory tract infections.
Viruses like the common cold and flu, along with any inhaled bacteria, are caught by your nasal mucus. It's then swallowed, with any infection getting destroyed by your stomach acid. Colder air can impede this process.
In addition to the climate, our lifestyles are different during autumn and winter, increasing susceptibility to colds and flu. We aren't exposed to enough sunlight to boost our vitamin D and strengthen immunity. We also shut ourselves in, closing windows, while sharing the same circulating air as infected people.
If you always get ill during winter, or you'd like to protect yourself as much as you can, there are natural ways you can fend off colds and flu and shorten their duration should you become ill. Here are 8 natural ways to defend yourself against colds and flu.
1) Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
Maintaining healthy practices in day-to-day life, all year round, is the best overall defence for any illness, including colds and flu.
One thing we should all be doing is ensuring we are drinking enough water.
Even mild dehydration can cause symptoms like tiredness and headaches, so imagine the health impact of consistently not drinking enough.
You need water. Without it, you cannot live. It assists every single function in your body and keeps your immune system strong. Water is necessary for transporting nutrients and oxygen to each one of your cells while also keeping them clean and flushing out toxins.
Dehydration may increase your chances of getting colds and flu and may also make you more prone to a blocked nose and sore throat.
Adequate rehydration is essential if you are ill, to help you fight off a virus. Symptoms like fever, coughing, diarrhoea and a lack of appetite can all contribute to dehydration, so it’s imperative to replenish fluids if you are ill.
Water hydrates the mucous membranes in your nose, preventing germs from reaching your lungs. It can help to ease nasal irritation and regulate your body temperature.
So, to reduce your risk of colds and flu, or any other illness for that matter, aim to drink around two litres of water per day. Avoid caffeinated drinks and hydrate with an extra glass or two of water if you do.
Drink more if you are exercising. If you become ill, monitor how much you are drinking to ensure you’re getting enough fluids and take some electrolytes, providing you with essential minerals to help you to hydrate more effectively.
2) Take a vitamin D supplement
Vitamin D plays an essential role in your immune response and helps protect you from illness. Healthy levels can help defend against colds, the flu and other respiratory infections.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, get out in the sunshine as much as you can during the summer months. Expose as much of your skin as possible, for short bursts, without sunscreen (but be safe and cover up before you start to burn).
The darker your skin, the longer you need to bare it to the sun.
Once we get to autumn and right the way through to spring, it’s advisable to take a daily vitamin D3 supplement. It’s also a good idea to supplement in the summer if you don’t get out in the sun very much.
Some research shows that while taking a vitamin D supplement can protect against colds and flu, it’s most effective in people whose levels are low. It’s thought to work by boosting levels of antimicrobial peptides (natural antibiotic-like substances) in the lungs.
If you often suffer from winter colds or are worried about the flu, it may be worth getting your levels checked by your doctor in case they are low as it could make you more susceptible to illness. The NHS also sell vitamin D test packs.
Public Health England recommends children from the age of one year, and adults should take 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day (400 IU) during autumn and winter.
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the safe upper limit for daily vitamin D supplementation in adults is 4,000 IU. That said, some studies have found that daily doses of 10,000 IU are well tolerated in adults.
In light of COVID-19, some researchers and doctors have formed an international alliance to encourage governments to increase the daily vitamin D recommendations to 4,000IU as they believe it would reduce COVID hospitalisations. More on that here.
For more information on vitamin D, how to get enough and how it protects your lungs and boosts immunity, click here.
3) Take regular, moderate exercise
Intense exercise can lead to immunosuppression, which may cause an increased risk of infection. It also has the potential to damage your protective gut lining, causing a leaky gut, alter your gut microbiome and the way you metabolise food.
With over 70% of your immune system stemming from your GI tract, this can also negatively impact immunity.
On the other hand, moderate exercise can boost immunity and may help to down-regulate excessive inflammation within the respiratory tract, aiding in the activation of innate antiviral immunity. It releases feel-good hormones, lifting mental-emotional wellbeing and helps to reduce blood pressure and the risk of diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Brisk walking is an excellent example of moderate exercise. Research shows that it can help to protect you from colds and flu and aid more swift recovery.
According to Harvard Medical School, a study with over 1,000 adults found that those who walked for 20 minutes or more every day, five days a week, had 43% less sick days than those who exercised once weekly or less.
If the regular walkers did become ill, their symptoms were milder and were over more quickly.
You can enhance the walking effect by striding out into nature which is known to increase strength and vitality, raise immunity, reduce inflammation and relieve stress.
Other examples of moderate exercise are cycling no more than 10 to 12 miles per hour, leisurely swimming, water aerobics, ballroom dancing, or light jogging.
4) Get plenty of sleep
Over time, poor sleep can have a considerably negative impact on your health and wellbeing.
Depression, high blood pressure, cognitive impairment, neurodegenerative diseases and increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes are just some of the conditions linked to sleep loss. It may also shorten your lifespan.
Lack of sleep can weaken your immune system, making you more prone to colds and flu. Lowered immunity means that you may also take longer to recover.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults between the ages of 26 and 64 should get between seven to nine hours of sleep a night. If you struggle with insomnia or find it hard to get to sleep, you may benefit from these sleep techniques or taking a sleep supplement.
5) Stock up on zinc
Zinc activates your immune system, fights infection and reduces inflammation. It can help to lessen the symptoms of a cold while shortening its duration.
Eating a balanced diet is essential for a healthy immune system, and many foods are rich in zinc. We don’t store it and need to replenish zinc regularly, so stock up on these foods every day to help support your immunity:
- Grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, and chicken legs.
- Oysters and other seafood.
- Pumpkin, sesame, hemp seeds and almonds.
- Legumes, eggs, quinoa, brown rice and oats.
The Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews recommends that adults take a daily dose of 75mg for the duration of a cold.
If you are not ill but would like to take a daily supplement, in the UK, the daily RNI for zinc is 7mg for women and 9.5mg for men aged 19 to 50 years.
Make sure you don’t overdose, as too much zinc can inhibit copper absorption!
6) Eat lots of vitamin C foods
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps to fight infection. Research is conflicted, with some showing that it may not prevent a cold.
But a study published by the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that higher vitamin C levels from eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can decrease the risk of respiratory infection.
Research also shows that vitamin C does shorten the duration of a cold.
The pooling of data from several trials indicates that very active people like athletes, marathon runners or soldiers may benefit from vitamin C supplements as it could cut the risk of catching a cold by half.
For full immune system benefits, you need to eat vitamin C foods daily, not just if you become ill. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables should provide healthy amounts of vitamin C, but you may also benefit from supplementing should you become unwell.
Vitamin C foods include bell peppers, leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries and other berries, papaya, oranges and other citrus fruits, tomatoes and green peas.
7) Relax, unwind, destress
Our minds and bodies are so closely linked, and it’s gradually becoming more accepted that emotions and illness are connected.
Stress has a marked effect on immunity and reduces your body’s ability to fight infection. Also, when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessively drinking, comfort eating, or smoking.
If you’re anxious, stressed out or depressed, you may not sleep as well, and your gut health can also suffer. All these things affect immunity.
Not everyone is aware of how stressed they are, but their body may be responding to it nonetheless. So, as part of a healthy living plan, it’s essential to look after your mental and emotional wellbeing as a matter of course.
What you eat can help to buffer the negative physical impact of stress, as well as balance and uplift your moods. Adequate exercise and getting good sleep are also essential for managing any adverse physical and mental effects.
Conscious lifestyle decisions and choices can also make a significant difference. For instance, how often do you think about what makes you feel truly joyful and happy?
And how often do you work on how to bring more of that into your life? It doesn’t have to be bells and whistles; you can get immense pleasure from the smallest of things. But whatever it is, seeking out and acting out whatever brings you joy can be a powerful stress shifter.
The connections you make are important too. Keeping good company and spending time with uplifting people can create positive feelings and shift your perspective in a good way.
Regular relaxation practices and techniques are also great stress relievers. Try deep breathing, muscle relaxation, Tai Chi, meditation, stretching, yoga, mindfulness, mindful movement, self-massage or visualisation.
You can also start a new hobby, get into gardening, read a good book or take up painting – the list goes on. Just find what works for you and do it regularly.
For more articles on how to relieve stress, click here.
8) Drink bone broth
As part of a healthy, balanced diet, try a daily cup of bone broth. It can help repair damage to your gut lining and encourage the healthy growth of gut bacteria, easing inflammation and improving immunity.
Research shows that chicken broth reduces inflammation in the upper respiratory tract, helping to clear the nasal passages and lessening the severity of colds.
Bone broth is also packed full of vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that can boost and feed your immune system while helping to keep you hydrated.
There are plenty of 24-hour bone broth recipes online. Just be sure to use organic bones as you don’t want to take in any of the toxins the bone marrow or bones have absorbed from non-organic rearing methods.
These include routine exposure to antibiotics, toxic chemicals like pesticides and insecticides and growth-stimulating hormones. It’s also beneficial to add vinegar to the broth while cooking to leech the valuable collagen and minerals from the bones.
In a nutshell, eat a balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fruits and other whole foods daily to get all the nutrients you need for a robust immune system.
It’s not just about vitamin C and zinc. You need a well-rounded intake of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients if you want to be well.
Don’t forget to drink enough water, either. It can boost immunity, flush out toxins, ease cold and flu symptoms and help you to fight a virus should you become ill. It’s hard to get enough vitamin D from food, so it’s advisable to take a supplement, at least during autumn and winter.
But staying healthy to ward off colds and flu isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about making sensible lifestyle choices. Getting enough sleep, managing your stress levels and taking regular, moderate exercise are all critical components too.
So for good health this autumn and winter, you know what to do!
By Rebecca Rychlik, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
Water for Health Ltd began trading in 2007 with the goal of positively affecting the lives of many. We still retain that mission because we believe that proper hydration and nutrition can make a massive difference to people’s health and quality of life. Click here to find out more.
If you often suffer from winter colds, or are worried about the flu, it’s worth getting your Vitamin D levels checked by your doctor.