As the days get shorter and cooler and the leaves start to change, we start to wrap ourselves up warm and brace for the months ahead. But somehow, every year we forget about the common cold or winter flu that will do the rounds and undoubtedly wipe us out for a week at some point. Things are a little different this year, and we’re all thinking about how to protect ourselves and our health in the best way possible.
While there’s not one specific thing that you can do to guarantee that you won’t fall ill with the common cold, there are many things that you can incorporate into your lifestyle to keep you as healthy as possible and minimise the risk of getting ill and staying ill. The healthier your body, the better equipped it is to fight infection!
It’s no secret that our diet massively dictates our health, so we need to make sure we’re putting the right things in. A balanced diet is all about getting the right amount of nutrients from a variety of foods. But did you know that there are specific foods that can help strengthen your immune system and prevent the risk of falling in with a cold. Ensure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals by eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables, and if you’re struggling in this area there are plenty of supplements available. Specific roots, herbs, and spices will also help you out in the colder months. Try incorporating ginger and turmeric into your dishes and diets as a natural boost for the immune system.
Drink less alcohol
Fluids, fluids, fluids - being well hydrated is one of the easiest and kindest things you can do for your body. In winter sometimes the idea of drinking massive amounts of cold water isn’t particularly appealing, so how about replacing it with cups of tea or maybe brothy soups. And remember, while coffee is great, and often a necessity to get the day started, caffeine can be dehydrating so don’t replace your water-drinking with coffee!
Another dehydrating liquid to keep an eye on is alcoholic beverages. This isn’t to say you must abstain from drinking any alcohol this winter if you want to avoid a cold, but either drinking too much, or too regularly, will cause a strain on your body, making your immune system weaker and increasing the chance of falling ill.
As well as making you feel low mentally leading to conditions like depression and anxiety, loneliness can also actually make your body physically ill. A study showed that people who were socially isolated developed changes in their immune system which leads to a condition called chronic inflammation. (1) The study revealed that socially isolated people were producing more cortisol (the stress hormone) and too much cortisol causes inflammation and disease.
Although it’s difficult right now to spend time with the ones that we love, try and remember to take the time to reach out to people. Even if it’s just a phone call or a video call, speaking to someone we care about it massively fulfilling and lifting. If you’re lucky enough to live with family or friends, reach out to those who might be a little more lonely this winter.
Remember the basics, like hand washing
Back in March when the severity of the pandemic gripped the world we were flooded with messages from every angle about the importance of handwashing. Although this seems like common sense, and perhaps shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for people to realise, the importance of washing your hands to prevent the spread of infection should continue to be amplified. Think about how many things you touch a day, and then think about all the other people who may have touched it, and the other things they may have touched. This is not to panic you, we all just need to be sensible and wash our hands before we eat, touch our face, or potentially contaminate a space. If you’re out and about carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer so you can clean your hands on the go.
Wearing your mask when you’re out and about in public helps to protect you and those around you. Not only does a face covering prevent the spread and diffusion of droplets, which could potentially carry an infection, but also it helps minimise the chance of you touching your face and spreading infection in that manner. Remember to replace or wash your mask periodically.
Keep surfaces clean
Colds are transmitted from our bodies through coughs and sneezes, but the infection can land (and survive) on surfaces for a significant period of time. To prevent further spread, keep communal surfaces clean (e.g. tables) and wipe down any surfaces with an anti-bacterial spray before eating or preparing food.
The flu jab is available every year in the winter months from either your GP or a local pharmacist (this may differ from country to country). If you are over 65, pregnant, or have an underlying health condition this is generally a requirement. This year health bodies are encouraging everyone to protect themselves with the flu jab, particularly children who are “flu superspreaders”. This will not only help people stay healthy, but avoid the chances of getting flu and Covid at the same time, and lessen hospitalisations this winter.
Exercise (in moderation)
Research shows that regular exercise boosts the body's defense against colds and viruses due as it triggers a recirculation of immune cells associated with bone marrow, the lungs, and the spleen. This doesn’t have to be anything strenuous, just 30 minutes or jogging, cycling, or brisk walking a few times a week. Exercise is also known to release endorphins which are massively beneficial to good mental health. During winter in particular people can suffer with low moods (due to lack of sunlight sometimes), and mental and physical health are intrinsically linked - so looking after your mind is vital for looking after your body.
But it’s important to remember not to overdo it. Look after your body and listen to it, if its hurting or aching don’t push it too far. And if you get cold or wet don’t make yourself continue for the sake of it. By exercising too much, without a proper routine, you may risk making yourself ill from exhaustion or burnout, so be kind to yourself!
Did you know that our body does most of its healing when we are asleep? After we drift off there are a number of things that our body does. First of all, the information from your day is processed and stored in your brain as memories. Additionally, important hormones are released or controlled - melatonin (the sleep hormone) is released which controls your sleep pattern and gives the effect of feeling sleepy and your pituitary gland releases a growth hormone which allows your body to grow and repair. Meanwhile, levels of cortisol (the hormone connected to stress) lower, allowing your body to be rid of the negative effects of stress for a significant portion of the day. When we don’t get enough sleep, or good quality sleep, our body cannot carry out all these vital functions which leaves us feeling worn down, fatigued and susceptible to infection due to our weakened immune system.
Getting all the vitamins and nutrients that we want can be difficult depending on where you are, particularly in winter when foods are out of season. Thankfully there are simple and effective ways to boost your immune system - and no you don’t have to go foraging for some rare tropical fruit! Here are a few supplements you might consider taking: Vitamin C improves immune function and acts as an anti-inflammatory and antihistamine. Vitamin E is an antioxidant, and has proven results in preventing respiratory infections. (2) CBD (cannabidiol) is a natural plant-based compound which can strengthen the immune system by acting as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
We preach the importance of self-care every year, but in 2020 this message is more important than ever. While the trajectory of the next few months may seem uncertain, we do know that we need to look after ourselves and those around us to get through this in the best way possible! Try not to get stressed out about the idea of catching a common cold, as we know stress will do nothing good for your immune system. But this autumn is the time to start incorporating some of these routines and healthy habits into your daily rhythm.
Think about what you’re putting in your body, from the foods you’re eating and the liquids you’re drinking to the supplements you could be taking. Another aspect to consider is how you’re treating yourself physically and emotionally; exercising regularly will nourish your body and mind, whereas social contact (although it may have to be virtual) will help lift your spirits and reduce the risk of physical illness.
We’re going to get through this together, and learn how to be healthier along the way!