Winter wellness: how to keep your immune system strong

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Expert Karen Geary has your winter immunity essentials: how sleep, gut health, stress reduction and movement are bugging you

The kids are back at school, and the weather has started to chill off – all signs that winter bugs are back. Keeping our immune system strong enough to fend off those bugs is a complex interplay of genetics, age, prior exposure and stress levels. However, there are some things we can all do to bolster our defences and make it through the winter season.

Focus on gut health
We know that 70 per cent of our immune system lives in the gut; the bacteria residing there is called our gut microbiome and it plays a massive role in our immune response. The broader the range of bacteria, the better that response.
This is what we should all do:
Eat prebiotic foods (these contain compounds that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria). Bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, onions, garlic, artichokes and oats are all good choices.
Also eat probiotic foods (these contain live organisms that may improve the gut microbiome). They can be found in fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and kombucha.
Incorporate a diverse range of plants into you​r diet. Up to 30 different plants a week is ideal – but don’t panic, this includes herbs and spices, not just fruits and vegetables! Do what you can.
Eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. A diverse and balanced diet can provide essential nutrients for a robust immune system.
Reduce sugar and alcohol intake. Both weaken your immune system by depleting your anti-viral defences. If you’re someone who frequently catches a cold after drinking too much, that’s likely why!
Stay hydrated. Simply drink plenty of water – dehydration can weaken our body’s defence mechanisms.
Take vitamin D until next spring, as it is essential for optimal immune system function. Ideally, get tested before taking a supplement, but even the NHS recommends taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter months. A daily dosage of 1,000 to 2,000iu’s is generally enough to maintain levels for most people. You can find more information about vitamin D here, as well as details on how to get tested. Vitamin C, zinc and vitamin B12 also support the immune system. While these can be taken in supplements, if your diet is poor, no amount of supplementation will help.

Sleep
Poor sleep habits can wreak havoc on our immune system. If you’re not consistently getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, you need to work on improving your sleep routine!
Sleep habits are highly personal, and it’s a matter of trial and error to find the right routine (find some tips for better sleep in Karen’s Three Surprising Ways To Sleep Better, Apr 22)

Reducing stress
If you’re one of those people who always comes down with a cold while on holiday, it’s a clear sign that you need to find ways to reduce stress. Easier said than done in today’s world, but taking 15 minutes a day just for yourself and doing something you love can make a significant difference. It could be enjoying a coffee with a friend, practising yoga, meditating, singing in the shower or simply pottering in the garden. If you are unlucky enough to become unwell, ensure you take enough time to recuperate fully. Rest and recovery is vital.
Movement
This doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym three times a week or training for a half-marathon! Just a short walk each day can be massively helpful. Even better is ‘NEAT’ (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which describes how we burn calories when we are NOT exercising – just from breathing, sleeping, eating and cleaning. Here are some ways to incorporate NEAT into your daily routine:
Avoid sitting for more than an hour at a time. Get up and do something active, even if it means walking to the next room, going up the stairs or stepping outside for a few minutes of fresh air. In long meetings, consider standing at the back of the room to stretch the legs. For Zoom meetings, turn off your video and do a few sit-ups, jumping jacks or press-ups. They won’t miss you for a minute if there are others on the call.
Track your steps. Download a steps app if you don’t have a tracker – you don’t need to reach 10,000 steps a day; just focus on improving from your current starting point and work up to 6,000.
There is no silver bullet for keeping our immune system in prime condition, but with small changes to your eating habits, sleep routine, stress management and movement, every little bit helps.
Everyone’s immune system is unique, and what works best for one person may not work for another. Tailor your approach to your specific needs and always consult a healthcare professional before you make changes if you have any underlying concerns about your health.

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