It’s that time of year when our soft unprepared bodies threaten to dissolve into snotty feverish messes after the blissful excesses of Christmas and New Year. Too late for me, I’m writing this with crumpled balls of tissues stuffed up my sleeves, trussed up like a woebegone Christmas turkey by a snug British fire.
Maybe it’s partly due to our festive feasting that there’s a surge of body blues in the winter season. A very high-calorie diet or very high-fat diet can hinder our immune system functioning properly, exactly what most of us have been guilty of at this time of year. Maybe it’s because we’re all bundled together in close proximity, increasing transmission from one person to the next. Or in fact, for no reason whatsoever, it may just be one of the average two to four colds that each one of us is likely to get each year.
Instead of letting myself indulge in my woes, I thought I’d share some thoughts on fighting back – bring on 2017 body, let’s do this!
Cohabiting inside each one of us, our inner zoo of trillions of gut microbes is as personal and individual as our own fingerprint, with over 100 times more microbes than cells in our body. Microbes are organisms that are too small to be seen by the naked eye, which makes it even more mind boggling to think that this eclectic collection of invisible bacteria, viruses and yeasts account for about 2kg of our body weight, about the same as two bags of the Brussel sprouts that you didn’t eat at Christmas (should’ve, would’ve, could’ve, am I right?).
This population of trillions of happy gut bacteria, viruses and yeasts are considered to be as complex as your brain, and play an important role in your immune system. These invisible friends aid our immune system by secreting proteins that are toxic to undesirable invaders like our common cold, while others regulate the inflammatory response that signals to the immune system to kickstart into action. There are two ways to give your friendly microbes a helping hand and a little TLC, and that’s through probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics contain strains of happy bacteria, which add more friendly bacteria to the ranks. Some studies have suggested that taking probiotic supplements can reduce the severity and longevity of symptoms of colds and flu, but there also plentiful probiotic bacteria found in fermented foods such as kimchi and kefir yogurt. Prebiotics on the other hand, are natural foods that feed the bacteria themselves, essential to keep your gut population diverse and plentiful. There’s no point increasing your inner army with more soldiers if you aren’t willing to feed and care for them. Foods rich in fibre and polyphenols are prime fodder for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
Prebiotics to feed your gut bacteria:
- Fruits, vegetables and wholegrains are all rich in fibre. Nationwide Britons are falling short of the recommended goal of 18g of fibre per day with an average intake of only 12.8g. There are many different types of fibre, so it is important to eat a wide variety of different types of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains to get the most benefits.
- Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants which also act as prebiotics. Good sources of polyphenols are green tea, dark chocolate and red wine (phew!).
Probiotics eat prebiotics
Top sources of probiotics:
- Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso paste (also act as prebiotics).
- Unpasteurized cheeses, yogurts and milk such as kefir.
- Probiotic supplements.
Taking vitamin C supplements has been widely plugged as a way to prevent us catching colds, but unfortunately there isn’t much substantial scientific evidence to support this. However, on the bright side, Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the severity and the length of a cold, so if you’re already sniveling and snotty concentrate on enjoying whole foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruit (if you need another excuse to eat more satsumas), broccoli, strawberries, and red peppers. It’s cheaper than taking a supplement and the multi-phytochemical components all act together maximizing the benefits, and just so happen to contain a lot of fibre too to keep your gut microbes happy too.
There is some evidence that taking Zinc supplements can help to fight infections, reducing how long a cold can lasts for, speeding recovery and bouncing us back to health. Taking a Zinc supplement within 24 hours of a cold starting has been suggested to reduce symptoms and decrease its lifespan, so hopefully you can be as right as rain and back on your feet sooner than you expected. Long term supplementation isn’t generally recommended due to feelings of nausea and leaving a bad taste in your mouth, ick, sorry guys. Good wholefood sources of zinc include fish, oysters, poultry, eggs, milk, and wholegrains.
Even light exercise can boost immune cell activity. Exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones in your body, and it is these hormones which can reduce immune cell function making you more susceptible to infections. One study on 641 individuals over a year found that regular moderate exercise can lower your risk of flu by 33%, with the greatest benefit seen in autumn and winter.
Your mum was right
Washing hands, keeping surfaces clean and avoiding sneezing on other people can drastically reduce transmission, so basically, everything your mum told you! She really does know best, but you knew that already…