It seems like five minutes since we packed the summer beach towels away, now suddenly everywhere people are sniffling, spluttering or complaining of feeling groggy and achy.
Colds, and the more severe flu, are a common part of winter and most of us fall prey at some point or other, but taking action now could help keep these bugs at bay. And at the centre of this strategy is the immune system.
“The immune system’s made of specialised cells and tissues that protect the body from invaders like bacteria and viruses, parasites and fungal infections,” said Mel Wakeman, senior lecturer in applied physiology at Birmingham City University.
“It’s able to detect the presence of foreign bodies and mount an attack in an effort to destroy them and limit any damage they could cause. And it’s heavily involved in healing and repair processes.”
These bacteria and viruses exist all year round, and - despite the common myth - getting cold and wet doesn’t make us more likely to catch them, but these bugs do affect us more during colder months.
But there’s plenty you can do to support your immune health, and hopefully enjoy a less bug-burdened winter.
“It’s well established that better nourished people get less sick, so ensuring your diet’s packed full of highly nutritious foods is a good start, especially as it becomes more tempting to spend cosy nights in with the wrong types of comfort foods as winter closes in,” says Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan.
But don’t wait until you start sniffling to think about reaching for the healthy grub, make it a long-term strategy. “It’s not so much about ‘boosting the immune system’, but more like keeping it working effectively,” he adds.
Christine Bailey, director of Advance Nutrition Ltd, agrees that you need to start now to “keep your immune health functioning well throughout winter”.
We all know the importance of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, but remember that balance is key and including wholegrain foods (like brown rice and wholegrain pasta) and oily fish (a top source of essential fatty acids like omega 3, which is also vital for good immune health) will help ensure you get a good range of nutrients.
Ensure your iron levels aren’t lacking either - red meats are known as an important source of iron, but dark, leafy greens, beans and tofu are also high in iron, especially important if you’re veggie or don’t like red meat.
“Winter’s a great time to start cooking hearty stews, soups and casseroles using in-season root vegetables and pulses which provide a good source of immune-friendly nutrients,” adds Hobson.
“We should all consider taking vitamin D supplements as the clocks go back. Nearly half of us have low levels of this sunshine vitamin in winter, and research shows that people with low vitamin D tend to get more respiratory tract infections,” says Hobson.
Bailey agrees vitamin D is vital, pointing out a 2011 review highlighting its role in reducing the risk of bacterial and viral infections “through the production of the compound cathelicidin, a naturally-occurring anti-microbial and anti-viral.”
Vitamin C, she adds, is the vitamin most commonly used to support immune health. “Several studies show that vitamin C enhances the immune system and helps defend against infections,” says Bailey. “It’s known to increase the production and action of white blood cells, including the ability of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, to attack and engulf viruses. Not only does it seem to prevent flu, it can reduce its duration”
While some vitamins and minerals play more leading roles in immune function, getting a broad range is key.