Expert tips on how to stop yourself getting ill this winter, courtesy of our new resident GP and nutritional expert Dr Johanna Ward
As we head into the colder months it’s good to know the best ways to avoid getting ill. December onwards is when we’re most at risk of a being infected with a cold or flu virus. As the weather changes it's important to wrap up warm and take extra care of your immune system.
Strains of flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV, which has cold-like symptoms) are all spread through air droplets – most winter viruses are airborne. It sounds obvious, and easier said than done, but try to make sure no one sneezes on you or that no one who’s ill coughs and splutters on you.
What to eat to avoid a cold
I generally advise people to eat an abundance of leafy greens, as well as plentiful portions of colourful fruit and veg and to drink enough water as this helps protect against winter viruses.
Smoothies are a great way of packing in lots of nutritious greens, fruit and veg into a single serving or try to serve your meals on a bed of greens so you get at least a handful of leafy greens a day. Aim for ten servings of colourful fruit and veg a day to ensure optimal immune function and detoxification.
The immune system is like your inner army that will fight any invading bugs so it’s important that you support it with plentiful micronutrients. Swapping processed foods for real, whole foods will help nourish and support a robust immune system. Try to eat immune-boosting foods such as mushrooms, garlic, kiwis, pumpkin seeds and berries a few times a week to support your immune army.
Get in the habit of sprinkling seeds on your porridge, soups and salads or drizzle garlic on your favourite dishes to super-boost your intake. I try to eat a clove of garlic and three different types of berries each day, especially in winter!
How to avoid catching a cold or flu
It sounds obvious but carrying a bottle of hand sanitiser with you and using it after touching handrails, toilet doors and anything situated in crowded public places really makes a difference. But also remember that phones, kitchen surfaces and steering wheels are also covered in bugs so clean them regularly too. Sometimes you can’t help being around sick people (I can’t in my job!) so the more preventative measures you can take the better.
That hand gel will come in useful when it comes to preventing winter diarrhoea and vomiting bugs, as they tend to come from direct contact - make sure you wash your hands thoroughly throughout the day too and don’t touch your face or eat food if you haven’t.
Bugs spread easily when we are all huddled indoors for long periods of time as we are in the winter. So make sure in the colder months that you still get outside and get some fresh air. Fresh air in the winter is vital because indoor air can be stale, old and full of bugs!
Exercise to keep illness at bay
Regular physical activity boosts the circulation and supports the immune function in the colder months and results in better levels of circulating natural killer cells - the cells that specifically target viruses such as flu. I advise everyone to exercise four or five times a week all year around.
Stress also has a negative impact on your immune system so make sure you learn to manage your stress if you are prone to colds and flu. Try regular yoga , meditation or pilates to help calm the mind and reduce stress levels. Get plenty of sleep too . Studies have found that those who are sleep deprived are four times more likely to get a cold than those achieving seven to eight hours of restful sleep a night.
How to make a cold better
With colds, the more symptoms you have — i.e. the more you sneeze and cough — the more likely you are to spread the infection. These germs can travel up to six feet so always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Better still, stay at home when you’re sick to avoid spreading to others.
If you feel a virus coming on, there are a few things you can do immediately to lessen its severity. Good, restful sleep will boost the immune system and help fight off infections. Aim for seven to nine hours a night, that seems to be the sweet spot for the vast majority of us.
If you struggle to get to sleep then look at your sleep routine and see how you can improve it. Remove all phones and technology from the bedroom, try a sleep mask , get blackout blinds and get into a nighttime routine.
Good sleep requires a bit of self-hypnosis - create a calm environment and get into a headspace that invites sleep in. If you struggle to get to sleep them apps like Calm have sleep meditations that you can try. Hydration is important too so sip on water regularly throughout the day or warm herbal tea.
Aim for eight glasses a day at a minimum but try to avoid fluids just before bed as they can disturb your sleep. For a stuffy nose over the counter saline nasal drops can be effective at loosening the mucus and for a sore throat, saltwater gargling can help to loosen mucus and soothe the pain (put a half teaspoon of salt in a cupful of warm water and gargle for a few minutes).
Which vitamins to take for a cold?
There is some evidence that vitamin C, zinc and echinacea help reduce the length and severity of colds so start taking them as soon as you feel any symptoms. For vitamin C, aim for a dose of one gram per day when you feel a cold coming on and continue for two weeks. A recent Cochrane review found that zinc supplementation (as lozenges or tablets) can help reduce the duration and severity of a cold but it made no recommendation about dosage.
If you want to try zinc then take a daily dose of 10mg over the winter months, which should ensure that your levels are topped up. For fever and body aches over-the-counter paracetamol and ibuprofen can help. Vitamin D3 (2000iu daily), omega 3 (1000mg EPA/DHA daily) and probiotics (multi-strain with at least 20billion CFU’s) are also helpful.
For anyone with susceptibility to influenza (ie those with asthma, previous TB, cancer, chronic disease or for those that are elderly) then it’s worth getting the flu jab every winter. It’s the best way to prevent flu and reduces your risk by over 50%. Have it early in the winter season at it takes two weeks to develop a full immune response.
Got a medical, nutrition or aesthetics question for Dr Johanna Ward? Email us at email@example.com and we'll answer the best.
Dr Johanna Ward studied English Literature at Oxford University before moving to London to start her medical studies at Guys Kings and St Thomas Medical School. She worked in A&E & trauma medicine before becoming a GP with an interest in skin and nutrition. She gained Diploma in Clinical Dermatology and is an advanced laser practitioner and has been a passionate wellness advocate and educator on the benefits of lifestyle and preventative medicine. She is the founder of Zenii Vitality and Skincare and author of Superfoods to Super Health: intelligent and sustainable food choices for the next generation . She is currently resident lead aesthetic doctor at Tracey Mountford's Clinic in Marylebone.