There are plenty of ways to combat winter colds, flu, slower circulation and sorer joints
A bowl of chicken soup is the ultimate comfort food. Research in the American Journal of Therapeutics found that a compound in chicken soup – carnosine – helps the immune system fight the early stages of flu.
What you include in your chicken soup recipe can enhance the benefits. Studies show that organosulfides (naturally occurring chemicals in onions and garlic) stimulate the production of a type of immune cell called macrophages, while vitamin A and carotenoids – found in carrots – help antibody production, and vitamin C (also in carrots and onions) boosts white cell production.
The compound theobromine, found in cocoa, has a soothing effect on coughs, says nutritional therapist Judy Watson.
‘One clinical trial found that theobromine reduces the symptoms of both chronic (long term) and acute (sudden and tickly) coughs and it’s thought to block the sensory nerves, in turn halting the cough reflex.
‘For optimum benefits you need 1,000mg of theobromine daily, with dark unsweetened chocolate providing the most, at 450mg per ounce [28.3g].’
It may feel counter-intuitive in winter, but it pays to swap stodgy winter food for plenty of fresh raw fruit and vegetables, says Dr Enid Taylor, a naturopathic doctor at the Taymount Clinic fordigestive health in Hitchin, Herts (taymount.com).
‘When you’re eating a lot of cooked food, your immune system’s white cells rush to the gut to see what’s going on, meaning they’re not available to fight infections elsewhere in the body.’
Brazil nuts are the richest source of anti-ageing, anti-cancer selenium. Three to four nuts
a day are the equivalent to a 200mcg supplement. ‘Selenium is also a key nutrient for thyroid health,’ says Helen Ford, of the Dr Marilyn Glenville Clinic.
‘Eat Brazil nuts as a snack, add them to muesli and porridge, and crush them into salads.’
It’s an excellent winter immune booster, as it has natural antibacterial properties and, because it supports healthy blood flow, is great for circulatory problems, like Raynaud’s disease, says Helen Ford. ‘Grate it into warm water with lemon for a cleansing morning drink, and add it to curries and stir-fries.’
Broccoli, kale and cavolo nero (a dark green leafy Italian cabbage) – best steamed or lightly stir-fried – are all full of vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin K, together with ‘nature’s tranquilliser’ magnesium.
Helen Ford says, ‘Magnesium is particularly good for hormone balance and is useful for mood swings, irritability and period cramps. Leafy greens are also packed full of fibre, which is important for digestive health and lowering cholesterol.’
Coughs are common at this time of year but most are viral, not bacterial, so antibiotics won’t help. Treat at home with a honey and lemon hot drink or cough syrup – ask your pharmacist for the best one for your cough type.
See your GP if your cough lasts for more than three weeks.
Think of it as a supercharged form of walking – and a great way to keep fit if you don’t want to leave the house.
A Harvard study found that people who walk up the stairs, even slowly, burn calories three times faster than when walking faster on a level surface.
Your staircase workout will also enhance your fitness even if you’re a regular at the gym or a budding marathon runner and it’s estimated to be twice as vigorous as lifting weights or walking on a steep incline.
‘The vigorous and continuous movement of your legs and hips results in deeper breathing and increased heart rate and this enhances blood flow to all areas of your body,’ says Nicola Addison, of Eqvvs Personal Training (eqvvs.com).
‘Your body releases natural pain relievers (endorphins) during a stair climb, so you’ll feel better and have less tension.’
Doctors also recommend stair-climbing to improve your energy, increase the function of your immune system and lower your risk for diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Another great indoor activity – and worth investing in a mini-trampoline (£40-£100 from Amazon.co.uk) to do it – rebounding will make you feel like a kid again, but it also has myriad health benefits.
Thirty years ago, a study concluded that rebounding was the most efficient, effective form of exercise yet devised by man – and NASA scientists agreed!
‘First and foremost it’s a way of exercising hard with minimal impact on your joints, and that makes it ideal for anyone worried about arthritis,’ says Nicola Addison.
Bouncing on your mini-trampoline will stimulate your cardiovascular system, while also shaking up and draining toxins (such as dead or cancerous cells, viruses and metals) from your lymphatic system.
The whole point of exercise is that it should be fun. Nicola Addison explains, ‘Think about doing something you enjoy first, and, as long as it also gets your limbs moving and your heart pumping, you’re on to a good thing.’
Whether you plump for Zumba or rumba, studies have shown that dancing improves balance, even in frail elderly people – and that’s important to prevent potentially devastating falls.
One study found that dance helped people cope better with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, while all types of dancing have also been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and stress and to boost self-esteem.
Have a cold shower!
Strange but true – a daily cold shower can also boost the immune system, increasing the number of infection-fighting T-cells, according to the British College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Ease yourself in with a 30-second blast to different parts of your body at the end of your normal hot shower.
Use winter as an excuse to hibernate and get plenty of top-quality sleep. ‘It’s every bit as important to sleep well as it is to eat healthily and exercise regularly. Your health will suffer if you don’t get enough zzzzs,’ says sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley (thesleepconsultancy.com).
‘Lack of sleep will hike your risk of back pain, pile on pounds (the less you sleep, the more levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin rise to cause cravings for sugary foods), and increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia and cancer.
‘Women who do night shifts for three years have 65% more risk of developing breast cancer because their natural sleep pattern is disrupted.’
Win the battle of the bulge
This may be the time of year when you naturally gain more weight, and can easily hide it under a big woolly jumper – but it’s worth resisting the call of comfort foods as studies show that excess weight leads to hormonal imbalances and inflammation that impair the immune system, and those with a BMI over 40 are more likely to become seriously ill during a flu epidemic, according to one study.
It’s an aerobic activity with psychological benefits, producing feel-good endorphins and reducing stress levels. A Harvard and Yale study found that singing in a choir can even increase life expectancy.
Another study at the University of California found higher levels of immune-system proteins in the saliva of choristers after performing a complex Beethoven masterwork. And, in Sweden, researchers found singing gives the heart a workout.
Doing something arty that engages your mind can replace negative thoughts and create a state of peace – it’s called active mindfulness, and is the reason that the French are now buying more adult colouring books than cookbooks.
A San Francisco study found that this kind of creative activity will help you cope better with stress, and also enhance your productivity at work.
Try The Mindfulness Colouring And Activity Book (£8.99, Capstone)
Up to a million people in the UK are affected by the winter vomiting bug norovirus every year – with cases usually peaking in November. Regular hand-washing – with warm soapy water – is the best way to keep the bug at bay.