As we kiss goodbye to the summer that never was and dig out the winter coat, it’s not just the chill in the air that we’re preparing for, but the annual onslaught of the common cold and flu.
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It’s still unknown why we’re more susceptible to falling ill in autumn and winter. Some studies suggest it’s because we spend more time indoors where germs have a better chance of spreading between bodies, while for parents and teachers, it’s likely to be because the colder months coincide with back to school season and the exposure to hundreds of children and their germs.
There are some things we can’t change, but there are a number of straightforward changes we can make to our daily routine to boost our immunity and keep the sniffles at bay.
Sleeping seems like far too easy a solution to staving off the winter ills but giving your body the chance to reboot is one of the most effective ways of building your energy and giving your infection-fighting cells the chance to replenish.
“People go to huge amounts of time and expense to eat well and exercise regularly but without a good night’s sleep all that effort will be in vain,” says Jessica Alexander from the Sleep Council. “Lack of sleep suppresses your immune system making you more vulnerable to infections and metabolic and hormone changes.”
Of course trying to sleep more and actually doing it are two very different things, but going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time will help (even at weekends!), as well sticking to a regular pre-bed routine.
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The good news is that one or two drinks won’t cause your body too much distress. But drinking more than three on a regular basis does you no favours when you’re trying to stay cold-free. Ignore those old wives’ tales about booze beating bacteria; too much alcohol actually suppresses the body’s ability to fight bacteria and viruses.
Some studies suggest that drinking wine (rather than beer or spirits) on a moderate basis can protect against the common cold. But research into whether this is beneficial is limited, so if you can’t give it up, it’s best to stick to just a couple, says Angie Jefferson, dietitian and member of the Nutrition Society: “As the results from different studies vary we cannot say for certain whether moderate alcohol intakes boost or lower immunity. However, larger amounts - more than three drinks per day - definitely appear to have detrimental effects.”
Wash your hands
There’s a reason for all those signs in public toilets telling you to wash your hands - they carry millions of bacteria that can stay alive for up to three hours.
Reducing our contact with bacteria picked up in day to day life, by things such as hot-desking or just getting on a bus, is hugely beneficial. The best way to do this? Simply wash your hands regularly and if you’re out and about, carry an anti-bacterial gel that will sanitise your hands without the need for water.
When the days get shorter and there’s a chill in the air, the desire for a salad seems to disappear with the rays of the sun. But eating hearty, comforting food will do no harm to the immune system, as long as it’s also rich in the nutrients we need.
A healthy balanced diet should be your basic starting point to getting the right spread of vitamins and minerals, including fibre rich cereals such as wholemeal breads and breakfast cereals, fewer animal fats, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. And while we are sold a range of multi-vitamins and supplements aimed at keeping us well, a healthy balanced diet will do the job for most people.
“No supplement is guaranteed to keep you well, and indeed some can do you harm,” says Angie. “If you choose to take a supplement the best choice is a one-a-day type containing a wide range of vitamins and minerals as these all work together to boost the body’s defence against infection.”
Exercise - in moderation
But the benefits to sticking at it through the colder months can be huge. There’s no doubt that exercise is the cornerstone to keeping the body healthy, and while there hasn’t been enough research into its direct effect on the immune system, the benefit to our overall health and boost to energy and mood is enough to make experts advise we keep it up, according to Harvard medical school.
When it gets colder outside, it’s more important to stay warm - something that exercise also helps with. But don’t overdo it - the jury is still out on the impact of intensive exercise on the body and the immune system.
Read more about staying healthy at this time of year in our seasonal health section.