Autumn has arrived rather quickly this year, which means more colds, coughs and other illnesses. But why do we tend to get more bugs in winter and how can we prevent them?
With the change in season comes the inevitable rise in coughs and sneezes, but it is not the winter itself that makes us ill, but the sort of germs, how they travel, spread and behave that changes. Changes in our patterns have an impact, too: we spend more time indoors, which means that the 'flu and other viruses are in a confined space, so they spread more easily. To make matters worse, the constant switching between cold outside air to dry indoor centrally-heated air inside makes your body a prime breeding ground for viruses and helps them to spread.
That said, many viruses, particularly the ’flu viruses, thrive in these colder temperatures – it makes them tougher and, therefore, harder to kill, which means they stick around longer and spread further.
There has also been a fair amount of research in recent years looking at the way our DNA changes during different seasons. The studies have looked at many different climates and seem to show that our DNA can change up to one quarter in different seasons. The most dramatic change occurs in cold winter months, when we become more predisposed to inflammation, which has a negative knock-on effect on fighting infection and our general wellbeing.
So we can’t change the weather, but we can boost our immunity through diet and exercise. Take a look at our guide on what to eat and how to exercise in order to keep the germs at bay.
What specific foods should I be eating?
Arguably the most important substance to help boost immunity, especially when exercising a lot. Vitamin C is the well-known hero of all antioxidants, which is why it is so commonly known for preventing and fighting illness, although bear in mind that your body can only absorb so much, so mega-doses are not necessary if you’re getting the recommended daily amount.
Here’s a bit of science to explain why antioxidants are so effective:
Free radicals are atoms with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons and can be formed when oxygen interacts with certain other molecules. Exercise creates more oxygen, which means a higher chance of more free radicals. Once formed, these highly-reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. The danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cells or cell membranes, including our DNA. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs. To prevent that happening, our bodies need antioxidants to mop up all the free – or unpaired – atoms.
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Science class over, here are some important antioxidants and the foods they are found in:
Inflammation is the body’s way of fighting a problem. However, it can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the body’s functions, so a non-inflamed state is healthiest. This means the body doesn’t constantly think it is fighting something, but when it needs to, it has the resources available, rather than using them up on a day-to-day basis.
The best anti-inflammatory foods are:
Foods to support a healthy digestive system
Around 70% of our immune system starts in the gut. It’s all about bacteria – the good and the bad. We need the good to assist with digestion, produce disease-fighting antibodies and certain hormones, vitamins and nutrients, but we also need them to crowd out the bad. When the bad start taking over, illness and disease steps in. By ensuring that you have enough healthy bacteria and letting them thrive, you can help keep illness away.
Probiotics – found in live yoghurt, some cheeses and miso products – are excellent sources of good bacteria. So are prebiotics, which feed the good bacteria, and can be found in broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, onions and garlic. Try to avoid foods that help stimulate or feed the bad bacteria – primarily sugar.
These are active compounds that are found in some very specific foods and can enhance the immune system. However, the body does not store them, so you need to eat them regularly. These are often labelled at ‘superfoods’, mainly due to the fact that they are quite specific in their benefits and that you have to eat them regularly.
Some phytonutrients include:
There is a huge amount of crossover between all of these foods, with many containing more than one of these vital ingredients. So, if you ensure that you have the following in your diet, you will cover most eventualities:
How exercise helps ward off bugs
Even though it is cold outside, and, therefore, it may be less appealing to hop on your bike or go for a run, it’s actually even more important to keep going if you want to fight off unwanted germs. Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of your respiratory system (lungs and airways), which can reduce your chance of getting a cold, ’flu, or another illness.
Exercise can also help your white blood cells (antibodies) circulate more rapidly. These cells are your immunity cells, so if they are travelling around your body more quickly, then there is more chance they will detect an imposter – a germ – and help fight it earlier before it spreads.
Managing your stress levels can also protect against illness. Too many stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, can increase the risk of illness. Regular exercise is a great way of slowing down the release of these stress hormones.
It’s also worth maintaining your exercise levels all year round since – just like when you have a fever – your body uses temperature to try to fight off bacteria. Get hot and sweaty during exercise can beat those bugs.
The opposite is true if you get too cold or wet in the winter. Although people say you might ‘catch a cold’ it isn’t that you are more likely to catch it, just that if your body goes below its normal temperature then your immune system struggles to fight off any bacteria or infections that might have already been lurking. So, make sure you have the right clothing to keep warm and dry, but keep exercising.
When should I not exercise? Should I ‘sweat it out’ or rest?
It’s important to listen to your own body; if you just have a head cold, it is good to keep moving, but perhaps opt for the more gentle activities – walking, yoga, or a very gentle jog or cycle
While heat can help reduce your chances of getting sick in the first place, it is probably best not to actually ‘sweat it out’ once the symptoms strike, since this will only put more stress on your already-compromised respiratory system.
As a general rule, tone down your normal routine by a few degrees, without stopping completely. However, obviously if you have ’flu and can’t even drag yourself out of bed, you should stay put until you are completely well again.