Nothing can completely keep sickness at bay, but lifestyle tweaks can help. Experts tell Liz Connor how to build your defences this autumn.
Autumn can be a challenging time for our immune systems, with countless bugs doing the rounds and cooler temperatures meaning we’re indoors more, making it easier for germs to spread.
Busy schedules can also increase stress, which doesn’t help matters, and can quickly zap us of the energy we need to get through the day, without having to rely on a steady stream of pumpkin spice lattes.
“Every day, we each inhale more than 100 million different bacteria,” says Euan MacLennan, medical herbalist and herbal director at Pukka Herbs (pukkaherbs.com).
“To stop the infectious invaders, we have about 30 million unique antibodies, each programmed to recognise a single known bacterium, plus millions more ‘naïve’ antibodies waiting to attack previously unknown bacteria.
“Whilst our immune system is designed to fight off viruses, sometimes it can be helpful to support it against new challenges,” MacLennan adds.
Keen to sail into the cold season, without spending the entire time coughing into your jumper sleeve and blowing your nose? Remember, the best way to halt the spread of bugs is to stay on top of things like regular hand-washing and minimise contact with others if you, or they, are unwell, but a healthy lifestyle can help support our immune systems too.
Here are some expert-recommended autumn boosters…
1. Get a sweat on
If you’ve been neglecting your gym membership since lockdown lifted, here’s one very good reason to get back into a regular exercise routine.
“As well as protecting our heart, exercise is really important for maintaining a strong immune system,” says Emily Rollason, Holland & Barrett’s expert nutritionist (hollandandbarrett.com), “whether that be a brisk walk to the shops instead of driving, or a swim in the sea, lake or river.
“Research shows that regular exercise increases the circulation of white blood cells – the purpose of which is to kill any sickness – causing pathogens in the body.”
There’s a catch though: if you over-train, you can actually end up weakening your immune system, because you’re not letting your body recover. Generally speaking, it’s quite hard to really over-train, but make sure to schedule regular rest days so you can reap the full benefits.
2. Think Mediterranean
It’s not just about necking vitamin C supplements when you feel a cold coming on. Packing your daily diet full of immune-supportive nutrients and herbs, especially those with anti-viral properties, is a great way to give your body a good chance of staying in peak condition.
Dr Jenna Macciochi, a leading immunologist working with Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk), says:
“A Mediterranean style anti-inflammatory diet is a great example of a scientifically supported immune nourishing diet pattern.
“Rich in fibre, healthy fats like omega 3s, lean protein and an abundance of colourful plant chemicals, it furnishes all our day-to-day nutrition needs, while also reducing chronic inflammation and guarding against age-related disease.
“Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, is one of my favourite kitchen staples to stave off unwanted inflammation and age-related disease,” adds Macciochi. “It mops up oxidative stress in the body and supports your own antioxidant systems.”
3. Go with your gut
According to Macciochi, some 70% of the immune system is in close contact with our gut microbiota.
“These good bugs help to coach and educate our immune system,” she says.
A varied, fibre and nutrient-rich diet is key for promoting a healthy gut microbiome, but could a top-up help?
Caring for gut health with a daily probiotic containing clinically researched immune-supporting strains, like lactobacillus and bifidobacterial strains, could be a simple way to help boost your health:
“Probiotics have been clinically shown to reduce incidence, duration and severity of common infections.”
Try Healthspan’s Super20 Pro supplement capsules (£10.95 for 30 capsules) or Symprove (from £79 for a four-week pack, Symprove.com).
4. Limit the takeaways
When we’re busy and stressed, it can be easy to fall into the habit of ordering takeaway burgers or pizza, but MacLennan warns that:
“fast, processed foods do not support our immune system at all. Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany have found that an unhealthy diet can cause the immune system to act as if it is responding to bacterial infections.”
His top tip? “The next time you reach for the takeaway menu if you’re feeling under the weather, think again about the simple and nutritious options you may already have in your house.”
5. Sleep and de-stress
As we approach the winter months, we can become deluged with opportunities for socialising and overworking. While Macciochi says this can be lovely in moderation, we need to be aware of the negative impact of stress and alcohol on our health, not least on our immune function.
“In the short term, cortisol (a hormone produced by stress) helps to fight infection, but when its levels are continuously high, it can have a negative effect, suppressing and weakening the immune response towards potential infections, delaying recovery and even increasing risk for chronic inflammatory disease,” she warns.
“Combatting the toll of chronic stress on your body involves creating a toolbox of resources to help, like mindfulness and mediation. Personally, I like to take a magnesium bath after a stressful day.”
Sleep, she says, is a foundation of good immunity too.
“Your chance of catching an infection is five-and-a-half times greater if you manage less than six hours sleep per night,” says Macciochi. “Protect your sleep by ensuring a calm wind down each evening, and work on establishing consistent wake and sleep times to give yourself the best chance of a good night’s rest.”