Winter is invigorating, but the refreshing beauty of chilly runs – and much-need time off with the family over the festive break – is often marred by illness. Picking up bugs, cold and flu is more common than ever at this time of year, as we find ourselves crammed into stuffy public places and scrimping on sleep as we make our preparations for Christmas. We asked the experts their best advice for warding off infection over winter.
“Winter food choices can really make a difference,” says Kate Butler, nutritionist at Holland & Barrett. “Foods packed with immune-system supporting vitamins A and C are important as they’re rich in antioxidants, beta carotene and vitamin E,” she says. Butternut squash, lemons, protein, chilli and manuka honey are Kate’s top five winter wonder foods. With manuka honey, opt for factor 15+ or 20+ for the best antibacterial properties. Try Comvita UMF 15+ Manuka Honey, £42.99 for 250g (www.comvita.co.uk).
Jacqueline Newson, nutrition advisor at Higher Nature (www.highernature.co.uk), stresses the importance of whole natural foods, including vegetables, beans, wholegrains, fruits, seeds and nuts. She warns even relatively small amounts of sugar can reduce the level of white blood cells needed to fight bacteria. Jacqueline also recommends eating brightly coloured veg.
Naturopath Lina Swailem recommends potent antimicrobial foods to help fight infections. “Garlic, onions, horseradish, oregano, thyme, lemon, lime, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne pepper are all winter wellness boosters – simply add them to winter dishes,” she says. Dr Sam Christie agrees: “Several natural vitamins and supplements can boost your immune system. Garlic has been shown to significantly reduce your chances of catching a cold, while elderberry extract is active against bacterial infections and ‘flu viruses’”.
Tom Eastham, Fitness First’s health and fitness expert (www.fitnessfirst.co.uk), reckons runners need ‘seven or nine a day’ rather than five. “Blueberries, kale, prunes, matcha powder, pinto beans and artichokes have high levels of antioxidants to boost your immune system,” he says. “Omega 3 is possibly the best all-round supplement to take [1,000mg of EPA Omega 3 a day] and Vitamin D3 is vital for performance and recovery.”
Echinacea is synonymous with fighting colds and flu. Research among 755 people at Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre in 2012 showed echinacea is most effective among people with a weakened immune system, cutting the number of colds they suffer by 59 per cent. It also proved effective in halving the need for painkillers to ease a cold. The independent study was produced for A Vogel in Switzerland, whose Echinaforce tinctures and tablets are universally popular and widely available. “Runners can be more vulnerable to bugs when training for an event or if they’re beginners, as the extra effort can lessen their immune function, ” explains Ali Cullen, nutritional therapist at A Vogel.
“Being exposed to viruses doesn’t mean you’ll get ill – if your immune system is robust, it may withstand infection and speed recovery, ” says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep and energy therapist at Capio Nightingale Hospital (www.nightingalehospital.co.uk). “Eat carefully, exercise regularly, sleep well and practice deep abdominal breathing to boost your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for immunity, ” she says. “And think happy thoughts – optimistic people have stronger immune systems!”
Tom Eastham says runners must recognise the toll training takes. “Running is one of the most exhausting movements the human body can do and this depletes various essential nutrients and fluids, such as water, salt and glycogen,” he explains. “Your recovery should comprise good nutrition and good sleep.” GP Juliet McGrattan also stresses the importance of sleep. “Being over-tired lowers the body’s immune defence, leaving you open to infection,” she says. According to the NHS, adults should aim for around eight hours sleep per night, so try to get to bed early!