6 ways to shore up your winter defences

Guest post by

Charlotte Haigh

Charlotte Haigh is a London-based health writer, contributing regularly to titles including Stylist, Marie Claire, Woman & Home, Healthy, Women's Health, Grazia and Health & Fitness.

Author views are not our own.

It’s never felt so important to prepare ourselves for the winter cold and flu season. This year, we have Covid-19 to contend with, on top of the usual winter bugs. Coronavirus cases in the UK were on the rise by early autumn, and recent research1 by a team of British and Chinese scientists suggests the virus is more severe in colder months. The researchers analysed data from 7,000 people hospitalised with Covid-19 in European countries and China, mapping it against local temperatures and indoor humidity, and found that in Europe, as temperatures rose in the summer, the numbers ending up in hospital or needing ventilation dropped. Similarly, there was a 15 per cent decline in mortality rate for every 1C rise in temperature.

But in China, where the first wave of the pandemic occurred during the winter and temperatures didn’t change much, severity of symptoms remained constant. And while the disease has certainly spread in hot countries, the researchers note it tends to be less serious than in cooler countries. They think the connection may not just be connected to outdoor temperatures, but also to indoor heating, which can dry out the mucus membranes in your nose that can help protect against viruses by trapping germs before they get into your body (one of the reasons colds and flu are also thought to spread more easily in winter).

The good news is this knowledge means we can be prepared. No, there isn’t a guaranteed way to avoid falling ill – whether that’s with coronavirus, seasonal flu or a run-of-the-mill cold. But there are lots of proven simple steps you can take to defend yourself against all winter viruses.

1.Keep washing your hands
You know the mantra by now but it’s worth repeating because hand-washing is one of your best defences against all the winter bugs. Soap and water can break down bacteria and viruses, but you need to scrub up properly, so make sure you wash for at least 20 seconds, getting between your fingers, and do it frequently. Get into the habit of washing your hands whenever you arrive somewhere – your home, a restaurant, your workplace, for example – and always before you eat. Sanitising gels are no replacement for hand-washing but are really useful when you’re out and about, especially on public transport, so make use of them.

2.Get serious about sleep
Many of us are so caught up in our busy lives, we don’t prioritise sleep – but it’s time to put it high on your wellbeing list. Studies2 show that during sleep, your body releases anti-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. Some of these promote deep sleep, and they also help your body fight infection. Plus, during sleep your body releases important immune system antibodies and cells. The takeaway? Miss out on sleep and your ability to fight off bugs will drop. Make sure you take time to wind down before bed, for example by taking a warm bath, listening to the radio or doing some gentle yoga stretches, and ensure your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet. These simple steps help soothe you into quality sleep.

3. Eat immunity nutrients
A healthy diet, with at least five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, is key. Fruit and veg are not only high in vitamins and minerals, they’re also good sources of fibre, needed for the gut bugs that contribute to a healthy immune system. You need a spread of different vitamins and minerals but some of the immunity big hitters include vitamin C and zinc, as your body has an increased need for these when you’re fighting off disease, vitamin D, and the B vitamins. A small study from Singapore found elderly Covid-19 patients who took a combo of vitamin B12, vitamin D and magnesium were less likely to progress to having severe symptoms3.

4. Supercharge with supplements
There’s no replacement for a healthy, balanced diet but it can be worth topping up if you’re concerned you’re not getting all you need from the food you eat. Why not try Manuka Doctor Manuka and Buckwheat Honey Syrup – a simple and delicious way to get a hit of vitamins C and B12, along with biotin, which can help keep those protective mucus membranes healthy. It also contains propolis, the ‘glue’ bees make to seal their hives – emerging research4 is showing this magic ingredient may show real promise role in immune health. And we all need to supplement with vitamin D during the darker months, as we don’t get enough sunlight to make what we need.

5.Keep a lid on stress
Recent events are a reminder you can’t control what’s going on in your life or the outside world. But what you can do is manage your stress levels – and that’s really important because stress is thought to raise levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can dampen the immune response5. Stress may have other negative effects, too. For one, it can mean you’re more likely to reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking too much alcohol or eating junk food instead of a balanced meal, both behaviours that can lower your defences against bugs. So build stress protection into your daily life. Stress can creep up on you so it’s a good idea to get into the habit rather than waiting until you’re under pressure. Exercise is one of the best ways to singe it – whether that’s going for a run or a walk in nature, or doing some yoga at home – and lots of people find meditation helpful, so try an app or guided meditation on YouTube.

6.Stay social
In research6, social isolation has been connected with dampened immunity, probably partly because it’s a cause of chronic stress, which leads to raised levels of inflammation in the body. It’s not easy to stay connected when we’re all living with Covid-19 guidelines but try to find ways, from socially distanced winter walks with friends to chatting with family online.

Sources:
1. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/covid-19-worse-in-colder-weather
2. Besedovsky L et al. Sleep and Immune Function. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/
3. Wen Tan C et al. A cohort study to evaluate the effect of combination Vitamin D, Magnesium and Vitamin B12 (DMB) on progression to severe outcome in older COVID-19 patients. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.01.20112334v2
4. Al Hariri M. Immune's-boosting agent: Immunomodulation potentials of propolis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6335834/
5. Morey J et al. Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/
6. Cole SW et al. Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/11/18/1514249112.abstract?sid=90997c16-880d-4069-8968-67c6122e1554

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