Beat Winter Bugs

Whatever your age, fitness and training regime, the winter months can mean endless colds, the dreaded ‘24 hour bug’ or a dose of (man) flu. One of the best ways to counter this onslaught is to keep your immune system fighting fit. Various factors can compromise immunity including poor diet, nutritional deficiency, environmental pollution, stress and, yes, over-training. The good news is there are plenty of natural remedies to help. Here’s our pick of the best.

Stop over-training

While moderate exercise can stimulate your own body’s defences (say 30 to 40 minutes, three to five times a week), over-training can actually stress your immune system and deplete your body of key nutrients, particularly B vitamins and antioxidants. More is definitely not better – exercising too much means you’re not giving your body adequate time to recover. Early warning signs include illness, injuries and decreased performance. So take at least one day off exercising per week and ease up if you’re suffering from ongoing aches and pains.

C some benefits

Vitamin C is one of the best anti-viral agents there is. Our white blood cells need this powerful vitamin to fight infection, so boosting your intake when you’re feeling under par can be a good move. An ongoing recommended daily intake is around 1000mg – best in divided doses during the day. If you find some supplements a little acidic, look for the more alkaline form known as ascorbate (calcium or magnesium ascorbate) or a time-release supplement. If you take too much you’ll get loose bowels, which is an indication to reduce the dose.

Elder and wiser

If you want something to work fast, try elderberry. High in antioxidants, it’s available as extracts (often sold as Sambucol), throat sprays, capsules, lozenges and drinks. Useful for fighting fever and viruses, reducing muscle pain and tackling sore throats, it’ll get you back on your feet quickly as well as give your immune system a boost.

Echi thump

Probably one of the most widely used immune-boosting herbs around, echinacea is effective against flu and the cold sore-causing herpes virus, and contains compounds that can boost immune cell production. Normally recommended as soon as symptoms are felt, use it as a short term rather than long term treatment (up to three months at a time). It can be taken in the form of capsules or as liquid extract.

Garlic it better

Garlic’s active ingredient and the one responsible for its powerful odour – is allicin. Allicin is anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It’s also rich in sulphur, making it a perfect detoxifying agent. Consider a clove or capsule for a daily dose but to fight an infection you’ll need a higher dose – so if you want to avoid garlic breath and keep your friends we recommend you opt for a supplement.

Time for tea

We’re not talking about your usual cuppa here. While green tea is good, Uncaria tomentosa, or cat’s claw, is a woody vine that has been used for centuries to treat cancer, joint problems and many diseases. It has immune-stimulating antioxidant and anti-microbial properties and is best taken when you show the early warning signs of an infection. Cat’s claw comes in capsules or as tea. Take two cups a day, sweetened with a little manuka honey (another bug-buster) according to taste.

Pro(biotic) cycling

Did you know that the largest immune organ in the body is your gut? In fact between 70 and 80 per cent of all immune cells exist there. Constant use of antibiotics and other medications can wipe out not just the bad bacteria but the ‘good’ guys too. Taking a daily dose of these healthy bugs (probiotics) ideally combined with fibre foods (prebiotics) to feed them is a great long-term immune support. Available in drinks, yoghurts, smoothies or as powdered and capsule forms, ideally look for a supplement supplying at least one billion bacteria comprising lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, but for greater benefits take up to 10 billion per day.

Mineral essentials

Two must-have minerals this winter are zinc and selenium. Both are needed for the production of immune cells. A zinc deficiency causes shrinkage of the thymus gland, which is a gland that produces key immune cells called Tlymphocytes. They’re also required for the production of crucial antioxidant enzymes. Top zinc-rich foods include wholegrains, nuts, seeds, poultry, yogurt and shellfish. Selenium is notoriously hard to come by in a typical western diet due to the poor levels in soil but good food sources include Brazil nuts, mushrooms, fish, calf’s liver and lean lamb.


It’s easy for a demanding work, home and family life get on top of you, stressing you out. Pumping your body full of adrenaline and cortisol can actually interfere with immune-cell function, leaving you more prone to infections. Try and take time to chill out and consider taking astragalus – a tonic herb that builds energy and helps boost resistance to disease.

Pump up the iron

Iron is essential to the immune system and can often be depleted with intense exercise. Good food sources include lean meat, poultry, fish, dried fruits and leafy green vegetables. But don’t go overboard on supplements, as too much iron can be counter-productive. Check with your doctor if in doubt.

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