Strengthen your defences

Combat colds and flu this winter with these top tips for strengthening your immune system naturally


“Our bodies create vitamin D from sunlight, which is unique to just this vitamin and only small amounts are found naturally in food,” explains Antonia Magor, a London-based nutritionist ( “Vitamin D influences the functioning of our nervous, muscular and immune systems. In the UK vitamin D testing is free through your GP and with our weather (quite a bit of rain and very little sunshine!) deficiency isn’t uncommon meaning we often have lowered immunity and succumb to colds and flus. But this can easily be solved through a good quality supplement or getting a little sunshine. Food sources of vitamin D include red meat, eggs and oily fish, but the most effective way is to enjoy the sunshine (safely!)”


“Echinacea is probably one of the best known herbs around,” explains medical herbalist Katherine Bellchambers MNIMH ( “The root contains alkyl amides which stimulate the production of neutrophils, the first line defences of your immune system. This means that your safety net against bacteria and viruses is strengthened, so more are caught at the entry points – your eyes, mouth and nose. There are lots of teas and capsules available from your health food shop – look for ones that have a Traditional Herbal Remedy license. Over the counter THRs are only suitable for non-serious, self-limiting conditions. If you suffer from other serious medical conditions or take medicines from your doctor it’s a good idea to speak to a medical herbalist as they will be able to advise whether a herb is suitable with your medication.”


“Garlic is a delicious way to add flavour to our food, but it is also fantastic at helping our bodies fight infections, with early civilisations employing it to fight disease,” explains Frida Harju-Westman, in-house nutritionist at health app, Lifesum ( “Garlic helps the body lower its levels of cholesterol and prevent the hardening of arteries, which is fantastic for your heart. It is also highly concentrated in allicin, which fights infections and bacteria. Adding garlic to your diet even twice a week will have the required effect on your immunity.”


“Ayurvedic medicine has relied on ginger’s ability for boosting the immune system before recorded history,” says Pippa Campbell, nutrition and weight loss coach ( “It’s believed that ginger helps to break down the accumulation of toxins in our organs due to its warming effects. It’s also known to cleanse the lymphatic system, our network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials.”


“Colder months can be surprisingly dehydrating,” says Antonia. “Making sure we are hydrated with water is essential for our biochemical health, joints, immunity, excretion and organ functions. Within its many functions water helps regulate body temperature and keeps certain tissue areas moist; this is particularly important to our immunity as these moist tissues cross the barrier between external and internal, e.g. nose, mouth, ears and are the entrance for microbes and pathogens into our body. This is part of our natural defences and needs to be kept healthy and functioning to protect us during cold and flu season. Drink at least 1.5 litres of plain water daily and more if you are active or exercising.”


“The humble elderberry has a long traditional use preventing and treating colds and flu,” says Katherine. “Research shows that constituents from elderberry help to stop a process called haemagglutination which enables viruses to hijack your cells and use them to multiply. Using an elderberry extract helps prevent colds and influenza and can also shorten the duration, should you succumb to an infection.”


“Ginseng can help you to boost your immune system and fight infections,” says Pippa. “The roots, stems and leaves of ginseng have been used for maintaining immune homeostasis and enhancing resistance to illness or infection. It also has antimicrobial compounds that work as a defence mechanism against bacterial and viral infections.”

Kiwi fruit

“While the effectiveness of vitamin C is not proven to increase immunity, it is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which are key when it comes to your body fighting infections,” says Frida. “Vitamin C is also a highly effective antioxidant, packed with nutrients that protect the body against reactive oxygen species, which are generated by immune cells to kill pathogens. Because our bodies don’t produce or store vitamin C, it is a good idea to top up your daily intake. Just eating one kiwi fruit will take care of the daily recommended amount.”

Probiotics and prebiotics

“Our gastrointestinal system is home to thousands of different types of microorganisms collectively named the gut flora or ‘microbiome’”, explains Antonia. “These play a significant role in protecting us from unwanted bacteria and infections and also stimulating the immune system. Keeping our gut microbiome healthy is crucial to our immunity as well as our digestion and generally feeling good. Probiotics are live cultures, or ‘good bacteria’ found in fermented foods, that support our natural microbiome by adding to it. Prebiotics are a special dietary form of fibre which is not broken down until lower in the digestive tract acting as ‘fertilizer’ for our good bacteria. Probiotic foods include Kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt and tempeh. Examples of prebiotic foods include beans, legumes, lentils, vegetables, grains, ripe bananas, garlic and onions. Include a form of prebiotic or probiotic food every day to have a healthy gut and make your ‘second brain’ feel happier.”


“Turmeric’s antibacterial and antiviral properties strengthen the immune system and can improve your chances against suffering from colds and flu,” says Frida. “Turmeric also contains a substance which stimulates the body’s immune system and kicks it into action if you already have a cold and is therefore a good natural remedy. Its anti-inflammatory and anti-septic qualities make it a good natural disinfectant and wound healer. Turmeric can also help repair damaged skin cells and other skin conditions such as psoriasis or burns.”


“Zinc is an essential mineral within our diets that plays a central role in our immune function,” says Antonia. “Zinc is crucial for the development and function of cells that mediate our ‘nonspecific’ immunity. This acts as our first line of defence to pathogens and microbes. Zinc is also involved in cell growth, division and replication and as our body doesn’t have a specialised storage system we need to keep a steady stream of it within our diet. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food. Other good sources include red meat, poultry and seafood. You can also get zinc from nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds, grains, fortified breads and breakfast cereals, beans and legumes. Include a food high in zinc daily, e.g. a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds sprinkled over a salad or a portion of hummus.”


“Exercising a few times a week can hugely reduce the amount of colds that you get in a year, due to the numerous positive effects that it has on your body,” says Frida. “Doing as little as 20-30 minutes of daily exercise, such as walking, can hugely improve your body’s defences. Antibodies and white cells will move through your body at a much quicker pace, identifying and tackling bacteria before it has the time to become a cold. However, remember that if you are exercising to improve your immunity, you should keep the exercise at a low-intensity level, as marathon running or intense strength training could potentially decrease the amount of white blood cells in your body, especially if you are not used to it. If walking is something you are not keen on, yoga is a fantastic alternative, which will also reduce your stress levels, aiding your immunity even further.”

Try this!

“Add in a few natural immune system modulators which are not usually found in a regular diet but are very nourishing for the immune system,” says Sally Wisbey, a nutritional therapy consultant to Unbeelievable Health ( “These include things like bee propolis, black elderberry, olive leaf and beta glucans.”

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