Too many late nights in a row and something going around at the office is not a great combination. If you start to get the sniffles, or perhaps your glands are starting to swell and you suddenly feel exhausted, it is likely that your body is trying very hard to fight off an infection. Whether it is a bacterial or viral infection, if your body isn’t prepared, it is likely to get into your system, multiply and set up home, eventually giving you a cold, or possibly develop into flu-like symptoms.
With the right knowledge, you can put a few steps into practice to do everything you can to give your body a chance at fighting the infection before it takes hold, (hopefully) making you invincible in the face of these nasties. Prepping your body to be a strong fighter against infections is certainly worthwhile. You will be thanking yourself when everyone around you is ill and you have managed to avoid this annual nuisance. Follow these ten tips if you feel run down, or if you start to feel like you are getting ill. Catching an infection as early as possible is key, as this will give you a greater chance of staying healthy and without illness.
1. Rest and good quality sleep
It may be surprising to see rest and sleep as the number one factor to consider when fighting a cold, but this really is vital for your immune system to be able to function. Our cells replenish while we are asleep, and with an increased stress on the body from unwanted infections trying to get through, you need to put your body into sleep mode. Fighting the infection is the number one priority for your body, therefore other bodily functions such as digestion and muscle development will be temporarily reduced in efficiency.
As we all know (or we should!), lack of sleep can sometimes bring your immune system down to such an extent that this can result in you easily catching germs from someone else. If you feel run down, have not been able to sleep properly and feel that your body can’t take much more stress, this is when you need to take action by getting a good night sleep. If you are a workaholic, working early hours and working late into the evening, this is likely to catch up with you eventually and your body won’t be able to optimise your ability to fight off infections when they are about. Although there is no specific set recommendation for the optimum sleep time, as we all need different amounts, always ensure that you get adequate sleep to feel refreshed throughout the day. Ideal sleeping hours may be only six hours for one individual, whereas someone else may need nine. Listen to your body, and do what feels right for you.
As our bodies are approximately 60% water, even a slight level of dehydration (e.g. 2 %) can shrivel up our cells, making it hard for nutrients to pass through. With deflated sub-functioning cells, even with a good diet, it may be difficult for your cells to access this nutrition. Water is also essential for the lymphatic system, which is the body’s system for channelling white blood cells to different parts of the body which are then used to fight off infections. Without water, electrolytes can also become unbalanced (e.g. too much sodium), the transportation of nutrients can become slow and your immune system becomes sluggish. If you want a reactive, healthy, strong immune system to fight off the common cold each time someone around you has it, keep hydrated. To get into a habit of drinking plenty of water, introduce new routines, such as having herbal tea in the morning, and carry a bottle of water with you for the day.
The immune system thrives on antioxidants, the protectors against free radicals. Imagine all the damaging free radicals from pollution entering your body and damaging the DNA in your cells. This is not something your body needs when it is trying to fight off an infection. Give your body a break by supplying plenty of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants and natural pigments which give plants their colour, therefore an easy way to ensure you are obtaining a wide range of antioxidants is to eat all colours of the rainbow. Include lots of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, green beans and dark berries (all organic if possible) for a good supply.
We often forget about the importance of beneficial bacteria in our guts and, with regular prescriptions of antibiotics, our levels are often depleted or disrupted with imbalances of pathogenic, disease-causing bacteria. Around 70% of our immune system is actually in our digestive system thanks to the good bacteria which help to fight off unwanted infections before our bodies have to deal with anything. To top up your levels of good bacteria, try taking a probiotic supplement if you start to feel run down, or if you are regularly stressed. Probiotics can be taken on a regular basis, but are most important when you start feeling ill. Live yoghurt is another great way to keep up your intake regularly through your diet. Watch out for the probiotic drinks which contain refined sugar.
5. Prebiotic foods
Prebiotics are essentially the food for beneficial bacteria, and are found naturally in many foods. If you include plenty of prebiotic-rich foods, this allows the probiotics in your gut to thrive and multiply, thereby providing benefits similar to taking large doses of probiotics. Prebiotic-rich foods include chicory (by far the highest source, although not always the preferred taste), artichoke, asparagus, onions, garlic and bananas. Include some of these foods on a regular basis along with your live yoghurt or probiotic supplements, and you should keep your beneficial bacteria happy, allowing you to thrive.
6. Manage stress
Certainly easier said than done, being able to manage how your body deals with stress is an important factor when you are trying to fight a cold. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can disrupt your body’s immune system, making it much harder to ward off infections. As stress is often impossible to eliminate from your lifestyle, it is more practical to find ways which can help you to relax. Not only do you need enough sleep to keep stress levels low, you also need to find something which helps you to feel calm. This may be a bath, time set by to read a book, or yoga, for example. Whatever it is that makes you feel less stressed, try to incorporate this into your protocol to help you to fight off a cold.
7. Keep inflammation low
Inflammation is your body’s natural and protective attempt to remove harmful pathogens such as infectious bacteria, and with healthy levels of inflammation, this process is usually effective. If long-term inflammation exists in the body, this results in constant, simultaneous destruction and healing of bodily tissues, causing excess pain, redness and swelling. If you have chronic inflammation in your body, and then an infection comes along, this can result in excess inflammation causing issues and difficulties with immune function.
To keep your inflammation levels healthy, ensure that you are including plenty of omega-3 rich foods, particularly omega-3 EPA found in oily fish. Ideally, your intake should be high in the long term, however if you are starting to feel the symptoms of a cold and you want to give your body a boost, try taking a high dose EPA supplement such as Pharmepa Step 1 providing 1000mg of the active ingredient omega-3 EPA. EPA directly produces anti-inflammatory substances in the body.
8. Limit alcohol for a few days
Alcohol in moderation is generally fine, however when your immune system is working hard to fight off infections, it really doesn’t need the added load of having to deal with alcohol in the body. Alcohol is dehydrating, requires additional work from the liver using up your precious antioxidants, and will affect your sleep quality – the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. If you can abstain from alcohol for a week or so when you feel a cold coming on, your body will have a much better chance of fighting it off.
9. Limit sugar and other refined carbohydrates
Immune-boosting tips are usually about foods to add to improve your body’s ability to fight off infections, however there are some foods which really put additional strain on your immune system, making it weaker. Sugar and refined foods such as white flour are the biggest culprits as they contain little or no nutrients, and are considered to be ‘nutrient robbers’ as they require nutrients in order to be processed in the body, but do not provide nutrients themselves. Sugar and white flour are therefore foods you really don’t want to be eating if you start to feel like you are coming down with a cold/flu.
10. Eat more immune-boosting foods
There are several powerful, immune-boosting foods which are great to include in your diet when you start feeling ill. Garlic for example is not only a wonderful prebiotic food, it also contains an antimicrobial compound called allicin. Manuka honey is another food containing antibacterial properties, and the higher the unique manuka factor (UMF), the more potent the effect. Try adding ginger to meals, or have freshly grated ginger in teas for another immune booster which is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. The last important addition to your diet should be oats, which contain a beneficial type of fibre called beta-glucans; this will help to ramp up your immune system. Fit as many as possible of these foods into your diet when you start getting the sniffles and hopefully they will give you a head start in fighting off the infection.