Food and lifestyle factors that build your body’s resilience

Healthy woman smiling

Now more than ever, it’s important to give your body the best support to be able to fight off bugs more effectively. Follow the Healthy Food Guide team’s plan to build your body’s resilience and immunity to keep yourself fighting fit.

4 helpful foods to fight off the bugs

Research from Harvard University suggests a diet low in zinc, iron and vitamin C can make people more prone to illnesses such as colds and flu.

‘Being deficient in these key nutrients can leave you vulnerable to infection by preventing your immune system functioning at its peak,’ nutrition scientist Bridget Benelam explains.

Skipping meals and following extreme diets are bad news, too – when you consume too few calories your body thinks it’s under siege and pumps out stress hormones, further weakening immunity.

1 Fruit and veg

These are packed with vitamin C and other disease-fighting antioxidants, which help ensure our killer T cells, which fight infection, multiply to crowd out invading viruses.

Get your fill

Up your five-plus-a-day to nine portions of a variety of different-coloured fruits and veg.

Veggie booster

This veggie gnocchi with mushroom ragout will give you seven serves of vegetables in one hit.

2 Lean protein

Eat too little protein and you’ll manufacture fewer white blood cells to combat infections. Many high-protein foods are also a rich source of zinc, which can reduce the duration of colds and flu.

Get your fill

Eat two to three portions of protein daily, including fish, seafood, lean meat, eggs, lentils, beans and soy products.

Protein booster

Try these Tuna and edamame brown rice patties, for a tasty high-protein meal in just 30 minutes.

3 Garlic

More research is needed to confirm whether this fights colds and flu, but one small study found that taking garlic supplements containing allicin – the naturally occurring compound in garlic – for 12 weeks made participants less likely to get a cold and recover more quickly if they did. And, according to the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, a sulphur-containing compound in garlic called ajoene also has anti-viral activity.

Get your fill

Add freshly chopped cloves to stir-fries, winter soups and stews.

Garlic booster

Tuck into this Garlic and rosemary chicken tray bake.

4 Live yoghurt

Probiotics are the ‘friendly’ bacteria in the large intestine, which help with digestion and help maintain our body’s natural defences. A study at the University of Vienna found people who ate live yogurt daily for just two weeks raised their killer T cell count by nearly 30 per cent. ‘Other studies have found probiotics may also reduce the length and severity of a cold,’ adds Bridget.

Get your fill

Have a daily yogurt or drink containing probiotics.

Yoghurt booster

Make your own yoghurt at home, so you can have a daily supply flavoured the way you like it.

Lifestyle factors to fight off bugs

Making simple lifestyle changes can help your body be best prepared to fight off bacterial and viral infections.

Prevent infection

Getting immunised, whether it be for influenza, COVID, measles, or a host of other infectious diseases, is a crucial way protect yourself and others from the spread of preventable illnesses.  Vaccines are a safe and effective way of teaching your immune system how to fight off pathogens.

Be hygienic

Regularly wash your hands with soap and water and dry them well.  Cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm. Or use tissue and dispose of it safely.

Wear a mask

During a pandemic where a virus is primarily spread through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, such as COVID, wearing a mask is a good way to limit the spread of these droplets to others.

Make sure you have clean hands when putting your mask on and wash your hands after removing it.

Exercise outside

Get outside for some fresh air and exercise. Studies show being outside in nature can lift your mood and improve a variety of health markers.

Drink more water

Researchers are investigating if dehydration in the weeks before COVID infection may increase risk of severe symptoms or mortality. The research is in the hypothesis stage right now, but there are plenty of other reasons to keep your hydration up because it helps with essential bodily processes and can improve your focus, sleep quality and mood.

Here are some simple ways to stay hydrated.

The usual suspects

Most adults catch around two to five colds a year, while children are more likely to suffer with seven to 10 colds, says the Common Cold Centre. Any more than this and there’s a good chance one of the following lifestyle factors is to blame…

You’re stressed out

‘Stress has been linked with an impaired function of our disease-fighting killer T cells,’ GP Dawn Harper says. Exactly how anxiety and tension affect our immunity isn’t known, but it seems an increase in stress hormones decreases resistance to infection.

Fight back

‘It’s easy to put your own needs at the bottom of the agenda especially when life is unsettled, but relaxing will boost your immune system,’ says Dr Harper. So make a conscious effort to build some relaxation into your day, whether you chat with a friend, walk the dog or so an online dance class.

You’re not getting your eight hours’ sleep

Sleeping fewer than seven hours a night triples your risk of catching a cold, compared with somebody who gets eight or more hours, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA. And sleep can boost our immune function and mood.

Fight back

Ensure you get a good night’s sleep by giving yourself time to unwind by reading, stretching or having a bath 30 minutes before bedtime. For a complete guide to getting a good night’s rest read this.

Stuffy house syndrome

Central heating (or air conditioning) dries out the mucous membranes in your sinuses and can cause inflammation. ‘Mucus can then accumulate inside the sinus space, giving bacteria the chance to breed, which can cause an infection,’ Dr Harper says.

A humidifier – or even a bowl of water in your bedroom – can help, or you could use a saline solution to flush out your sinuses and ease congestion.

And many viruses like living in warm, close environments, so keep your rooms well ventilated, ideally by opening windows and doors.

First published: Nov 2015
Last updated: August 23, 2021

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