What exactly is the immune system?
Our immune system has several different components, including cells programmed to detect foreign invaders and trigger the production of antibodies that overwhelm and destroy any nasty particles.
One of the key features of the immune system is that it can tell the difference between our own cells and these foreign invaders. Rather cleverly, it can also recognise foreign cells that come back again, so that next time it can react much more swiftly. This is known as ‘immune memory’.
Unfortunately each winter there is a high chance that you will come across some ‘attackers’ that you haven’t met before, and, because your immune system has no ‘memory’ of them, it takes a while to leap into action and get on top of the infection.
This is why most of us get several colds every year. Watch out for some returning flu viruses though. Even if you have had flu before it may have built up an immunity that could outwit your immune system.
4 Tips for arming your immune system
1. Keep warm
Although you can catch a cold at any time of the year, research shows that the risk is greater in winter. Most cold viruses (known as rhinoviruses) thrive better at lower temperatures (around 33oC compared to normal body temperature of 37oC), while the immune system becomes less efficient as body temperature drops.
Remember to keep well wrapped up - several thin layers of clothing trap layers of air making them more effective than a single thick layer. It’s particularly important to avoid drawing very cold air into your nasal and air passages, so wrap a scarf around your face when you go out in the cold, or wear a balaclava, to help warm the air before you inhale it.
2. Be hygienic
Simple hygiene will also help you avoid coughs and sniffles. Washing your hands frequently, making sure surfaces and door handles are clean, and keeping your distance from people with a cold, can help reduce your exposure to any germs which may be lurking ready to cause trouble. If you have a cold, use paper tissues to cough or sneeze into before disposing of them swiftly to reduce the spread of virus particles.
3. Stay balanced
Simple things like getting plenty of sleep, dealing with stress and taking regular exercise have all been shown to boost immunity. Nutrition is critical too. You need a regular supply of all the building blocks, which means a balanced diet with plenty of protein (to supply amino acids needed to build the many proteins found in the immune system) as well as the vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients that your immune system relies on to function well.
4. Eat smart
Some micronutrients, such as vitamin C and zinc, are particularly important for the immune system cells involved in fighting viruses. But levels of these nutrients drop rapidly during infections and times of stress.
Look out for foods rich in vitamin C (oranges, red peppers and kale) and zinc (red meat, spinach, pumpkin seeds, cashews, kidney beans), or consider taking supplements combining vitamin C and zinc. Some traditional herbal supplements, such as pelargonium, have shown similar results in reducing the misery of winter sniffles.