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Immune system heroes and baddies

Immune system heroes and baddies

As we enter the dark, cold months of autumn and winter we have the usual spate of bugs to face. Eating the right diet is an effective way to keep our immune system in top condition, helping it fight infections and illnesses.  Avoiding coughs and colds also means you won’t have to skip too many gym workouts either.

If you exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet but are still battered by bugs, feel tired or generally under the weather you will benefit from looking at your diet.  Even if you have a naturally strong immune system it’s a good idea to support your body’s defence system as much as you can. Many foods naturally boost our immune system, while other foods suppress it. Here’s the top foods to add and avoid.


Olive and canola oil. Healthy fats such as olive oil act as lubrication for cells, improving their communication and flexibility which boosts your immune function. Make sure you keep your ratio of omega-3 oils similar to or higher than omega-6s (found in soybean oils which are commonly used in processed foods). People who eat more omega 6s than 3s increase their risk of inflammation and immune system problems. 

Garlic.  This member of the onion family contains allicin, which fights infection and bacteria. Studies show that people who eat more than 6 cloves a week were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold. A raw clove a day is recommended by some experts to stimulate the multiplication of white blood cells which fight infection. Chop it up and swallow it or mix with apple sauce to improve palatability.

Yoghurt. Probiotics are healthy bacteria which keep the gut and intestinal tract healthy and disease-free. Studies have shown that consuming just 7 ounces (one small pot) of yoghurt each day can lower your risk of catching colds by 25 percent. Look for the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus Reuteri which helps stops the replication of viruses.

Chicken soup. Comforting and delicious, a bowl of homemade chicken soup is good for the body as well as the soul. The latest studies found that the combination of poultry and vegetables in hot liquid is one of the best foods to help prevent colds. While hot fluids are known to increase the movement of nasal mucus, the chicken (using a leftover chicken carcass or bones) contain nutrients such as B vitamins, calcium and zinc which helps our immune system fight colds.

Tea. A Harvard study showed people who drank 5 cups of black tea for a fortnight increased their virus-fighting interferon levels in the blood by 10 times. The amino acid L -Theanine is responsible for the immune boost and is also found in green tea and decaf versions. Dunk those teabags well for a strong, healthy brew!

Mushrooms. Love’em or hate’em your kitchen shouldn’t be without them. Mushrooms increase the production of cytokine cells which help fight infections and polysaccharides which strengthen the immune system. Choose shitake and reishi for the most potent effect.

Sweet potatoes. Any orange food is rich in beta carotene which is great for our immunity. This is because beta carotene is converted to vitamin A which builds strong skin, and skin is the first line of defence for our immune systems.  Try to eat something orange every day such as carrots, pumpkins, peppers or oranges. They are all in season this time of year so nature might be telling you something.

Beef. Lean beef is a great source of iron and zinc, powerful nutrients which help fight infections, viruses and bacteria. High levels of the antioxidant selenium means beef also helps repair and defend immune cells.


Alcohol. Light to moderate drinking of alcohol rich in antioxidants such as red wine is good for your immune system. But drinking excessively has the opposite effect by suppressing immune responses. Binge drinking (defined as sufficient alcohol consumed in one go to make you intoxicated) inhibits the production of cytokinins, proteins which kick in when our body is under attack. This effect has been shown to last for up to 24 hours after drinking.

Sugar. Consuming too much sugar has been shown to significantly weaken the immune system. Consuming 75g of sugar (the same as in two cans of fizzy drink) suppresses the capacity of white blood cells to consume bacteria by 50% for up to 5 hours afterwards. The combination of our cravings for sweet, starchy foods this time of year with cold weather becomes a perfect breeding ground for bugs! Natural sugars found in fruits and complex carbohydrates are believed to have no immunity so try to use those to satisfy your urges for sweet treats, or a natural sugar substitute.

You really can’t go wrong if you eat mainly whole foods and minimise processed foods. Combine this with regular gym visits and generally exercising at a moderate level and you will build a powerful immune system ready to do battle with any unwanted winter invaders.