Autumn is here. But, while we’re happy that means it is officially coat weather, the darker days and colder nights seem to bring on a sort of autumn slump the second we step away from the Aperol.
Though it’s tempting to slip into hibernation mode, boxset on the TV and comfort food in hand, all that inactivity is going to have a knock-on effect on your immune system - and, considering the change of weather marks the start of cold and flu season, autumn is the time we need it to be functioning at it’s bug-fighting best.
So, why exactly does our immune system take a battering at this time of year?
According to Dr Michael Barnish, UK Medical Director for REVIV, there are several reasons for the drop in immunity, and our new found laziness and diet are just two of them.
“Cold or cooler weather is thought to play a large role in reducing the body’s immunity,” he says. “The cold weather can affect the normal, protective function of the nose. This is our body’s front-line defence and by cooling down it can affect and slow down the protective functions, such as mucous production and the collection of dust and microbes.
“Colder air is dryer air and therefore alters these functions. The colder weather is also thought to have a more systemic response, and slow down metabolism, resulting in a more sluggish immune response.”
Don’t think stockpiling the shepherd’s pie doesn’t impact either.
“There are several studies that suggest people go for more comforting foods during the colder, winter months,” Dr Barnish continues. “Therefore, we tend to eat less food in its raw state. Cooking depletes the nutritional state of foods we consume, with enzymes, proteins, vitamins and antioxidants all being affected. Our immunity will therefore be slow to respond to microbes.”
Whether you’ve already hit up the thermostat or you’re itching to, sticking on the central heating also has an impact on our immune system.
“Central heating systems and the lack of fresh air impact on our mucous membranes, including the nose,” Dr Barnish explains. “Dryer noses have reduced defence against bugs and therefore this can add to the picture.”
And while we’re holed up with our loved ones, we’re more likely to be passing on the nasties.
“With us trying to shelter from the cold, we as humans, are more likely to reside indoors for more prolonged periods, usually resulting in prolonged exposure to other individuals,” Dr Barnish adds. “This helps the bugs multiply more successfully between individuals, increasing the incidence of colds and flus during cold times.”
Thankfully, there are ways to make that summer to autumn transition that bit more bearable by giving our immune system a much needed boost.
Be more optimistic
According to science, optimists have stronger immune systems. So it might be time to become that glass half full person you’ve always wanted to be.
“We can all learn to generate realistic optimism, a proactive state that creates optimal mental and emotional health,” says Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, authors Physical Intelligence. “One instant way to do this is to jump, literally.
“The act of jumping - even for 10 seconds - changes how we feel. If we jump for joy, then we can also generate feelings of joy through jumping. Everything about the act of jumping defies defeat: it is all about rebounding, pushing up, reaching higher, bouncing back. Notice how jumping makes you feel more optimistic?”
Up your exercise
You might not feel like dragging yourself away from ‘GBBO’ but your body will thank you for it.
“Exercising through the winter months can help to improve cardiovascular health, control body weight and lower blood pressure –in the same way that a healthy diet does, positively benefiting both the mind and body,” says Matt Bottrill of Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching.
“It's arguable that the positive results of exercise are most notable through the colder, darker months of winter – as without a healthy dose of natural vitamin D3, and the natural inclination to go into 'hibernation mode', your body needs this health fix even more.”
READ MORE: Best home workout equipment under £20
But Bottrill says it is important to listen to your body. “If you are in the early stages of a winter cold – ease off, and only exercise to a level that feels comfortable to you, perhaps swapping cardio with a more holistic exercise such as yoga or pilates in the short term.”
Try to reduce stress
According to nutritionist Shona Wilkson stress may have a direct suppressive effect on the immune system.
“It can also affect our digestion and absorption of nutrients, and may also lead to other habits that can affect immunity, such as a poor diet or lack of exercise,” she adds. “Its easier said than done but try to reduce your stress levels - perhaps try meditation or yoga.”
Swap your morning cuppa for lemon water
“Drinking a pint of warm lemon water first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day,” says Hannah Braye, Nutritional Therapist at Bio-Kult.
“Not only does it help with hydration, it is also thought to have a positive effect on digestion preparing the body to receive food by stimulating digestive secretions. In addition, it’s also a simple way to increase your vitamin C intake, a key nutrient for supporting the immune system.”
Colour-code your lunch
It might sound strange but the colour of the food you eat can have an impact on the nutrition it can provide.
“With meal deals and packed lunches often consisting of sandwiches and crisps, many people’s lunches are distinctly beige and lacking in nutrients,” explains Brave. “But did you know the different colour pigments in fruit and vegetables actually indicate the different health properties they possess?
“For example, orange fruit and vegetables are high in beta-carotene (the pre-cursor to vitamin A), whilst purple varieties contain proanthocyanidins, which powerful antioxidants. As the immune system needs a variety of different nutrients to stay healthy, eating a rainbow of different colours every day is important. So ditch the soggy sandwiches and instead pack a fresh rainbow salad topped with good quality protein.”
Though it’s tempting to avoid the grim weather and have lunch al desko, you could be missing out on a vital opportunity to support your immune system.
“Getting outside and taking a walk each lunch break is likely to offer a number of health benefits, such as lowering cortisol levels, increasing vitamin D levels (another crucial nutrient for the immune system),” explains Brave.
“If you have access to a green space close by, exposing your immune system to a wider variety of beneficial micro-organisms from the environment to help keep it strong and healthy.”
Look after your gut
"Your gut is one of the first entry points for germs, and with 70% of the immune system found here, it's really important to keep it protected to help ward off autumn and winter bugs,” explains Dr Kate Stephens, Gut Microbiologist.
“Stress, lack of sleep and a bad diet can all create an imbalanced gut microbiome, which in turn can lower your immune system. So it's important you look after your wellbeing during the colder months, and consider taking a daily probiotic which is specially formulated to boost your immune system. This will help fight nasty bugs by correcting the imbalance in the microbiome and creating a barrier on top of your gut cells to boost your immune system.”
She suggests Optibac Probiotics (30 capsules £12.99).
That after-lunch lull is particularly potent in the autumn, and while it may have you reaching for the sugary treats, experts suggest giving your secret snack drawer an overhaul. “Instead of the cakes or biscuits, make sure you always have protein rich snacks on hand,” advises Brave.
“Not only does protein help stabilise blood sugar levels, reducing energy crashes, but it also provides the building blocks for many of the body’s immune cells, and diets too low in protein have been shown to have a negative impact on immunity.”
She says unsalted nuts, seeds, boiled eggs, oatcakes topped with smoked salmon or mackerel, veg sticks with hummus and chia pudding are all good protein rich snack options.
Get an early night
Sleep and the immune system are closely linked.
“Studies have shown that participants who had a good night sleep after receiving vaccinations created more protective anti-bodies than those who were sleep deprived, indicating a specific role of sleep in the formation of immunological memory,” Brave explains.
“Prolonged periods of not getting enough sleep are therefore likely to have a negative effect on immune function. Sticking to a regular bedtime and avoiding blue-light from electronic devices for at least an hour before bed helps to regulate circadian rhythms and production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). Soaking in a magnesium salt bath and reading a book may also help you to drop off,” she adds.
Cut your vices
Dr Diana Gall from Doctor-4-U suggests using this time of year to quit or at least cut down on bad habits. And swapping rose for red wine is not going to cut it. “Alcohol, and smoking all weaken your immune system meaning you're more prone to illnesses and infection,” she says.
“Although we're trying to fight off bacterial infections, adding some healthy, friendly bacteria to your diet in the form of yogurt can actually help your immune system. Increasing the amount of good bacteria in the body, particularly when the balance of bacteria has been compromised such as through taking antibiotics, can help strengthen the immune system and fight off those nasty bacterial infections.”
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