The winter months really like to mess us around. Not only does the cooler weather make our skin dry, flaky and unhappy, but it dehydrates the heck our of our hair, makes us not want to excercise, and worst of all – we inevitably end up fighting off illness because our immune system is generally at its weakest in the winter months.
The best way to boost our immune system? Via our stomachs. Or more specifically, our gut health. While it’s important to look after our gut all year round, it’s particularly important in the cooler months to increase our defence against unwanted viruses and bacteria.
Nutritionist, celebrity chef and author of the Falling in Love with Food cookbook, Zoe Bingley Pullin says there is a powerful link between the gut and the immune system: “A large proportion of our immune system is located in our gastrointestinal tract. The balance of bacteria we have in our gastrointestinal tract influences our physiology, especially in terms of regulating our immune system, including our ability to mount an immune response against ‘pathogens’.”
According to Bingley Pullin, keeping the gut in tip top condition is important to fight infections. “As humans, we are host to trillions of microbes, which play a role in many functions including immunity. An imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria can lead to impaired immune responses. The gastrointestinal mucosa [the gut lining] also acts as a barrier to protect against ‘outside’ bacteria, amongst other things,” she says.
So how do we get our gut health back on track in order to ward off these opportunistic pathogens? You need to eat a rainbow of foods! (FYI Skittles don’t count). Adopting a more plant-based diet that includes a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts legumes and whole grains will provide an array of prebiotics to the microbiome and ultimately strengthen your immunity.
To help you get started, we’ve pulled together five of the top food types to help you get through winter flu-free.
#1 / Omega-3 essential fats
While the human body can make most types of fats, it can’t make omega-3 essential fats from scratch, so it must get them from foods. Foods high in omega-3 include fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts. “Omega-3 essential fats are believed to positively modulate the immune response due to their anti-inflammatory effects,” says Bingley Pullin.
#2 / Probiotics
“Probiotic rich foods such as natural yoghurt, kefir, unpasteurised miso, kombucha, unpasteurised sauerkraut, etc, may also help to maintain healthy digestive function and balance of bacteria, which in turn supports immunity,” says Bingley Pullin. Additionally, a probiotic powder like The Beauty Chef Glow Inner Beauty Powder can give your body a little bit of extra support.
#3 / Prebiotics
“Prebiotics are carbohydrate-containing foods known to resist digestion in the small intestine and therefore reach the colon where they are fermented by gut flora,” says Bingley Pullin. “In other words, prebiotics are what feed our good bacteria and therefore are necessary to help support a healthy balance of bacteria.”
Prebiotics can be found in fibre-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. “Sources of prebiotics include psyllium, leeks, garlic, onion, asparagus, oats, legumes and artichokes.” To up your digestive health further, you can also add a supplement like Nutralife Gut Health with Prebiotics Powder into your winter diet.
#4 / Antioxidants
Bingley Pullin says antioxidant-rich foods such as leafy greens, berries, beetroot, extra virgin olive oil, and herbs/spices including turmeric, help to “assist the body’s ability to mount a response to invading microbes and also help to regulate the immune function.” She explains, “This may be due to their ability to prevent cell damage, including immune cells, against free radicals and reduce inflammation.”
#5 / Vitamin A
We all know about the amazing benefits of putting vitamin A (i.e. retinol) on our skin, but it pays to eat vitamin A-rich foods, too. Vitamin A plays a critical role in the immune system, supporting the growth and distribution of T-cells (a type of white blood cell that protects your body from infection). “Vitamin A deficiency has been shown to reduce our immune response,” says Bingley Pullin. One of the best foods to give you a vitamin A boost? Sweet potato – it’s a source of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. “Sweet potato is also a source of vitamin C, which is also known to play a role in supporting the immune system,” adds Bingley Pullin.
Looking for more foods that will help improve your gut health? Meet seven of the biggest healthy food trends that are about to *explode*.
What’s your go-to solution for fighting off a stubborn cold? Let us know in the comment section below.
Main image credit: @laurahenshaw
Erin Docherty is a Beauty Writer for BEAUTYcrew, Beauty Editor for Women's Health magazine and a Grooming Writer for Men's Health magazine. She has a keen interest in cosmeceutical skin care and is currently working on minimising her 9-step skin care routine – because ain’t nobody got time for that. When she’s not writing about the latest beauty news, or applying copious amounts of serum, you can find her spending all her money in Sephora.