Got the sniffles? Feel a scratchy throat coming on? We’re now at the time of year where bugs are rife and the daily commute becomes a game of virus roulette. In the mayhem of everyday life it’s easy to underestimate the healing power of food and the importance of enjoying a varied diet as a way to not get sick this winter (scurvy anyone?). One of the best ways to ward off flu is to build up your immunity over time and scientific research is casting a light on the vital role played by our gut and its bacteria. Did you know 70–80% of our immune system is located in our gut, made up of trillions of bacteria (weighing in at nearly 2kg) that help keep us healthy? This bacteria creates a physical barrier that covers the gut wall, helping to prevent viruses and other unwanted illness-causing microbes entering the body. However, where our ancestors ate a huge range of foods daily, the diversity of our microbes as a whole has plummeted in recent years due to the narrower range of foods and dominance of processed food in the Western diet — increasing the likelihood of damage to our gut wall. Here are six foods that’ll help see you through the sneezy season by providing a healthy dose of vitamins and nutrients you need to protect against illness and keep that clever gut bacteria happy.
1. Fermented Foods
The first step to encouraging a healthy environment for your gut to do it’s virus fighting thing is to eat probiotic foods (that contain the ‘good’ bacteria) — and prebiotic food (that the good bacteria like to eat). Kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut, kefir (fermented yoghurt) miso or kimchi are great sources of the ‘good guy’ bacteria and when eaten daily will continue to help fight off bad guy bacteria when they reach your gut.
More than a pungent addition to flavour your food, garlic is prebiotic (provides the ‘fuel’ for good bacteria in your gut) and packs a big antioxidant punch. However to reap its antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits it needs to be when eaten raw as cooking destroys these properties. More fearful of contact with garlic breath on the tube than the germs themselves? Throw it into salsa verde (a green sauce made from a blend of fresh green herbs, anchovies, raw garlic and capers) to drizzle on griddle veggies at dinner instead (so your household can be garlicky together), or whizz raw garlic with cooked beetroot and feta for an easy weekend dip (a desk snack for the brave). Kale, rocket, leeks, oats, onions and beans are other prebiotic foods that’ll help your gut play defence too.
3. Citrus fruits
Recent research suggests that vitamin C may not be as useful in preventing colds as once thought. Dr Hasmukh Joshi, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs says “research has found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds,”. However, an updated review of studies into vitamin C and the common cold in 2013 found that a daily dose of vitamin C did slightly reduce the length and severity of colds. Hurrah! Get your daily dose by eating lots of citrus fruits — add slices to a jug of water with fresh mint to pep up your standard tap water, whizz up lemons with fresh turmeric and fresh ginger for added anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in a smoothie.
Turmeric might look like it’s from another planet, but there’s no doubt it’s healing powers are truly out of this world. Fresh turmeric is a bright orange-fleshed root-like subterranean stem (aka a rhizome), famous for its compounds that have powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties. A member of the ginger family, it has been used in Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines for centuries to heal wounds, treat skin conditions, inflammations and infections. The main active ingredient is curcumin and research has shown low rates of certain types of cancer in countries where people eat curcumin over long periods of time. Try out our turmeric tea or an immune boosting turmeric lassi.
5. Oily Fish
Oily fish — such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel — are rich in omega-3 fatty acids — compounds that help reduce inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation prevents your immune system from working properly and can contribute to colds and flu. These kinds of fish are also a good source of vitamin D, which is used by the body’s immune cells and recent analysis suggests Vitamin D supplements could spare more than three million people from colds or flu in the UK each year. This follows a report in 2016 advising Vitamin D supplements for everyone due to officials’ concern that sufficient levels may not be achievable through diet alone, particularly when sunlight, which helps in vitamin D production, is scarce in British winters. So top up on oily fish where you possibly can, (along with eggs).
The curative potential of mushrooms is often overlooked, however they’ve been long celebrated in other cultures for their restorative powers. Many of them contain a form of immunity-boosting antioxidants and ‘significant therapeutic potential, particularly regarding immunity’ according to biochemist and author of Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide Martin Powell. The key to their power are compounds called beta glucans, which are helpful sugars found in its cell walls, also know as polysaccharides, that modulate stimulate the immune system when weakened. Shiitake mushrooms boast anti-viral properties, but even the humble mild button mushroom will still do you the world of mushroomy good. What’s even better is that cooking doesn’t harm these active components, so you can throw them into soups and stir fries or enjoy on toast (rubbed first with a little raw garlic of course).
Find out more about new research on our gut bacteria at the British Gut project.
Stock up on flu-fighting foods at www.farmdrop.com.