Over a third of us are more concerned about our immune health in the winter months, according to a survey by Potter’s Herbals.
Yet 51 per cent don’t take any preventative steps to boost their immunity. ‘Although the common cold may seem inevitable, we can take steps to prevent and treat infections naturally.
Keeping the immune system strong and treating colds with a herbal remedy at the first sign of a sniffle can help minimise symptoms,’ says medical herbalist Dr Chris Etheridge from the Henry Potter Advisory Committee.
GP Dr Rob Hicks says there’s plenty we can do to strengthen our immune system against winter viruses: ‘Not smoking is key to a healthy immune system, but also eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise, getting enough relaxation time and sleep plus keeping stress under control.’
The job of our immune system is to recognise the cells that make up our bodies and fight off foreign invaders such as viruses. The immune system is made up of our skin and the acidic juice produced by our stomach, but also white blood cells called lymphocytes that spring into action when the body is threatened by bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. They attack viruses and pathogens and make antibodies to destroy bacteria. Once a virus or infection has been cleared, a small number of T and B lymphocytes remain and retain a memory of the destroyed virus or bacteria in order to prevent another infection by the same virus.
However, our immune system isn’t always able to fight off a virus or infection and is weakened by a number of factors including poor diet, lack of sleep, stress and lack of exercise.
Here are 10 ways your customers can help strengthen their immune system against winter viruses and increase energy levels.
1. Don’t be D-deficient
Vitamin D is vital for a strong immune system and it’s thought to be no coincidence that flu epidemics occur in winter when our vitamin D levels are lower due to lack of sunshine. Some research has found that taking a vitamin D supplement may reduce our chances of getting flu.
‘According to research, vitamin D strengthens the body’s immune system and is able to trigger and arm the body’s T cells to attack invaders and fight infection,’ says nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville. ‘The best recommendation is to have a blood test to check for a deficiency, then take extra vitamin D for three months, then re-test.’
Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietician from the Health Supplements Information Service (www.hsis.org ) says: ‘Studies show that a low vitamin D status increases risk of infections. Given that up to four in 10 adults and teenagers in the UK are deficient in vitamin D during winter, it’s a good idea to take a daily supplement of 10-25mcg.’
2. Try Echinacea
There are many studies on the use of Echinacea for the prevention and treatment of colds and flu. Some report little benefit, while others say it helps speed recovery time and helps prevent colds. There is some evidence that Echinacea boosts immunity by stimulating white blood cell activity. A study published by the Common Cold Unit, Cardiff University, found a 26 per cent reduction the number and duration of colds when Echinacea was taken daily for four months. The usual dosage is 900-1000mg three times daily.
3. Eat more garlic
Dr Marilyn Glenville says: ‘Garlic has been used for centuries and is known for its protective properties. Acting as a powerful immune booster that stimulates the multiplication of infection-fighting white cells, garlic boosts natural killer-cell activity and increases efficiency of antibody production.’
Dr Ruxton agrees, and advises using one to two cloves several times a week in cooking. Alternatively, a supplement can be taken daily.
During periods of chronic stress, the immune system is suppressed due to continually high levels of stress hormones. The body is less able to produce antibodies and is more susceptible to viruses
4. Increase zinc intake
Zinc is involved in the growth of immune cells and many studies have found it beneficial in preventing colds and shortening their duration. ‘Zinc regulates the function of many of our white blood cells connected to our immune system including T cells. Known for its role in wound healing, zinc is essential in the production of enzymes and infection fighting blood cells,’ says Dr Glenville.
Zinc is found in shellfish, meat, dairy, nuts, wholegrains and mushrooms. If someone wants to take a zinc supplement, recommend up to 15-25mg/day.
5. Ginseng for energy boost
Some studies have found that ginseng may boost the immune system and it may improve stamina and vitality too. Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered more stimulating than American ginseng. Around 0.5-2g of dry ginseng root (200-600mg of extract) is suggested daily for short-term use.
6. Role of probiotics
As well as helping to improve digestive disorders, there’s some evidence to show that probiotics can help maintain a strong immune system.
‘Probiotics help to normalise immune function, helping it work in an optimal way. Studies in young children have shown that daily probiotic use can help reduce days of illness throughout the year,’ says Dr Ruxton.
Dr Glenville agrees: ‘These beneficial bacteria can be found in live yoghurt, but I would suggest taking a supplement over the winter and especially if you have to take a course of antibiotics.’
7. Healthy diet boosts immune system
‘Nutrients are needed for every part of your immune system, and for renewal, repair and defence against infection and illness, so its strength will depend on the quality of your diet,’ says Dr Glenville. She believes a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and wholegrains, with limited fat, salt and sugar and avoidance of processed foods.
Dr Ruxton advises eating fresh fruit and colourful vegetables (vitamins A, C), oily fish (vitamin D, omega-3s), garlic, red meat (selenium, zinc), plus an olive leaf supplement that contains an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory compound, oleuropein. Other good foods to include are oats, rich in vitamin B, yoghurt (probiotics), fruit juices (lemon, kiwi, cranberry and carrot are best for immunity), and green tea (phytochemicals).
8. Take regular exercise
‘Taking regular exercise has a direct effect on our immune system and improves our mood too. In addition, it tends to follow with other healthy lifestyle habits – healthy eating, not smoking and drinking less,’ says Dr Hicks.
Exercise helps boost immunity by flushing bacteria out from our lungs and helping circulate white blood cells at a faster rate to fight potential infections. It’s also thought the rise in body temperature may prevent bacterial growth, allowing the body to fight infection better. Thirty minutes of moderate intensity exercise five to seven days a week is enough.
9. Get more sleep
Studies have shown that levels of white T-cells decrease if we’re sleep deprived, so we’re less able to fight off a virus or infection. ‘We also tend to slip into unhealthy habits when we’re tired and this affects our immune system,’ says Dr Hicks.
How your body reacts to sleep deprivation depends on the strength of your immune system – if it’s already weak you’ll be more prone to infection. Ideally we need at least seven hours a night – regularly getting less than six hours has been shown to alter the activity of hundreds of genes.
10. Keep stress under control
‘High stress levels reduce the number of white blood cells circulating, leaving us more susceptible to viruses and infections,’ says Dr Hicks. A US study found that people who’d been under stress were twice as likely to develop a cold. During periods of chronic stress, the immune system is suppressed due to continually high levels of stress hormones. The body is less able to produce antibodies and more susceptible to viruses.
• ‘One key way in which pharmacists can boost the immunity of their customers is to provide a vaccination service. Vaccines are the only clinically proven means of boosting against diseases. Offering the flu vaccine, either privately or as an NHS service, is a key revenue stream and contributes significantly to the overall health and wellbeing of the local community,’ says Michael Stewart, Numark’s information pharmacist.
• ‘It’s important to offer a good product range for vitamin D supplements – not just one type or one dosage level. A good range includes sub-lingual sprays as well as tablets and liquids,’ says Andrew Thomas at Better You.
• ‘Offer informed advice on dosage levels regarding the immunity supplements you offer. With vitamin D, it’s 25mcg per 25 kilos of body weight, but few people know this,’ says Mr Thomas.
• ‘After encouraging vaccination, the most important advice a pharmacist can give is to provide guidance on healthy lifestyles, in particular a healthy and balanced diet and ensuring regular exercise,’ says Mr Stewart.
• Offer a good range of immune boosting supplements, including minerals such as magnesium as well as vitamins.
• ‘Place a priority on educating your customers, and demand more from the brands you stock in terms of leaflets and training brochures for staff,’ says Mr Thomas.
Shaheen Bahatia, P&S Chemist Health and Advice Centre, Ilford ‘Obviously, you’ve got to have a look at who the person is, their age and what medication they’re on. We always say that people should try to have as natural a diet as possible, so they can get nutrients naturally through foods. We use the opportunity to talk about the five-a-day campaign and healthy eating. It’s also important to talk about how exercise helps your immune system, because people don’t think about that, and if they are busy and run down, to take some time out for themselves. If they are not able to eat well, then we might suggest some supplements. But you can overdo it, and some can interact with certain medications, which people don’t realise. If people are worried about coughs and colds, we suggest a flu vaccination; we’ve been involved in the London scheme.’
Bipin Patel, Broadway Pharmacy, Bexleyheath ‘This is an important category for us. It’s generally about looking at the patient and giving them appropriate advice. Sometimes it’s just their overall lifestyle. But people don’t tend to look at prevention. If they were doing that then we wouldn’t have half the troubles we have. But a healthy diet helps to keep things at bay. So we’ll advise them to make sure they’re eating all the right kind of foods. Then we will offer advice and have a range of supplements on offer. Although the evidence is lacking, some people feel they benefit from, say, vitamin C, but obviously you point out the evidence side of things before they decide what they want to do. We provide the NHS flu vaccination service as well, so that’s something that we may also highlight to them.’
Reena Barai, SG Barai Pharmacy, Sutton ‘There are plenty of viruses going
around, so people are asking about their immune systems and how to stay healthy. We’re promoting the NHS ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ campaign. Generally, we advise people to drink plenty of fluids, to get some rest and to eat healthily. But it does no harm to have a boost of vitamins every now and
then. It’s a very competitive market with quite a few online vitamin companies and supermarkets offering deals, and we do find that repeat sales go elsewhere. But I don’t want to get into three-for-two offers. I’m about good advice and sticking to the retail recommended price – that’s my business
model. I’m not wanting to under-cut the advice that I give along with the product.’