Nothing can completely keep the bug at bay but every little helps. A nutrition expert tells Liz Connor how to build your defences from the inside out.
If there’s one thing you really don’t want this Christmas, it’s a bout of norovirus.
Commonly known as the ‘winter vomiting bug’, this dreaded virus can be nasty, causing seriously unpleasant cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea that’ll leave you bed-bound or crouched over the loo.
According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), up to one million of us in the UK catch norovirus each year – symptoms usually begin 12-48 hours after the initial exposure to the virus – and it’s highly contagious.
Although technically around all year, norovirus becomes especially prevalent in winter due to increased exposure, as everyone tends to huddle indoors more in close contact, with windows closed, making it easier for the virus to be passed on. Schools, public transport, shopping centres and gyms can all be rife spreading grounds.
Don’t fancy spending Christmas Day with your face over a toilet bowl? Unfortunately, nothing can completely guard you against norovirus, unless you want to try hiding away in a cave all season, and the best way to prevent it spreading is by avoiding contact with anybody who’s already caught it until they’re completely recovered.
That said, it never hurts to give your body’s defences a helping hand. Here, BioCare senior clinical nutrition advisor Emily Blake shares five ways to help build up a strong defence against winter’s worst enemy…
1. Eat for the time of year
Blake advises packing your diet full of immune-supportive nutrients and herbs, especially those with anti-viral properties such as elderberry, sage, beta glucans, zinc, and vitamins A, C and D.
“Key foods include mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, organic meat and offal, oily fish, citrus, berries, and raw leafy greens (such as broccoli and kale).
“Elderberry, for instance, has a unique property of being able to ‘blunt’ the spikes on the outside of viruses, which stops them from entering the cells where they would otherwise reproduce, making it a powerful tool in the prevention of viral infections.”
Arming ourselves with these nutrients and herbs through diet, as well as supplementation, can provide us with optimal baseline nutrition throughout winter. Blake advises trying BioCare’s Immune Intensive (£16.45 for a seven-day pack, BioCare.co.uk), a supplement that’s formulated to help support normal immune function.
2. Get a vitamin D test
“We are all prone to sub-optimal vitamin D levels at this time of the year, as we become more indoor-bound and less exposed to sunlight,” warns Blake.
“Some of us can be particularly vulnerable to this, such as the elderly, pregnant women and new mums. The last thing we need is something as basic as this increasing our susceptibility to infection.”
A vitamin D test can let you know whether you’re flagging in this area; you can either book one through the GP or privately. “If your results are low, contact a registered nutritional therapist in your area, to enable them to recommend a supplemental dosage of vitamin D tailored to your unique needs,” advises Blake. “Alternatively, you can start by taking a safe, moderate dose of 1000IU vitamin D3 from a supplement.”
Public Health England recommends a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement during winter months, when there isn’t enough sunlight for our bodies to produce the levels we need.
3. Prioritise good quality sleep and relaxation
Sleep is our nightly golden opportunity for our body and immune system to rest and repair.
“Good sleep is just as important as good nutrition when trying to strengthen our immune system, which is something many people don’t realise,” notes Blake. “Aim for seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. An eye mask, ear plugs, an aromatherapy bath before bed and increasing your intake of calming nutrients such as magnesium can all help you to achieve an early night.
“Equally, a chronic stress response drains our immune system, so it is also important to incorporate a form of relaxation into your daily life, whether it be a walk outside on your lunch break or an evening meditation or yoga session.”
4. Watch your sugar and alcohol intake
As we approach Christmas, we can become deluged with opportunities for indulgence. While Blake says this can be lovely in moderation, we need to be aware of the negative impact of sugar and alcohol on our health, not least on our immune function.
“Where possible, try to choose healthier alternatives, such as dark chocolate, nuts and dates,” suggests Blake, “and encourage your office mates or family to do the same. If you know you have a Christmas gathering or party coming up in the week, try to avoid alcohol in the build up to it and pack your diet with immune supportive nutrients.”
5. Enjoy prebiotic and probiotic rich foods
“Prebiotics and probiotics strengthen the colonies of beneficial bacteria residing in our gut, which also play a major role in our immunity,” says Blake. She suggests tucking into foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, raw sauerkraut and kefir on a daily basis: “They taste great and are doing you a world of good at the same time!”
To help you reach a therapeutic dosage with the potential to improve your resilience to infection, she suggests considering supplementing with well-researched human strains of beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis, and Bifidobacterium bifidum.
A final tip for avoiding the dreaded norovirus? Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water throughout the day, but especially after using the toilet and changing nappies, and always before eating or preparing food.