It is that time of year again…the weather is colder, there is less light in the day, and colds and flus seem to be spreading like wildfire. Almost all of us have experienced a cold or flu at some point in our lives (if you haven’t, you’re either some sort of superhuman or Pinocchio). So, you would know that when you get hit, it knocks you around for a while. Well then what can we do to prevent getting sick this flu season?
Diet and immunity
As they say, health begins in the gut. So, it comes as no surprise that a healthy diet contributes to good health, and therefore a healthy immune system. There are some specific foods and nutrients which appear to be ‘immune-boosting’. Including these may help strengthen your immune system, and therefore potentially help prevent catching that pesky cold or flu virus.
Top low FODMAP immune-boosters
Fruit and veg
It sounds too simple to be true, but meeting (or exceeding!) your daily fruit and veg targets can prevent getting sick. They are rich in various vitamins and minerals which help maintain a healthy immune system, particularly the antioxidant vitamins (vitamins A, C and E). Certain fruit and veg are also high in flavonoids, which have been associated with a reduced risk of infection. Variety is key, so aiming for a rainbow of fruit and veg is best. Particular seasonal low FODMAP fruits to include are oranges, lemons/limes, kiwi fruit, and strawberries. Certain seasonal low FODMAP vegetables to go for is red capsicum, spinach, carrot, pumpkin (kent or ½ cup butternut), and broccoli.
Herbs and Spices
As well as packing some flavour into your favourite dishes (so important on what can be a bland low FODMAP diet), some herbs and spices are linked with immune benefits. Unfortunately for low fodmappers, garlic is associated with immune-boosting properties, mainly due to a compound call allicin. Avoid if you’re in the elimination stage of the diet, or have established garlic-fructans as an IBS trigger. If you can tolerate garlic, however, then definitely one to include! Other herbs/spices associated with immune benefits are ginger and turmeric. These are great to add to soups, stir-fries and curries.
Including healthy fats is important for general health, but can also benefit immune health. Fat plays a key role in keeping our cell membranes healthy, which assists with immunity. Often foods which are a good source of healthy fat are also a good source of antioxidants such as vitamin E. Good low fodmap sources of healthy fats to include are extra virgin olive oil, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, fatty fish (such as tuna and salmon), almonds (<10), walnuts, pine-nuts and peanuts.
You know how when you’re sick people often tell you to keep your fluids up? There is good merit to this advice. When we get a fever we lose more fluid through sweat, so replacing this lost fluid is crucial. Fluid also helps to break-down mucus and soothe the throat. In terms of prevention of sickness, water helps prevent illness by helping to main our cell membranes. When we’re dehydrated, our membrane permeability (how easily things pass through the membrane) increases, which means greater risk of nasty bugs entering our blood stream.
Non-dietary prevention strategies
Since our immune system is complex and illness can be contributed to by a range of factors, it is difficult to specify what exactly causes colds and flus. There are, however, a few key strategies to help with prevention.
Getting a flu vaccination
Whilst not a miracle shot, the flu vaccination is the simplest and most effective method for flu prevention in those older than 6 months. In Australia the flu vaccine is funded by the government for certain populations. This includes those aged 6 months – 5 years, those over the age of 65, pregnant women, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 15 years. Speak to your GP, Nurse or Pharmacist to discuss the flu vaccination (if you haven’t already!).
Washing your hands
It sounds like a no-brainer, but the biggest spread of communicable diseases (such as the flu) is through poor hand hygiene. I remember doing a full workshop on hand hygiene when studying to become a Dietitian, then when I started placement in hospitals I understood how important it really is. We should be washing our hands thoroughly several times a day – especially after going to the toilet, touching questionable surfaces (like public transport rails), and before eating/food handling. Carrying a hand-sanitiser with you is also a great option for when you’re out and about.
Like diet, exercise is important for both our general health and immune health. Regular exercise can help maintain a healthy immune system through promoting good blood circulation. Better blood circulation means your immune cells can move through the body more easily and therefore work more effectively.
Getting adequate sleep is important for a healthy immune system. Try prioritising getting 7-8 hours sleep most nights. Lack of sleep can also worsen IBS symptoms, see our recent article on this here.
What about during a cold/flu virus?
When you have a cold or flu virus, all the strategies above still apply, except for some contraindications with exercise. In addition to these, when sick with a cold or flu bug you may benefit from:
Whilst there is limited evidence to suggest vitamin C may prevent the common cold, there is evidence to suggest it may reduce the severity and/or duration. So it may be worthwhile including some vitamin c-rich low FODMAP foods in your diet when battling a cold. Some examples include oranges, lemon/lime, red capsicum, strawberries, kiwi fruit, and tomato.
Like vitamin c, zinc has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold, but not prevent it. Foods rich in zinc include meat (especially red meat), shellfish, nuts (such as pine nuts and peanuts), pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, dairy products such as hard cheese, and eggs.
Light – moderate exercise
Light to moderate exercise can be OK when sick if symptoms are above the neck (e.g sore throat, head ache, runny nose). Exercise is contraindicated when sick if symptoms are below the neck (e.g coughing, sore/tight chest). You know your body best, so if you don’t feel up to exercise then don’t push yourself. When in doubt, speak with your GP.
Over the counter (OTC) medications
Some OTC medications may be beneficial when sick with a cold/flu virus such as cold and flu tablets, cough syrups, lozenges etc. Be careful when selecting OTC medications such as cough syrups and lozenges, as many are not low FODMAP. Many syrups and lozenges contain polyols (high FODMAP). Always read the ingredients list and avoid any with polyols e.g sorbitol and mannitol (often in sugar-free syrups/lozenges). Speak to the Pharmacist about which medication is right for you.
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Start feeling better now! By signing up to The FODMAP Challenge you will receive meal plans, recipe ideas, and regular support with other resources, such as a private Facebook group, to make this as easy for you as possible.