As cases of coronavirus continue to grow, and fatalities increase globally, what can we do to give our immune systems a fighting chance of beating the virus if we are struck down, or preventing it altogether?
“No amount of lifestyle intervention will make you invincible,” says Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist at the University of Sussex. “But there are plenty of small things you can do to strengthen your immune system.”
1. Follow the advice… whatever your age
This is not the time to ignore public health messages, says Dr Ross Walton, a viral immunologist. “Your thymus gland is where the body’s T cells [white blood cells that fight infection] are produced, and this starts to atrophy in your 20s,” he says. “But that’s only one reason everyone should be taking these measures, the other is that healthy, relatively young people have a responsibility to stay well so they can avoid spreading an infection that could kill someone more vulnerable.”
2. Wash your hands with plenty of water
When you wash your hands, it’s more about the water than the soap. “Warm water is better, but getting a lot of water over your hands whilst you’re rubbing them together is much more important than the amount of soap used.” Indeed, unless it’s anti antivirucidal, an antibacterial soap won’t kill the virus, anyway. As for gels, look for 60pc alcohol, as this will have antibacterial and antivirucidal activity.
3. Eat a colourful Mediterranean diet
Eating a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet rich in different coloured fruits and vegetables will give you the best chance of getting the wide variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients your body needs to fight infection, says Dr Claire Bailey, a GP with a special interest in immunity. The more colours you include, the more nutrients you get. “Have the fruits and vegetables whole and ideally with the skin on as this contains essential fibre that feeds the healthy bugs in your digestive tract, crucial to fighting infection.”
4. If you get symptoms, dose up on vitamin C
China might be running out of oranges but there’s little evidence showing vitamin C prevents infection. “What the evidence does show is that once a cold has hit, vitamin C can shorten the duration of symptoms,” says Dr Macciochi. “Our immune cells have a high need for vitamin C when they are working hard to fight infection, so if you find yourself with symptoms, this is the time to start dosing up on vitamin C.” Oranges aren’t the only source mind, it’s also kiwi fruits, red peppers, spinach, grapefruit, cauliflower and Brussel’s sprouts as well as organ meats.
5. Don’t lose sleep over it
“Adequate sleep is the bedrock of your whole immune system,” says Dr Macchiochi. “If you’re not sleeping, no other lifestyle measure will make such difference because while we sleep the hormone melatonin stimulates new immune cells.”
6. Move around during the day
“Regular and often is the key for exercise and immunity,” says Dr Macchioci. “Movement throughout the day is essential for your lymphatic system, which relies on movement and muscle for stimulation. It’s essential to helping your immune cells perform their surveillance function of moving around the body fighting germs that might be trying to get inside your tissues.”
7. That ‘two litres of water’ rule — heed it
If you get dehydrated, it can change the mucus layer in your respiratory tract and your digestive tract that has antibodies that trap germs and stop them getting into your cells, Dr Macchiochi points out. Oh, and tea and coffee are diuretics, so they don’t count.
8. Echinacea might help
Dr Walton’s team conducted studies on echinacea that found a reduced incidence of the common cold in children who took it as well as a decrease in the number of secondary respiratory infections kids got after getting a cold. That suggests the herb could work as both a preventative measure and something to take when you get symptoms.
Indeed, there is a body of scientific evidence showing echinacea’s effectiveness including a recent one published in Viral Research, albeit only done ‘in vitro’ (ie in test tubes) that showed it could work as a barrier against cold and flu symptoms.
9. As might a throat spray
Some throat sprays could also help shorten the duration of your symptoms. One is ColdZyme (from pharmacies and Amazon), a mouth spray designed to be used at the first sign of a sore throat to help prevent a full-blown cold from developing.
It works by forming a protective barrier over the throat, making it more difficult for the cold virus to cause illness. According to one double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study on ColdZyme published in November 2017, using ColdZyme could reduce the number of days patients showed symptoms by half, from six-and-a-half to just three.