We’ve all experienced the unpleasant feeling that comes from staying out in the cold too long ... the body starts to shiver (as muscles automatically contract to generate heat), the nose starts to run (as more mucus is produced to protect the nasal mucous membranes from the cold air)...
But despite these natural responses by the body to a drop in temperature, exposure to the cold in itself does not directly cause winter ailments! For that, we need to have caught … a virus (or some other pathogen).
Thus the oft-repeated warning that if you get cold, you’ll ‘catch cold’ is unfounded. What is true, however, is that we suffer more ailments in winter than we do in summer (1). So why is this?
Doctors and epidemiologists have identified a number of key factors that predispose to winter ailments:
In winter, the cold weather means we go out less – we tend to stay inside in spaces with little or no ventilation. As a result, the slightest virus gets easily transmitted between individuals.
What’s more, staying inside means seeing less of the sun. And our overall lack of exposure to the sun’s rays in winter, particularly UVB (as explained in this article on vitamin D) already results in us having lower concentrations of vitamin D, a vitamin which supports healthy immune system function. A lack of sun exposure and lower vitamin D levels means a less effective immune system (2).
In summer, the warm, humid air creates condensation which weighs down virus droplets, forcing them downwards. In the winter, when the air is drier, viruses are lighter and more volatile and are therefore more likely to reach mucous membranes and enter the body.
While it cannot in itself cause illness, cold winter weather does have a negative effect on the body:
Most significantly, the cold enables viruses to remain infectious for hours and hours. The colder it gets, the greater a virus’s protection and the more resistant it becomes.
There are simple steps you can take to help you avoid catching a winter cold and falling ill:
While we’re not pretending it will protect you 100% from viruses, increasing your vitality and boosting your immune system can help you escape winter fatigue and improve your resistance to external aggressors.
Diet is and will always be one of the most important elements here. In winter, we tend to opt for high-fat, high-sugar, comfort food, eschewing crudités and salads. Yet excess consumption of fats and sugars can be detrimental to health, while vegetables provide vitamins, especially vitamin C which is essential for our immune defences.
Zinc is a trace-element essential for health which is involved in many physiological processes, especially in the muscles, bones, skin and liver. And most importantly, zinc supports normal immune function by increasing B and T lymphocyte activity (4).
Zinc is normally obtained from the diet (sources include oysters, calves liver or beef liver, braised beef, lamb, and crab). However, some people may be deficient, either because of poor absorption (in the case of digestive problems), or a diet low in specific animal proteins.
In such cases, it can help to take a zinc supplement in winter (they are available as suckable sweets such as Advanced Zinc Lozenges).
A perennial plant from the same family as asters, thistles, dandelions, cornflowers and daisies, echinacea is a medicinal plant from North America, used for thousands of years by native Americans.
Containing alkylamides and polysaccharides, echinacea root is thought to work by increasing phagocytosis. The plant is known for supporting the body’s defence systems as well as for soothing a sore throat (3).
Echinacea should ideally be taken in conjunction with other vitamins and minerals that support immunity, such as vitamin C and zinc (all these compounds feature in Immunity Booster, for example).
An ancient plant long used in Ayurvedic medicine, ginseng is an Asian perennial, the root of which has a wide range of applications: in phytotherapy, ginseng is referred to as an adaptogen plant.
Recent studies have shown that its most important active ingredients, ginsenosides from the saponin family, help to support the immune system and maintain vitality (5).
Ginseng (particularly in a formulation standardised to 30% ginsenosides, such as Ginseng 30%) is therefore an excellent supplement to take in winter.
Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, reishi is a very popular mushroom, particularly following the successful development of its cultivation.
Recent research has demonstrated that the high content of specific polysaccharides called beta-glucans found in reishi as well as in many other Asian mushrooms may activate certain immunity-related genes (6-7).
To get the most out of the benefits of reishi and other mushrooms, you could opt for a synergistic formulation that combines several organic mushroom extracts: reishi, shiitake, chaga, cordyceps, etc. (such as the supplement Organic MycoComplex).
The immune system is the vital collection of defence mechanisms that ensure your survival. Discover how to boost and support it on a daily basis.
Many researchers believe that reactivation of infectious mononucleosis by the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be responsible for long Covid. How can this viral disease – which is spread by saliva and causes fatigue, sore throat and fever – be treated naturally?
This winter, we’re facing a particularly virulent triple epidemic of respiratory viruses. How can you tell these various illnesses apart, and how can you prevent and treat them?
We’re often told to expose our skin to the sun for 20-30 minutes a day to ensure we get enough vitamin D, but can this be done from behind a window?
Scratchy, dry, burning: a raging sore throat feels relentlessly painful. Here are 10 tips and substances to help make it go away.
Though you may not realise it, certain foods could be weakening your immune system. Here’s a list of these 6 offending foods – as well as a list of the ‘good guys’ that actually support your immune defences.