Winter has come, and the flu this year has sent many people to bed with a sore throat, cough and fever. Unfortunately, the death toll due to the flu is nearing 300 with the worst yet to come, according to a recent report from The Guardian (1).
The saying, "Prevention is better than cure", is pertinent to the flu virus. The most effective way for you to fight the flu is to: strengthen your immune system and reduce your chances of catching the flu.
Our body's immune system - an innate mechanism that combats pathogenic microorganisms - is repaired and maintained in preparation for an attack. However, smoking, alcohol, everyday stress and poor nutrition can significantly weaken your immune system. With a weakened immune response, you become susceptible to the more severe symptoms of the flu virus.
How do you strengthen your immune system?
Give your body the right building blocks. Our diet contributes to the strength and efficiency of your immune system. Indeed, a healthy and balanced diet containing the components below, can boost your immune defences.
Let’s begin with one of the most widely known compounds in food, vitamins:
Vitamin A helps in the upkeep of the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract, which act as first line of defence to trap and eliminate viruses. Vitamin A can be found in orange-coloured fruits and vegetables (carrots, squash, oranges), dark green vegetables, as well as egg yolk, milk and liver.
Vitamin B complex are a group of 8 vitamins that participate in a range of bodily processes, from immune function to skin health. In particular, vitamin B6 is essential for the formation of antibodies. Rice and whole grains, legumes, dried fruit, fish, eggs and dairy products are rich sources of vitamin B6.
Vitamin C is essential because it helps produce antibodies that help you fight infection. It is available in citrus fruit, kiwi, berries, tomatoes, capsicum, cabbage, spinach and broccoli.
Don’t forget vitamins D and E, which help maintain the efficiency of your immune system. Vitamin D can be found in higher concentrations in fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardine) and egg yolk; while vitamin E can be found in dried fruit, wheat germ and green leafy vegetables.
The main minerals: iron (found in the liver, meat, yolk, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes and dried fruit); magnesium (found in whole grains, milk and dairy products, and dried fruit); selenium (found in meat and fatty fish, dairy products, nuts and lentils); and zinc (found in red meat, seafood, eggs, dried fruit and tomatoes).
To make the antibodies that fight the flu, we need protein as the building blocks of the antibodies. Protein can be sourced from any food of animal origin, including meat, fish and eggs, and also from legumes and whole grains.
In addition, we can support our gut microbiome with prebiotics (fibre) and probiotics.
Yoghurt and fermented milk contain probiotics which, if taken regularly, strengthen the immune response. Garlic and onion, if eaten raw, have antibacterial properties and protect the mucous membranes.
What foods to avoid?
Avoid simple sugars, soft drinks, and animal fats (like butter and lard), which can be replaced with extra virgin olive oil.
How to reduce your chances of catching the flu?
Whilst a strong immune system will be more resilient against the flu, the best way to prevent contracting the flu is to avoid catching the flu virus.
As the flu virus is spread by human contact, remember to wash your hands regularly, wipe frequently-touched surfaces and keep a 1-metre radius between you and people with the flu.
Did you know the flu virus evolves so rapidly that the viral strain each winter is different from the one last year? And young children, the elderly and Indigenous Australians are at an increased risk of dying from the flu (2). So to reduce your chance of painful fever and risk of death, get your flu vaccination each year. Ideally, get vaccinated before the beginning of winter (as it takes two to three weeks to develop immunity after vaccination) but it isn't too late now!
If you already have the flu, sneeze into a tissue or your elbow (not your hands, as we often use hands to touch other surfaces and other people), to avoid spreading it to others.
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(1) Martin, L. “Melbourne girl, 13, dies from the flu as national toll nears 300”. The Guardian. (2019) https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/08/melbourne-girl-13-dies-from-the-flu-as-national-death-toll-nears-300
(2) Guardian staff and agencies. “Doctors urge Australians to get a flu vaccine after virus claims 68 lives”. The Guardian. (2019) https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/08/melbourne-girl-13-dies-from-the-flu-as-national-death-toll-nears-300