Staying Healthy Over The Winter Months
As an athlete it is particularly important to ensure I do everything possible to avoid illness or infection. If I get ill, this means I have to stop training, which can have a detrimental effect on my performance in any upcoming races, as well as potentially risking losing any performance gains I’ve made thanks to training. In winter this is particularly difficult as coughs and colds are everywhere. As I’m visually impaired, I have to make use of public transport a lot, which greater exposes me to these germs. There is nothing I can do to completely prevent getting ill, but I can certainly give myself the best chance of fighting off any infections and optimally support my body’s immune system, especially through the winter months. The majority of this can be done through diet, but also ensuring I get enough rest and keeping anti-bacterial hand gel close by if I need it.
The easiest option for ensuring you get enough vitamins and minerals to keep your immune system strong is to take a multi-vitamin tablet. However this is not a natural source of the micronutrients and simply relying on them for your nutrition prevents you from getting many of the colourful plant compounds found in fresh fruit and vegetables that also play a major role in boosting your immune system. I prefer to get as much of my nutrition from natural sources as this not only means I get to eat a lot more variety of food, but it also helps to keep it interesting.
The two most important micronutrients needed over winter are vitamin C and zinc. These both play a major role in protecting against disease and infection. They are both classed as antioxidants and are needed in greater amounts when you are at higher risk of picking up an infection. Vitamin C is found in many fruits, including mango and pineapple, as well as all citrus fruits and many berries. Leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, cauliflower, rocket and chard are all good sources as well as several other vegetables including beetroot, butternut squash and carrots. Basically most fruits and vegetables contain some vitamin C and so if you ensure you are getting a good quantity and variety of them in your daily diet, then you should easily keep your levels topped up. The biggest issue with vitamin C is that it is fairly unstable and can easily be damaged when cooking or handling vegetables. To maximise your intake of vitamin C, its best to keep cooking times to a minimum, only wash and handle fruit and vegetables if they really need it and keep exposure to oxygen as low as possible. Our body can not store vitamin C for later and so it is vital to consistently include it with every meal. Any excess vitamin C that the body doesn’t need is excreted.
Zinc is a mineral found in many food sources including all meat, especially beef, seafood, especially oysters and dairy. It is another major antioxidant that boosts immunity by fighting off infection. Good plant sources of zinc include chickpeas and lentils, pumpkin and sesame seeds, many nuts and some grains such as quinoa, rice and oats. However often the zinc found in plant based sources is less readily available and so if you are vegetarian it can be more difficult to keep your levels topped up. Again, like with vitamin C, zinc can not be stored in the body and so we need to ensure we supply our body’s regularly with this mineral. Eggs are a good non-meat source of zinc, as well as cheese.
Other vitamins that can help boost immunity include vitamins B6, D and E. While other minerals that help stave off illness include copper, iron and selenium. Basically, although there are two very notable micronutrients that can protect us from getting ill, we still need plenty of others in smaller amounts to keep us healthy. This is why there are some foods in particular that are known as superfoods or health boosting foods, they contain a wide variety of all the micronutrients needed to keep our immune system functioning effectively. These foods include avocados, as they contain vitamins B6, C and E, salmon, as it contains vitamins B6, D and selenium, mushrooms, as they contain vitamin D and selenium, and peppers as they contain Vitamins B6, C and E. Good sources of copper include almonds and cashews, which are also good sources of zinc and leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and chard, which also happen to be good sources of vitamin C and iron.
Many herbs and spices such as garlic, ginger, chilli and parsley often get overlooked as nutritionally valuable as you use them in very small amounts compared to other fruits and vegetables, but they still contain a substantial amount of micronutrients. Adding them in to your cooking not only adds extra flavour but extra much needed vitamins and minerals. This is why curries and stir fries are considered to be really healthy meals, so long as they are cooked in the right manner.
Another simple way of keeping your immune system strong is to include probiotics in your diet. Probiotics are good bacteria which line your gut and not only help with digestion, but also provide a protective barrier against any germs that might get accidentally eaten. I regularly drink an actimel or yakult, a fermented yogurt drink, to ensure my gut is well supplied with friendly bacteria. To check out more about probiotics and good gut bacteria, give my post on the topic a read.
I hope reading this post has helped you understand how to keep yourself more healthy over the winter months. If you are looking for some recipe suggestions that contain most, if not all of these immune boosting micronutrients, then try making this spicy rice with steak and mango salsa, or this spicy salmon stir-fry. If spice isn’t your thing then this beef, beetroot and radish salad or this egg and bacon brunch salad might be more your thing. Looking for something quick and comforting? Then you can’t go wrong with a classic bolognese or cottage pie with root vegetable mash. Personally though, if I feel like I have a cold coming on and I’m needing a boost, then I like to turn to a curry like this prawn, pineapple and sweet potato one or this chicken, mango and lentil one. As a last resort, if I have still managed to pick up some form of cough or cold, then I do turn to vitamin C and zinc supplements as they are effective at getting rid of the infection as soon as possible. I want to minimise the impact of getting ill on my training, but thanks to maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, while also prioritising my rest, sleep and recovery, fortunately this is a rare occurrance.
If reading this has lead to any questions then please leave them in the comments box below.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post and I hope it can help you to stay healthy over the coming months.