7 foods to boost your immune system this autumn

    Published: 15 October 2021. Written by Howard Calvert.

    Worried about cold-weather illnesses this autumn? These seasonal foods will give your health a helping hand by covering all your nutritional bases – plus they taste pretty good, too.

    As we head deeper into autumn, and cold crisp winter weather on the horizon, research suggests that you and those around you may begin to succumb to more illnesses. A recent report from Imperial College London forecast that the number of winter bugs is likely to increase this year, with a potential surge in respiratory viruses. Rates of influenza could be potentially double ‘normal’ levels as social restrictions and lockdowns have left us with weaker immune systems than usual. 

     While there’s no need to panic – washing your hands and other healthy habits we’re all now used to can help stop these illnesses in their tracks – you might be thinking of other ways you can boost your body’s immunity against winter illness. And one method could be far tastier than you might think.

     James Vickers, registered nutritionist and Vitality Expert, says that one way to give your immunity a kickstart is to eat seasonally to keep your diet and nutritional intake varied throughout the year. ‘Aim to eat a variety of foods in bright colours, which will offer you vitamins that you might not get the rest of the year.’

      To help you bolster your immunity for winter, Vickers, along with Lisa Simon, a dietician for Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, provide their tips for the foods all of us should aim to add to our diets as the temperature drops.

     

    Chestnut mushrooms

     Living in the northern hemisphere in mid-autumn (and especially following a truly damp squib of a summer), the key vitamin that many people are lacking is vitamin D. ‘At this time of year, there’s less sunlight, and therefore less chance for your skin to absorb and make vitamin D,’ says Vickers. ‘Aside from getting this vitamin from the food on your plate, it’s important to get out in the sun when it is there – even if it’s just on your face.’

    In the UK, it’s recommended that adults have 400IU (equivalent to 10 micrograms) of vitamin D a day to protect bone and muscle health, and the NHS advises that everyone consider taking a daily supplement during the autumn and winter months. 

    In general, getting some sunshine at this time of year is a good idea, adds Vickers. ‘It helps prevent SAD (seasonal affective disorder), as sunlight boosts your serotonin levels, which has a bearing on your mood, sleep and appetite.’

     Few foods have high levels of vitamin D. ‘You can get vitamin D from fortified foods including some milks, as well as from natural sources such as red meat, egg yolks and oily fish,’ says Vickers.

    However, another good way to get a boost is by topping up your plate with chestnut mushrooms that have been treated with UV light to increase their vitamin D levels. The fungi contain a substance called ergosterol, which allows them to make the vitamin naturally when exposed to this light.

     ‘These mushrooms also add in some fibre, and so help with gut health,’ adds Vickers. ‘This is important as the gut has a direct link to the brain in terms of keeping our mood up, and also helps keep our immune system going, which will help with fighting off disease.’ Mushrooms that boost your mood? Count us in!

     

    Turmeric 

     While Pumpkin Spice Lattes might look great on your Instagram feed, winter warmer turmeric is going to give your immune system a boost, too. You can add it to curries or rice dishes, but this instant hit of the sunshine-coloured spice is far quicker to rustle up. ‘I’m a big fan of homemade turmeric tea throughout winter,’ says Simon. ‘To make it, just add turmeric and cinnamon to hot water to taste, then add a slice of lemon – you can sweeten it slightly with maple syrup if you want.’

     Turmeric contains curcumin, an active ingredient that studies have shown is a powerful antioxidant, known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Time to put the kettle on.

     

    Kale

     Leafy greens such as kale provide the body with folate, which some studies suggest might help with depression and SAD, and a folate deficiency linked to low mood. ‘B vitamins – which you’ll get from leafy greens like kale, cavolo nero and cabbage – are really good for our brain when it comes to fighting low mood,’ says Vickers. Low levels of B vitamins such as B12 and vitamin B6 have also been linked to depression. What better reason to go green and add some kale to your smoothie? You could also try roasting kale with a drizzle of garlic olive oil and some salt and pepper on 240 degrees Celsius for about 5 minutes to create ‘Kale crisps’ – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! 

     

    Sprouting broccoli seeds

     Lisa Simon also recommends sprouting your own broccoli seeds – the sprouts contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants of all vegetables, including a substance called including sulforaphane (which exhibits indirect antioxidant effects). This healthy compound has been shown to stimulate an immune response, trigger anti-inflammatory responses and decrease the chance of certain bacteria surviving – now that’s what you call a superfood! ‘Broccoli seed sprouts are really easy to grow – you can watch videos on YouTube that show you how to do it, and then you simply sprinkle them on pasta dishes or salads,’ Simon explains. Simply soak and rinse them overnight three times – more details here.

     

    Wholewheat

     Simon explains that an important way to support your immune system through the winter months is by increasing your fibre intake – and wheat is usually harvested in autumn (wholewheat means the entire grain, including the fibrous outer husk). ‘You might not know it, but 70% of your immune system is in your gut. When you eat fibre, it gets broken down by the good bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids, and they communicate directly with your immune system. So, the more fibre you eat, the more short-chain fatty acids you produce, making your gut environment healthier. One of the main foods that your healthy gut bacteria really likes to break down is fibre.’

     You can find fibre in all sorts of foods: from wholegrains and fruit and vegetables to nuts and seeds. ‘Aim for a diverse range of fibre, as that’s what your bacteria wants to digest. Ensure you have wholegrains with every meal – brown, red or black rice, wholewheat pasta, barley, wholewheat couscous, all those kinds of carbohydrates, and then add in a range of colourful fruits and vegetables as well – the more colour, the better.’

     

    Mackerel

     Vickers’ first recommendation is a fish that is still in season as the leaves fall and you reach for a scarf. ‘Mackerel is an oily, fatty fish, which means it carries plenty of fat-soluble vitamins which you might not get from other parts of your diet, whereas vegetables carry water-soluble vitamins,’ he says.

     Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) are stored in body fat and can stay in the body for up to six months or longer, whereas water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and all the B vitamins) are used instantly and the excess is excreted via the kidneys. All are required to keep the body functioning and healthy.

     Mackerel also contains omega-3 essential fatty acids, which, some research suggests, might improve symptoms of fatigue and lethargy – often common during the days where light is at a premium after the sun sets in the late afternoon.

     ‘Mackerel also contains B vitamins (including vitamin B12 and B6), which are great for boosting brain function as well as your immune system, keeping you going and fighting diseases through winter,’ says Vickers.

     

    Squash

     We’re fully into squash season now, and the beauty of the iconic autumnal vegetable is that it comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours. ‘Obviously, they’re full of fibre, but squashes also contain vitamin C, which is great for our immune systems,’ says Vickers. ‘In addition, they provide vitamin A, which aids our eyes as well helping with skin repair and the maintenance of mucous membranes – the body’s first line of defence.’ In fact, vitamin A is sometimes referred to as the anti-infective vitamin. What better reason to load up your plate?

     

    Recipe: Roasted filled squash

     If you’re looking for a straightforward recipe that incorporates some of these wellbeing-boosting foods, look no further than Vickers’ simple squash dish – it’s as easy as 1,2,3!

    1. Take a squash – it could be any type, such as butternut squash, pumpkin or pattypan squash, then simply halve or quarter it and remove the seeds.
    2. Fill each segment with nuts, seeds, vitamin D-enriched chestnut mushrooms, shallots and kale.
    3. Roast in the oven for about an hour.

    The result is a fibre-packed meal that will please your digestive system, boost immunity and supply your system with a wide variety of vitamins including A, B, C and D. Enjoy!

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