Winter is upon us and it brings with it many highly infectious bugs, including Covid-19 as well as the common cold and flu.

Several of my friends have already been struck down by the so-called ‘worst cold ever’ doing the rounds, which leaves those affected drained and ill.

How can you lower your chance of getting something nasty? The secret is to reduce your exposure and bolster your immune system — here are some of things I do to keep the microbes at bay.

Sing along to some tunes

I love singing, especially in the shower. I was thrilled to discover the many benefits singing can have on your mood, stress levels, and immune system.

One study at the University of Frankfurt in Germany asked 31 volunteers to sing for one hour, and another week later, to listen to one hour of singing.

The blood tests revealed that singing rather listening to others led to significant decreases in stress hormone levels and an increase in levels of immunoglobulin, an infection-fighting protein.

I enjoy singing, particularly in the shower, so I was delighted to discover the many benefits of singing, not just on your mood but also on stress levels and your immune system

I love singing, especially in the shower. I was thrilled to discover the many benefits singing can have on your mood, stress levels, and immune system.

Make sure to wrap up

To keep bugs away, keep your throat warm.

Professor Ron Eccles of Cardiff University was the one who established and managed the Common Cold Centre. He told me that when it gets colder, he grabs his scarf.

That’s because most of the viruses that cause colds and the flu replicate better in a cooler environment, like inside your nose and throat. 

Keep your neck and face warm to reduce the likelihood of viruses reproducing. Yale University’s recent studies also show that interferons, proteins that are a key part your initial immune response, are less active at cooler temperatures, which allows more viruses to spread.

A few years ago, Professor Ron Eccles, who set up and ran the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, told me that when it gets colder, one of the first things he does is reach for his scarf

Professor Ron Eccles, the man who founded and managed the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, once told me that when it gets darker, he grabs his scarf.

Take brisk, leisurely walks

Walking in the woods and outdoors is a great way of keeping your immune system in top shape. Exercising can boost your immune system, as well as exposure light, which helps reset the body clock and should help you sleep, an essential immune booster.

This is thanks to a variety of studies. One of these studies was published in 2020 in the American Journal of Medicine. A group of 115 postmenopausal females was randomly assigned to either 45 minutes of brisk, five-day-a-week walking or stretching. The stretchers reported three times as many colds after one year than the walkers. Aerobic exercise increases immunoglobulin.

And if you’re able to go for daily walks in a wood, then even better. Trees produce a variety of gas-like compounds including phytoncides (wood essence oils), which are anti-microbial. They also have been shown to increase levels of natural killer cells, white cells of the immune system that hunt for and destroy viruses.

You get the benefits of exercise in boosting the immune system as well as exposure to light, which helps reset your body clock and should help sleep, itself an essential immune booster

Exercise can boost your immune system and light exposure can help you sleep.

Try purple sauerkraut

As well as eating plenty of fruit and veg, I also make purple sauerkraut ¿ I chop red cabbage, onions and beetroot, mix in some salt and leave it to ferment for a few days

As well as eating plenty of fruit and veg, I also make purple sauerkraut — I chop red cabbage, onions and beetroot, mix in some salt and leave it to ferment for a few days

There are lots of vitamins and minerals that are important for keeping your immune system in good shape, but vitamin D is particularly critical and, as we move into the colder, darker months, it’s the one we are most likely to lack.

Although eggs and oily fish can be good sources of protein, supplementation is necessary. The NHS recommends that adults consume 10 micrograms daily of vitamin D between October and March.

As well as eating plenty of fruit and veg, I also make purple sauerkraut — I chop red cabbage, onions and beetroot, mix in some salt and leave it to ferment for a few days. 

It is delicious, and it is rich in probiotics. These live bacteria have been shown that they can help your body fight infections.

Keep hydrated

Winter is when we spend more time in centrally heated rooms. This dries out the air and mucus lining our lungs. 

The mucus helps trap microbes and if it dries out, it impairs your body’s ability to fight off infections. It is important to stay hydrated.

Drinking plenty of fluid is key. I aim for a glass water with every meal as well as lots of tea and coffee.

During the winter we spend a lot more time in centrally heated rooms, which dries the air and the mucus lining our airways

Winter sees us spend more time in centrally-heated rooms. This drys out the air and mucus lining the airways.

Zinc is a great choice

Although vitamin C is loved by many, a large review of dozens upon dozens of studies published in 2013 concluded that even high doses of the supplement had no effect on cold prevention.

Zinc supplements do appear to have a positive effect. A review by Finland’s University of Helsinki, looking at three big trials, concluded that taking 80 to 90mg a day of zinc acetate lozenges significantly cut the duration of a cold, with 70 per cent of patients recovering within five days compared with just 27 per cent of patients given a placebo.

Zinc supplements, however, really do seem to have a beneficial effect. A review by Finland¿s University of Helsinki, looking at three big trials, concluded that taking 80 to 90mg a day of zinc acetate lozenges significantly cut the duration of a cold [File photo]

Zinc supplements do have a positive effect, however. A review by Finland’s University of Helsinki, looking at three big trials, concluded that taking 80 to 90mg a day of zinc acetate lozenges significantly cut the duration of a cold [File photo]

Take the first step

The best way to reduce the risk for infection is to stop hugging and handshakes. Instead, use elbow nudges or fist bumps.

Researchers at Aberystwyth University published a 2014 study that found shaking hands transmitted at least twice as many bugs to fist bumping than shaking hands.

I’d also strongly recommend regular handwashing while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.

Why I keep aspirin for emergencies

Aspirin really is a wonder drug — it has gone from being a reliable painkiller to saving the lives of countless people who’ve had a heart attack by preventing blood clots forming.

That’s why if you or a loved one has the symptoms, such as crushing chest pain radiating down your left arm, you may well be advised to take 300mg of aspirin while waiting for the ambulance.

Aspirin should be used as a preventative. I’ve been toying with the idea of taking a daily low dose (75mg) to protect myself against a heart attack and reduce my risk of colon cancer. 

But now the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has found that if you’re not already on aspirin and don’t have a medical reason for starting, then the risks (such as a bleed in the gut) outweigh the potential benefits.

So I won’t be taking aspirin daily — though I will be carrying some in case of an emergency.

Reduce meat consumption, but be cautious about what you eat.

Clare, my wife, and I have become flexitarians. We aim to be vegetarian only a few days per week. A study published in Lancet Planetary Health revealed that Brits are now eating 17 percent less meat, especially red meat, than they did ten years ago.

But while there are ethical and environmental reasons for cutting back on meat, I’m not convinced there are good health reasons, particularly as many people replace it with ultra-processed foods, which are bad for our hearts and waists, and therefore our brains.

It’s the sort of food, produced in factories from cheap ingredients, that is increasingly being targeted at the vegetarian and vegan market. Just because a vegan sausage roll is plant-based doesn’t mean it is healthy. This, my friend Professor Giles Yeo of Cambridge University, an obesity expert, calls ‘ultra-processed food with good PR’.

A study of 21,000 French adults on their eating habits found that vegans and vegetarians consume a greater percentage of their food in the form of processed food than meat-eaters or fish. This is unfortunate because vegetarians and vegans have higher rates of depression. Ultra-processed food, which is low in nutrients, high in fat, and sugar, will only make matters worse.

So if you’re cutting back on meat, don’t turn to convenience foods — cook from scratch and stay topped up with the vitamins and minerals that come with meat, such as iron, vitamin B12 and omega fatty acids (you can take supplements or look for foods such as edamame beans for iron, nutritional yeast for B12 and seaweed).