Boosting your winter immunity

Photography Jane Usher

Wendyl Nissen shares her top tips for helping your body beat ills and chills over winter.

When the leaves on my trees in the orchard start falling, I take that as a sign to prepare for winter. That means stocking up on firewood, getting out the woollens and washing them in lavender soap and reminding myself how to make a soup. But it also means putting myself on the immunity awareness programme I have constructed for myself.

Too often I have headed into winter as busy as ever, stressed to the max and running around fulfilling a hectic social life never once thinking about how my body was coping with all of it.

Then inevitably I’d get a bug and be sick for weeks. Then and only then would I reach for some help in the form of vitamin C, zinc, lemon and honey drinks and chicken soup.

But now, in my wisdom, and after many years of focusing on nourishing my body rather than thrashing it, I spend a few months preparing my immune system for what lies ahead. Prevention is always better than cure and if my immune system is operating at full capacity, then chances are anything that does hit me will be mild.  

If you type the words “immune boosting” into Google, you will get millions of suggestions for foods or supplements to take, which is fine. But there is an expectation that you can “fix” your immune system in days if you just throw a massive dose of one particular nutrient at it.

There is no quick fix for your immune system, but you can help it along over a few autumn months with a few basic tools.

I’m always amused to hear someone talk about their beloved car and how they feed it the right oil and petrol and anything else it needs to run at optimum level. Yet we don’t think the same way about our beloved bodies. They are amazing machines which perform such incredible feats against disease, that you would think we would treat them with a bit more respect.

Here are the things I do leading into winter to make sure my immunity is firing on all cylinders so that if I come down with a bug, my body will be ready and waiting for it.


Eating fruit and vegetables has been proven to give us protection against infections, so eating a wide range of those foods makes a lot of sense. It means that you are getting the optimum chance to get the nutrition you need. Professor Tim Spector, whom I adore because he’s a proper scientist who specialises in the gut microbiome, suggests that we should try to eat 30 different plant species a week. When he told me this in an interview, I thought he had lost the plot. But then he explained that a handful of nuts with 6 different types is easy to achieve as is a salad with five different components. I set off on this task and added mixed sprouted seeds (another 10) a seedy, nutty, grainy muesli (another 12), frequent stir fries (once I managed 20) or I mix up a fruit salad with different berries (10). The days of eating the same thing every day are well and truly over. I’m old enough to remember the 70s fad diets when we were encouraged to eat nothing but carrots for a week to lose weight. My friend actually turned orange and no, she couldn’t see in the dark. 

So every week, because I’m a bit of a head girl/high achiever and really want to impress Tim, I usually clock in at 50 different plant species.

It is also a good idea to eat your food in the state that it was found in nature. So buying it from a local market still covered in dirt because it was just harvested that morning is a great idea. 

This means that if your body needs a boost of a particular vitamin or mineral or trace element, you are probably going to have got them from all that diversity. 

The same goes for protein, carbs and fats. Fry in coconut oil some nights, maybe use sesame oil in your salads. Mix it up. With carbs, eat a range of breads, pastas and root vegetables, not the same ones every night. And try to add oily fish to your protein consumption because oily fish hits all the buttons for premium nutrition. I am predominantly vegetarian but I will still eat a steak once a month so that I can get some iron and B12 rather than taking a supplement. 

Remember, our bodies were designed to get nutrients from food, not from a pill. So making sure it has the widest range of foods to choose from makes sense. 

Eat organic if you can afford it, free range too

I’ve seen some people spend a massive amount on supplements which they take before eating McDonalds. The thing about food which is grown well, without pesticides and in good-quality living soil, is that the nutrition is higher. A lettuce I grow in my organic garden and harvest just before I’m about to eat it has been proven to contain far more beneficial nutrients than one which has been grown in depleted soil topped up with fertilisers and sprayed with pesticides, and which has been sitting around in a cold store, possibly in a plastic bag full of gas, and then left on a supermarket shelf for a week or two. Buying organic vegetables will cost you about $1 to $2 more, but in terms of supplement prices, this is a good price to pay for the extra nutrition, plus you’re supporting organic growers who have to jump through a lot more expensive hoops to get their produce to market. Likewise, a chicken which has been allowed to range around in the sunshine and forage in grass will bring you far more nutrients in its eggs and meat then a battery or barn operation.

Work on your gut microbiome

I’m a bit of a fanatic about this, thus my adoration for Prof Tim. There are some very exciting studies coming out on the benefits of having a good gut microbiome that aren’t just about digestion. There are some studies which suggest a good gut microbiome can help with depression but there is still work to be done in that area. Most studies are showing that if your gut microbiome is healthy, then your immunity will function well too. Some say 70 per cent of the immune system lives in the gut, and everyone agrees that immunity thrives when the gut microbiome is doing a good job. Diversity is one way to look after it but more recently, we are encouraged to make sure we eat lots of fibre as it acts as a “forest” for good bacteria to hang out in while it’s in the gut. Aim for 30 grams a day – that means lots of seeds, nuts, vegetables and fruit. 

Eat a little fermented food

This is great for your gut microbiome because fermented foods introduce millions of friendly bacteria. Every culture in the world has some form of fermented food in their daily diet going back centuries. We are lucky that we can access good-quality sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir, just to name a few of the more popular ones. Do not do as I did when I started eating them and have huge amounts. I was consuming a cup full of sauerkraut and then a huge glass of kombucha every day. You’re really just using them to inoculate your gut, so a tablespoon of sauerkraut on the side of the plate or a shot glass of kombucha a day is fine. Do not serve any of these hot, as you will kill off the good bacteria, and read the labels carefully. Some kombucha drinks are laden with added sugar and if you have a sauerkraut or kimchi with vinegar in the ingredients list, the bugs will be dead. Best to make your own if you have the time. 

Stop using anti-bacterials

We are anti-bacteria mad! And yes, it’s a good idea to wash your hands often and clean your kitchen benches, but it’s also not a good idea to kill all the bacteria.

A lot of bacteria that lives in us, on us or around us is there for good and to help our immune response, so let it stay and do its work. Studies have shown that good old soap and water do the job for being clean and safe. And then there are studies which say you can enhance your good bacteria by hugging your pets, your loved ones, rolling in the dirt outside (or slipping over in it on a walk in my case) or breathing in nature. Again, diversity is the key. I find a good hug with one of my cows is a great source of good bacteria. I also don’t tell my dogs off when they stop on our walk to delicately lick a few tablespoons of cow poo. It’s gross, but they’re just adding a bit of diversity to their gut. 

Have a blood test

Most people don’t get a blood test unless they’ve gone to the doctor feeling unwell; yet, to use the car analogy again, you give your car a Warrant of Fitness every year. As I was writing this, some pharmacies were about to offer an over the counter blood test to see how your immunity was to Covid. Your doctor can run basic tests, so it is good to get one and check in on your basic requirements, such as iron, B12 and folate. Women, especially, can often run low in those without realising it. In the not-too-distant future, we will hopefully be able to access a blood test which tells us about all our levels from Vitamin C all the way to calcium and zinc at our local chemist.

Sleep, sleep, sleep

Over summer with its long daylight hours, some of us may have got into bad habits with our sleep. There are a million suggestions on the internet for how to sleep better and you know them all.

But do you know what works for you? It’s okay to go to bed at 7pm if you want to. It’s your body saying “I need to rest and restore”. Don’t stay up just because someone once told you that the proper bed time is 10pm. Likewise if you feel like sleeping in and you can, then do it. As winter approaches, make sure you have a good long talk to yourself about how you are sleeping and check that you are getting as much as you can, if not more.

Exercise and meditate

Getting moving is great for the body but also the immune system and doing meditation also helps as it reduces stress. I just don’t have the time to devote to a good substantive meditation and an hour of exercise every day. So I swim. I find it very meditative and I’m exercising at the same time. Better still, when I do it in the cold winter water, my dopamine levels increase two and a half times from the baseline, according to a recent study. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical released by your brain. So I’m getting the trifecta of good vibes. You could do yoga to get meditation and exercise, or a solo walk in nature without earbuds is a great one too. Look, listen and breathe in nature. 

Drink Balinese jamu

I came across this wonder potion years ago when I was in Bali. It is a tonic taken daily by most people there. I take a shot glass of it weekly in the winter and if there is a bug on its way or I’m feeling a little dodgy, I make and take it daily.

Turmeric has had many claims made about its properties, including supporting the immune system, but I know that it is a great healer because I used it to heal a skin infection I had on my breast which the doctors were unable to treat after trying several antibiotics. I mixed raw grated turmeric with coconut oil and applied it to the wound. Within a week it was better.

And therein lies the rub. Raw. Like all things, the less processed something is the better it is for you, so you will need to hunt down raw turmeric, which looks like raw ginger root but is orange or sometimes red. It is grown in Fiji and imported here, so some Asian grocery stores will have it fresh if not frozen and this will do. As a last resort, you might find the tubers dried. Do not substitute with turmeric powder you buy at the supermarket.

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