Expert tips to boost your immunity this winter

7 minute read

An older woman socialising in winter with friend.

Immunity and dietary experts share their immunity-boosting tips to keep new Covid and flu variants at bay so you can keep active and social this winter

While there’s no sure-fire way to prevent winter ailments, there are simple lifestyle changes you can make to help boost your immune system. Our experts believe the easiest way to keep in top form is by eating tasty nutrient-packed food and getting in daily exercise. This, along with getting your Covid booster and keeping other vaccinations for flu and  shingles updated, can help alleviate any concerns you might have about your health or socialising.

In this article, we’ll unpack this advice and why staying social is so important – even during the colder months.


Does our age really impact our immune system?

Peter Delves, Emeritus Professor in the Division of Infection & Immunity at University College London, suggests age does affect our immune system: “Like all other body components, the immune system deteriorates as part of the normal ageing process and there is a certain inevitability about its decline.”

He says a well-balanced diet and adequate exercise are probably enough for most people to prevent its premature decline.


Healthy eating habits for older adults

A healthy diet includes a variety of foods, with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre, according to registered nutritionist  Jo Williams. Williams recommends over 60-year-olds increase their intake of stone fruits such as plums and apricots, as well as eating wholegrains such as oats and barley and legumes like beans, peas and lentils.

In some cases, eating healthily may mean changing habits. Allison Forbes, of Southwest Age Partnership  (SWAP), a network of community groups serving people in Northern Ireland’s Fermanagh and Omagh, says many older adults living in this rural area are accustomed to a traditional diet of meat and two veg, which, in her opinion, lacks a variety of nutrients.

An example of a healthy meal with veggies

For some, it could feel daunting to embark on a different nutritional direction in later life, but people such as Jitka Vseteckova, Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at the Open University, say it is worth the effort.

“Eating well, with a good variety of food, making sure we have the carbohydrates, [healthy] fats and protein we need, will help us get the nutrients and vitamins and minerals we need to stay well,” says Vseteckova.

Studies have found that consuming a daily handful of  nuts and seeds is incredibly beneficial to your gut health, so much in fact that it could prolong your life through better heart health and lower inflammation. 

Indeed, nutrition is the first of the  Five Pillars of Ageing Well that the Faculty of Health, Well-being and Education at the Open University has identified. The others are:

  •     Hydration
  •     Physical activity
  •     Cognitive stimulation
  •     Social stimulation


The importance of staying hydrated

As you age, it becomes harder to stay hydrated because your sense of thirst may decline, according to the Open University’s Five Ageing Pillars.

In order to stay hydrated, try to drink low-sugar beverages throughout the day. Some popular options include:

  • Water
  • Hot or iced tea
  • Coffee
  • Diluted fruit juice
  • Unsweetened soda water
  • Fermented drinks, such as kefir or kombucha

By enjoying a variety of low-sugar drinks, you can not only stay hydrated but it’ll also help promote good gut health, which in turn supports the immune system. The other perk is it affects your metabolic rate and promotes optimal function of your organs.

If you have a poor appetite, the British Nutrition Foundation recommends hydration solutions such as milky hot drinks, soups, smoothies, and fruit and vegetable juices. 

Older couple go for winter walk

How to get your daily dose of Vitamin D

Staying hydrated will likely be of far greater benefit to your immune system than many dietary supplements, which can make ‘unsubstantiated claims’, according to Delve. The exception is Vitamin D.  Laboratory studies show that Vitamin D can help control infections and reduce inflammation.   

“Spending time outdoors on a daily basis whatever the weather will help us boost our natural immune response and will help with Vitamin D,” says Vseteckova. “If we can’t do that for whatever reason, then it might be a good idea to discuss with your GP if you should be taking Vitamin D supplements.”


The wonders a chat and walk will do for your immunity

While it can be tempting to stay indoors over winter and avoid social contact, this can have a negative impact on your physical health. Two important steps you can take to boost your immune system are getting enough exercise and social contact. Vseteckova notes that a sedentary lifestyle leads to muscle loss and can affect gut health, while lack of social contact can cause depression.

“Our psychological and social health and wellbeing are very important,’ she says. “Exercise and staying social are excellent ways to improve our mood.”

If you’re worried about exposure to germs, she recommends wearing a face mask when in crowded places or going on a walk with a friend. If that’s not an option, you could visit a community centre and take any precautions you feel are necessary.

“It is important to see people and speak to people,” she says. “Finding the best way to do so might take a bit of thought, but it is well worth it.”


For more advice on getting the most out of later life, check out the rest of Age Co’s Useful Articles.