We are currently in the midst of flu outbreak, and colds and bugs peak at this time of year as we huddle together indoors, coughing over each other.
Like most GPs I have been inundated by patients suffering from varying degrees of all of these things.
In the majority of cases there is very little we can offer in terms of medical treatment for a cold, beyond advising rest and taking regular doses of paracetamol or ibuprofen to control the aches, pains and fever, if there is any.
However I’m particularly interested in the role nutrition can play in a range of illnesses.
Like most GPs I have been inundated by patients suffering from varying degrees of all of these things
As well as being a GP I have written a couple of bestselling recipe books which combine my interest in food and health.
These books were written to accompany Dr Michael Mosley’s chart-topping books The Blood Sugar Diet and The Clever Guts Diet – and I also happen to be married to Michael.
The good news is that emerging research suggests that, yes, eating the right things when we’re struck down with a bug can have an impact on our recovery.
FEED YOUR BODY’S DEFENCES
So how can food help us when we’re unwell? Well, living inside our guts are about 3lb of microbes often dubbed ‘friendly bacteria’.
This diverse range of organisms, known as a microbiome, are incredibly important for our health and help us fight off infections.
Healing chicken bone broth
This classic medicinal food is used all over the world to soothe troubled guts and aid recovery.
It’s the perfect way to use up leftover chicken bones – at about 40 calories per portion.
(Makes approx two litres ser ves eig ht):
l 3 tbsp olive oil
l 4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
l 2 small onions, chopped
l 2 leeks, trimmed
l 1 large garlic clove, halved
l 2 carrots, chopped
l 1kg chicken wings
and/or chicken carcasses
l 1 tbsp live apple cider vinegar
l 2 bay leaves
l 1 bouquet garni
l Handful of parsley stalks
l 6-8 black peppercorns
1 Heat the oil in a large pan with a lid and sauté the celery, onions and leeks for 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic, carrots, chicken, cider vinegar, bay leaves, bouquet garni, parsley and peppercorns.
2 Pour in 2-2.5 litres of water and bring everything to a gentle simmer, then cover the pan and cook gently for at least 3 hours, ideally for 5-6 hours, to get the most nutrients from the bones.
3 Check occasionally to ensure that it has not dried out and top up with water if needed, skimming any scum from the surface.
4 Place a sieve over a large bowl and pour the stock through it, allowing it to drip for 15 minutes.
For a thicker, tastier broth you can gently press the soft vegetables through the sieve with a spoon.
5 Either use it immediately or let it cool, then ladle it into containers and keep it in the fridge for up to five days. It can also be frozen.
:: From The Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book, by Dr Clare Bailey
The microbes that live in the gut regulate the immune system, teaching it what to attack and what to leave alone.
They do this in a range of different ways, including producing chemical signals that can turn different parts of the immune system off and on.
One way to boost the good bacteria in the gut is to eat prebiotics.
Prebiotics is a name for fibre, the stuff in your diet which your body cannot readily absorb, but which the microbes that live in the far end of your gut – the colon – adore.
The friendly bacteria take this fibre and use it for energy and nutrients, like fertiliser feeding a lawn.
They also convert the fibre into chemical signals that reduce inflammation and help your body fight infections. Excellent sources of prebiotics include garlic, onions, chicory and celery.
DOSE UP ON FRIENDLY BACTERIA
The other way to boost the good microbes in your gut is by eating probiotics, foods which contain living bacteria like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria.
Studies suggest consuming them reduces the risk of contracting upper respiratory tract infections, and also reduces the time we suffer symptoms by nearly two days.
One of the best places to find lots of probiotics is in full fat, unsweetened yogurt – the real stuff, not the sugary, yogurty drinks that line the supermarket shelves. Sugar kills the bacteria in food, which is why it is used as a preservative.
If you want to keep the bacteria alive it is best to go for unsweetened versions.
Smelly cheese and fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi are also a great source of probiotics.
WHY ‘JEWISH PENICILLIN’ REALLY WORKS
THE idea that a hot bowl of chicken broth – a tradition in Jewish households and nicknamed Jewish Penicillin for its fever-easing qualities – could be a cold remedy has been around for millennia. After all, what could be more comforting?
But could the effect be more than psychological?
The soothing nature of this ‘treatment’ will partly be because sipping hot fluid causes dilation of blood vessels in the nose, which causes increased circulation and mucous production – flushing everything out and easing congestion.
Soups are also mostly water, and staying hydrated is particularly important when fighting off an infection. And they are nutrient-dense and easy to consume when struggling with a poor appetite.
The slow cooking of the chicken broth releases nutrients and minerals such as collagen, essential amino acids, salts, calcium and magnesium, making them easier to absorb.
More intriguingly, recent research at the University of Nebraska, where they measured the infection-fighting response of neutrophil cells in the blood, found that chicken soup might reduce inflammation, ease symptoms and shorten upper respiratory tract infections.
And of course, broths are made using a number of prebiotic foods, which will help give your microbiome a bit of a boost.
If you’re feeling in need of a pick-me-up, why not give some chicken broth a go – see my recipe above…