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Five ways to help avoid getting struck down by norovirus this winter

Nothing can completely keep the bug at bay but every little helps. A nutrition expert tells Liz Connor how to build your defences from the inside out

Up to one million people in Britain and Northern Ireland catch norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, each year
Bug out: Five ways to help avoid getting struck down by norovirus this winter

IF THERE'S one thing you really don't want this Christmas, it's a bout of norovirus. Commonly known as the 'winter vomiting bug', this dreaded virus can be nasty, causing seriously unpleasant cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea that'll leave you bed-bound or crouched over the loo.

According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), up to one million people in the UK catch norovirus each year – symptoms usually begin 12-48 hours after the initial exposure to the virus – and it's highly contagious.

Although technically around all year, norovirus becomes especially prevalent in winter due to increased exposure, as everyone tends to huddle indoors more in close contact, with windows closed, making it easier for the virus to be passed on. Schools, public transport, shopping centres and gyms can all be rife spreading grounds.

Unfortunately, nothing can completely guard you against norovirus and the best way to prevent it spreading is by avoiding contact with anybody who's already caught it until they're completely recovered.

That said, it never hurts to give your body's defences a helping hand. Here, BioCare senior clinical nutrition advisor Emily Blake shares five ways to help build up a strong defence against winter's worst enemy:

1. Eat for the time of year

Pack your diet full of immune-supportive nutrients and herbs, especially those with anti-viral properties such as elderberry, sage, beta glucans, zinc, and vitamins A, C and D.

Key foods include mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, organic meat and offal, oily fish, citrus, berries, and raw leafy greens (such as broccoli and kale).

Elderberry, for instance, has a unique property of being able to 'blunt' the spikes on the outside of viruses, which stops them from entering the cells where they would otherwise reproduce, making it a powerful tool in the prevention of viral infections.

Arming ourselves with these nutrients and herbs through diet, as well as health supplements, can provide us with optimal baseline nutrition throughout winter.

2. Get a vitamin D test

We are all prone to sub-optimal vitamin D levels at this time of the year, as we become more indoor-bound and less exposed to sunlight. Some of us can be particularly vulnerable to this, such as the elderly, pregnant women and new mums. The last thing we need is something as basic as this increasing our susceptibility to infection.

A vitamin D test can let you know whether you're flagging in this area; you can either book one through the GP or privately. If your results are low, contact a registered nutritional therapist to enable them to recommend a supplemental dosage of vitamin D tailored to your unique needs. Alternatively, you can start by taking a safe, moderate dose of 1000IU vitamin D3 from a supplement.

Public health agencies recommend a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement during winter months, when there isn't enough sunlight for our bodies to produce the levels we need.

3. Prioritise good quality sleep and relaxation

Sleep is our nightly golden opportunity for our body and immune system to rest and repair. Good sleep is just as important as good nutrition when trying to strengthen our immune system. Aim for seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. An eye mask, ear plugs, an aromatherapy bath before bed and increasing your intake of calming nutrients such as magnesium can all help you to achieve an early night.

Equally, a chronic stress response drains our immune system, so it is also important to incorporate a form of relaxation into your daily life, whether it be a walk outside on your lunch break or an evening meditation or yoga session.

4. Watch your sugar and alcohol intake

As we approach Christmas, we can become deluged with opportunities for indulgence. While this can be lovely in moderation, we need to be aware of the negative impact of sugar and alcohol on our health, not least on our immune function.

Where possible, try to choose healthier alternatives, such as dark chocolate, nuts and dates and encourage your office mates or family to do the same. If you have a Christmas gathering coming up, try to avoid alcohol in the build-up to it and pack your diet with immune-supportive nutrients.

5. Enjoy prebiotic and probiotic rich foods

Prebiotics and probiotics strengthen the colonies of beneficial bacteria residing in our gut, which also play a major role in our immunity. Eat foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, raw sauerkraut and kefir on a daily basis. They taste great and are doing you good.

To help you reach a therapeutic dosage with the potential to improve your resilience to infection, consider supplementing with well-researched human strains of beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis, and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

A final tip: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water throughout the day, but especially after using the toilet and changing nappies, and always before eating or preparing food.

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