'Tis the season ... for cold and flu

When everything is going to plan, our immune system does a terrific job in protecting us without us even noticing. It fends off harmful agents – such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, pollutants and allergens – all the time, using a variety of different mechanisms.

The first line of defence are barriers: the skin, saliva, a mucous lining along the respiratory system and digestive tract as well as stomach acid do a good job keeping invaders out or destroying those we might ingest. A healthy gut also produces universal antibodies, which act like bouncers and check out the contents of the intestine to make sure that only the good stuff is absorbed. Undesirables are denied entry and passed along for excretion.

Pathogens that do manage to invade the tissues or even the blood stream will be attacked by white blood cells, which either destroy them or cling on to them to prevent them from doing harm. Any resulting debris is swept out via the lymphatic system. Fever, too, is a symptom of your immune system fighting: Heat can destroy microbes, and that’s what your body is trying to do so it serves a valuable purpose, but if it persists for more than two days, seek medical help.

A healthy immune system works incredibly well, but what we eat and drink can strengthen or weaken it, so here are my tips on how to build up your defences:

Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates

Sugar is an immune suppressant, affecting the immune system in different ways, either directly or via the stimulation of insulin secretion. “Refined carbohydrates” are white flour products, such as bread, bagels, pitta and white pasta, or white rice. Although they might not taste sweet, they are very quickly turned into sugar in the process of digestion and therefore have the same effect.

Stay hydrated

Your mucous membranes need to stay hydrated. If they dry out, their barrier function is impaired. Moreover, fluids help the lymphatic system to flush out waste. Avoid alcohol, tea and coffee. Go for herbal teas, green tea or water instead. Lemon is rich in vitamin C and ginger has antiviral properties, tea made with those two is not only great to fight colds or flu, but also very tasty.

To strengthen your defences, you could have a daily dose of fresh (!), homemade juice. If you have a juicer, try Jason Vale’s delicious Lemon and Ginger Zinger.

Garlic and Onions

Garlic and onions, too, have antiviral and antibacterial properties, so use them liberally, cooked or raw.

Keep your diet ‘clean’

Stay away from junk foods, take-aways and ready meals. If there are more than five ingredients listed, put it back on the shelf. Just eat natural foods as you would find on a farmers market or around the edges of the supermarket: fresh fruit and veg, fish, chicken, beans and pulses, brown rice or quinoa, nuts and seeds.

If you already have a cold, it is best to avoid dairy as it is mucus forming. Cheese – especially melted cheese – and meat are hard to digest, so you may want to give your body a break during recovery.

Vitamin C

Have lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to increase your intake of vitamin C. However, avoid orange juice and fruit juices in general as they are high in sugar. Eat an orange instead. Citrus fruit might be the most famous for vitamin C, but really all fresh fruit and veg contain it. Cabbage, kale, spring greens, and broccoli are excellent choices.

Of course there are more ways to protect yourself, which are not food related:

Wash your hands regularly. The most likely way to catch a cold or flu virus is via your hands. You could pick it up from a handrail or doorknob and later touch your face. That’s all it takes. Ordinary soap will do just fine. There is no need to buy sanitiser gel. The alcohol in it will only dry out your hands (weakening the skin’s barrier function) while achieving little more than soap.

Stay warm and if you have a cold avoid changes in the temperature of your surroundings for at least two days.

Rest. If you have caught a cold or flu, rest. Stay at home, don’t go to work. You will only struggle with it for longer and your colleagues will not thank you for spreading the virus.

Exercise helps strengthen your immune system and so does the regular use of a sauna at least over the winter. Just a single session is enough to temporarily increase your white blood cell output, thus strengthening the immune system. Avoid both sauna and exercise, however, if you already have a cold and resume when you’re back to normal.

To receive a lovely recipe for a cold and flu fighting soup and for my own tried and tested home remedy, subscribe to Nutrilicious News. There is still time, it’ll go out tomorrow morning.

If you frequently catch colds and infections, maybe your immune system would benefit from a little extra help and support. To find out what you can do, why not come and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, for your own personalised Health and Nutrition Programme?

Snooze yourself to health

According to a report published by The Sleep Council in March 2013 the number of Britons getting just five to six hours sleep per night has risen dramatically: 40% of us are not getting the six to nine hours recommended by the NHS. Why is that? In the majority of cases health conditions, such as depression and anxiety or chronic pain are keeping us awake at night. Many are unable to sleep due to worry, but a great many of us are just not going to bed on time to get the rest we need. Some see sleep as a waste of time, which would be better spent working. Others don’t like going to bed early, because the only me-time they can get is in the evenings, when at last they get home after a long and stressful day at work or when the kids are finally tucked up and asleep. Understandable. But is it wise?

The fact that sleep is something our body just demands is a strong clue that we need it and that it is in fact good for something. If we are prevented from sleeping – and remember: sleep deprivation is a form of torture! – we will die. But even without this drastic outcome, sleep deprivation seriously affects our health.

Photo: Ambro,

While we sleep, the body is very busy repairing and maintaining muscles, bones and organs. The brain needs sleep-time for clean-up, not just of “mind clutter”, but also of the chemical waste of brain cell metabolism that accumulated in the course of the day.

In the short term, sleep deprivation affects our memory and creativity, slows reaction time, and leads to micro-sleeps and drowsiness during the day, impatience and moodiness. Tiredness also shows on your face, and you won’t be looking your best. Apart from the fact that most of us really want to look good, research has found that people can easily spot a tired person and we instinctively know not to expect much from them, a fact that can affect your career and business.

Prolonged sleep deprivation, however, has much more serious consequences as it can lead to hormonal and neurological changes and even depression. With 40% of us not getting enough sleep, it is no wonder that symptoms are so common that they are easily mistaken as normal.

Sleep deprivation impairs insulin sensitivity, which promotes weight gain and contributes to diabetes II over time. It also affects weight by messing with the hormones ghrelin and leptin: Ghrelin is the "hunger hormone", which makes you feel peckish and slows down your metabolism, i.e. you'll burn energy more slowly. Leptin is the "satiety hormone", which makes you feel full, tells you when to stop eating and speeds up metabolism. If you are not getting enough sleep, leptin production is suppressed, while ghrelin production goes up. You'll want to eat more and the calories thus consumed will stick.

As if that wasn't bad enough, sleep deprivation is also pro-inflammatory. Continuous low-grade inflammation is known to promote degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes II, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis.

If you need an alarm, use the snooze button, tend to fall asleep when you’re not in bed – for example on the train, a plane or in a meeting, the theatre or cinema – and feel the need to catch up on sleep on weekends or on holiday, you are not getting enough sleep. When we do, we wake up naturally, without needing an alarm. We should be able to get through the day without copious amounts of caffeine, and remain alert until it is time to go to bed at night. Yet for many of us that is not the case.

If you suffer from insomnia, whether you have trouble falling asleep (sleep-onset insomnia) or staying asleep (sleep-maintenance insomnia), you should go and see your doctor, especially if you suspect that you might suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Insomnia can be a side effect of medication, most commonly thyroid drugs or oral contraceptives. Ask your GP whether there is an alternative drug that you might tolerate better.

If there is no obvious medical reason, you could look at your diet:

Are you eating late and/or having heavy dinners?

If you need to digest during the night, your sleep will almost certainly be disturbed. Eat no later than 3 hours before bedtime if at all possible. Ideally, you should have your main meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal in the evening. If you have a business dinner, ask if it can be arranged a little earlier – perhaps at 18:30. This will get you all home earlier, too (more sleep time – bonus!). Choose light meals for dinner and avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar to balance blood sugar.

Balance Blood Sugar

Keeping blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day is the best way to ensure a steady supply of energy without mid-afternoon slumps and to get a good night’s sleep. If your evening meal is rich in refined carbohydrates, e. g. from white rice, white pasta, or sugar, this can cause a blood sugar spike which is soon followed by a steep drop. If this drop occurs during the night, stress hormones are released to increase blood sugar, and they are likely to wake you up (cortisol is in fact what gets you out of bed in the morning). A blood sugar drop can also happen if you have eaten a very low-carb meal too early in the evening. If that is the case, a small (!) snack of complex carbohydrate paired with protein just before bed can help stabilise blood sugar to get you through the night. Think one oatcake with hummus, cottage cheese or a piece of smoked salmon; a piece of banana with peanut butter, a small tub of plain yoghurt with berries.

Are you having too much caffeine?

Different people detoxify caffeine at different rates. While some can drop off easily after a post-dinner espresso, others are kept awake by caffeine even if they had their last cup at lunchtime. To find out whether you are sensitive to caffeine, cut it out completely for 7 to 10 days and see what happens. Make sure to eliminate all caffeine during that time: tea, coffee (including decaff), green tea, chocolate, caffeine drugs and energy drinks all contain varying amounts of caffeine. If it turns out that you sleep better without it, you may want to stay off it or at least not drink coffee any later than lunchtime.

Are you using alcohol to help you sleep?

Using alcohol to help induce sleep is very common, and it does in fact do that. The problem is, however, that it can disturb sleep further into the night. Alcohol is known to suppress the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when we would normally dream and when the brain tidies up our memory, discarding what we don’t need and consolidating what we do. Also, carbohydrates in alcohol can lead to blood sugar spikes followed by drops, which then encourage the release of stress hormones (see above). Moreover, alcoholic drinks – especially beer – act as diuretics and may encourage you to get up and use the toilet during the night.

Eat your greens!

The minerals calcium and magnesium are required for relaxation of both the mind and the muscles. You are more likely to be low in magnesium than in calcium: Magnesium-rich foods are nuts and seeds, green vegetables, wholegrains and seafood. Green vegetables, nuts and seeds, seafood, tofu and molasses are also great sources of calcium. Adequate B vitamins, too, are important for good sleep, but if you are taking a multi-vitamin or B-complex supplement make sure to take them earlier in the day as B vitamins are involved in energy production.

Eat lettuce at night: Apart from magnesium lettuce contains the natural sedative lactucarium, which encourages deeper sleep. Lettuce can also be eaten cooked in soups or stir-fries. Try it, you may be surprised. Foods that are high in the amino acid tryptophan, such as chicken, cheese, tuna, tofu, eggs, nuts, bananas, dates, seeds and milk can help improve sleep. For more on tryptophan, have a look at my blog on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Other foods associated with inducing sleep are celery, oats and kiwi fruit.

To learn more:

The Sleep Council’s website is a great resource for everything sleepy. From mattresses to jet lag, there’s great advice here.

Tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News will have more tips on how to get a good night’s sleep, a sleepy recipe and some links. There is still time to subscribe!

Your most hated veg?

This week, our organic vegetable box finally contained something my husband and I have been eagerly waiting for: a bag of Brussels sprouts! Yes, the season has started, and we have no intention to wait until Christmas before tucking in. If anything, we were a little disappointed about the size of the bag: a bit small. I have always loved sprouts, but apparently not everyone shares that feeling. Much more so than in my home country, I feel that Brussels sprouts are the most hated and probably most misunderstood vegetable in Britain.*

Fresh Brussel sprouts full frame

Granted, if you boil sprouts into a greenish-grey mush that you then serve without any ‘enhancements’, then it probably isn’t all that appealing. But why would you? Cook them properly and enjoy!

First of all, shop for good ones: Your sprouts should be tight little green heads, with no yellow, brown or black leaves. As all brassicas (with the possible exception of white and red cabbage, which keeps quite well), Brussels sprouts are best eaten fresh. You’ll get the best price and the freshest sprouts from a farmers’ market or greengrocer’s. Cheaper still, and probably even fresher, are frozen sprouts, which have the added bonus that they are already cleaned and trimmed.

If you have bought unfrozen ones, first cut a thin slice off the stem and peel off the outer leaves, which removes most little blemishes. If you are going to cook the sprouts whole, cut the stem crosswise to ensure that they will cook evenly. If they vary greatly in size, cut the larger ones in half. Alternatively you could shred them on a mandolin or with the slicing blade of your food processor and stir-fry them or – dare I say it? – eat them raw in a salad.

It is important to cook them fast and furiously instead of boiling them to death. Either steam them in a steamer basket or put them into a large, wide pan to which you then add just a little water in order to steam-cook them with the lid on. Technically, you could just eat them like that, but there are so many more options:

  • toss with butter and a pinch of nutmeg
  • toss in garlic butter
  • serve with finely chopped, crispy fried bacon
  • serve with finely chopped toasted chestnuts
  • parboil, then toss with balsamic, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper and roast in the oven
  • mix raw shredded Brussels sprouts and finely chopped kale with your favourite dressing and some roasted walnuts and blue cheese
  • you can even – drumroll – make Brussels sprouts chips!

If you need even more inspiration, head over to my Pinterest Board, dedicated to the humble Brussels sprout.

But why would you even want to eat sprouts?

Well, if their delicious flavour isn’t a good enough reason, then here a few good health reasons – which, by the way, largely apply to the other brassicas as well. Those are the sprout’s bigger relatives such as: kale, spring greens, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, cavolo nero, tenderstem, savoy cabbage, pointed cabbage, white cabbage, red cabbage, kohlrabi, swede, turnip, pak choi and Swiss chard. Did I forget anyone?

Brussels sprouts are a great source of vitamin C and K, folic acid, and beta-carotene (the precursor for vitamin A) – so they are good at strengthening the immune system. Just what you need at this time of year. They also provide B6 (think PMS, hormonal imbalance, energy), B2, fibre, and potassium.

Sprouts (and their friends) help keeping cancer at bay: Brassicas contain a chemical compound called indole-3-carbinol and other indoles, which are particularly protective from hormonal cancers. Other phytonutrients (plant nutrients), most prominently sulforaphane, increases the activity of certain enzymes, which disarm free radicals. Sulforaphane inhibits uncontrolled cell growth (cancer), neutralises carcinogens and detoxifies environmental toxins, Brussels sprouts are particularly rich in sulforaphane, even in comparison to their bigger relatives. Sprouts also contain a chemical called sinigrin, the compound that is responsible for their strong smell. It encourages pre-cancerous cells to commit suicide – apoptosis – and is especially protective of colon cancer. Sprouts are also thought to protect DNA, and that to an even higher extent than other members of the cabbage family.

Cabbage – including sprouts – is a good source of the amino acid glutamine. Glutamine is the intestinal good bacteria’s favourite food and it protects the intestinal lining, thus helping to avoid or reverse intestinal permeability.

Note that all brassicas contain goitrogens, chemical compounds which can interfere with thyroid function. However, cooking inactivates them. If you have any thyroid problems, avoid raw cabbage. Goitrogens do not cause problems for people whose thyroid is healthy.


* It has always amused me, however, that the most hated vegetable has got to be on the plate for Christmas, the most celebrated meal of the year. Why ruin your festive meal with something you really, really don’t want to eat? I don’t get it.



Which sweetener is the best?

Since sugar has been getting such a bad rap – and quite rightly so – new sugar alternatives are popping up all the time. So are they any good? Artificial Sweeteners

The best known of these is probably aspartame (NutraSweet). 200 times sweeter than sugar, with only 4 kcal/gram, it is very widely used in processed foods and low-calorie fizzy drinks or as a sweetener tablet for hot drinks. Opinions of it range from “It’s safe. All scare stories are exaggerated” (NHS) to “the most dangerous substance of the planet” (Mercola). So, who’s right? A search in Google Scholar brought up 44,000 scientific articles on the subject. I didn’t have time to read them all, sadly, but if you look at the dates, the discussion and research is still ongoing. Just clicking into a few of them showed that the results that are still coming in are not favourable. If you ask me, I’d rather be safe than sorry and give aspartame – along with other artificial sweeteners – a wide berth. It doesn’t taste all that good anyway.

Natural Sweeteners

So, on to the natural sweeteners. You are, of course, aware that “natural” does not automatically mean “safe”. Hemlock is natural, too, and yet deadly. Admittedly, this is an extreme example and no sweetener on the shelf of your local health food shop is comparable to hemlock. Still, it’s worth considering what it is you are buying and not just assume that it’s healthy just because it is in your health food shop.

One of the most popular natural sweeteners is agave syrup, derived from the agave plant. It consists mainly of fructose, rather than glucose or sucrose (table sugar), which unlike those does not raise blood sugar levels and hence does not trigger the release of insulin. That seemed like good news at first and explains its popularity. And yet … agave syrup contains more fructose than even the highly controversial, artificial high-fructose corn syrup, which is omnipresent in sweet products in the US, but not (yet?) in Europe. Yes, fructose is a natural sugar, however, we are not designed to tolerate very large amounts of it. Fructose occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables, sugar cane and honey, and is one half of the sucrose molecule. It doesn’t cause much trouble if it is consumed as part of a whole fruit or veg, but large, isolated amounts contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, gout and increased appetite.

A natural sweetener from the Middle East, date syrup, sounds much better. It is a very thick, dark brown syrup, which is sweeter than honey. The sugars it contains are fructose and glucose, and it will raise blood sugar levels (very fast!), so it should be used sparingly and diabetics should avoid it. Its advantage over table sugar is that it is not just empty calories, but does contain considerable amounts of vitamins (A and B-complex) and minerals – particularly potassium and iron. If you are going to use sugar, date syrup is not the worst choice.

In many ways similar to date syrup is blackstrap molasses, it too is very thick, very dark (black, in fact) and contains vitamin B6 and minerals, including iron, potassium, magnesium and potassium. Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of sugar extraction from raw sugar cane. It is often used in baking and sometimes to colour brown bread brown. It still contains a small amount of sugar.

Coconut sugar is getting a lot of press lately, as is in fact "everything coconut". Like date syrup and molasses, it contains some nutrients that sugar does not. However, you'd have to eat an awful lot of coconut sugar to get decent amounts of those. It'll be easier to get those vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables. It appears that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic load than table sugar, probably because it contains inulin, a fibre that slows down glucose absorption, but there is not a lot of research. Like date syrup and molasses, coconut sugar is still sugar.

Another popular natural sweetener is stevia, a sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia or sweetleaf plant, which is grown in Eastern Asia and South America. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar and has been used in the US for quite a while. The EU, however, didn’t approve it until 2011. Even now, “crude stevia” – unprocessed stevia – is still banned as it is suspected to interfere with blood sugar control, the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems. The products on our supermarket shelves – Truvia and PureVia are rebaudioside A, a compound derived from the stevia plant and supposedly safe. Stevia is indigestible to us, which is why it does not raise blood sugar levels. Instead, it is digested by gut bacteria, which turn it into steviol, a toxic compound with the power to alter DNA, which is absorbed from the digestive system into the blood stream. If you would like to find out more, here’s a video on stevia.

On a practical note: Stevia has a funny aftertaste that some people simply don’t like.

Xylitol is a natural sweetener, which occurs in many fruits and vegetables. The xylitol you can buy in the shops, however, is usually derived from birch wood. It looks and tastes exactly like sugar, but is metabolised in a different way, which means that it does not raise your blood sugar levels as effectively as sugar. It has 40% fewer calories than sugar and contains no artificial chemicals. Xylitol also does not have the unpleasant aftertaste of artificial sweeteners.

What's more: It's good for your teeth! When sugar comes in contact with saliva in the mouth, it turns into acid which destroys tooth enamel. Xylitol does not have that effect, but instead has anti-bacterial properties and attacks tooth-decaying bacteria. For this reason, xylitol is sometimes used to sweeten toothpaste.

As with most sweeteners there are downsides, too: If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or are prone to diarrhoea or bloating, you may not be able to tolerate it very well. Chemically speaking, xylitol is a sugar alcohol, which have a mildly laxative effect and can cause problems for sensitive people. Mind as well that xylitol can be toxic to dogs, so please do not share your sugar-free treats with your dog.

The bottom line is, however, that no sweetener is perfect and using sweeteners means that you won't be able to cure your "sweet tooth". By reducing or even eliminating sweetened foods you may find that eventually those products taste way to sweet to you. Worth a try?

If you feel that you could do with some help weaning yourself of sugar, give me a call and come and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea.