Bouncing back to good health... 10 ways to get over the flu
Your body needs time and energy to recover from an illness, but there are things you can do to boost your recovery. Lorraine Courtney asks the experts for their top tips for getting you back on your feet after a bout of influenza
Will I ever feel like myself again? A combination of seasonal flu, colds and general lethargy peaks at this time of the year and after a debilitating bout of illness we can often find ourselves struggling to go about normal life.
It can be tempting to lie indulgently under a blanket with a cup of hot tea, watching back-to-back episodes of Friends, but the pressure is on. Our inbox is jammed and our laundry basket is overflowing. We need to get back to our old selves as quickly as possible.
However, some of us are left feeling drained, seriously low on energy and can't understand why we haven't bounced back to normal. Our body is run down and, annoying as it can be, it needs time to recover.
The truth is that ill-health can have lingering effects and the recovery from flu is going to take a lot longer than a simple runny nose. We can't do things we used to do and we feel less confident and less energetic.
But there are some simple things you can do to recover physically and emotionally from the winter flu.
1. Zinc: to boost immunity
Zinc is essential for your immune system and specifically the white blood cells that help to fight off a virus like the flu.
"Zinc is an important nutrient for the immune system and may stop the cold virus in its tracks," says registered dietitian Gillian McConnell.
"Zinc supplements can cause nausea and taste changes, but you can easily get it in your diet from fish, lean meat, nuts and seeds."
2. Vitamin C: Eat the rainbow
"We need about 200mg of vitamin C to fight colds and flu but you can easily get enough from the fruit and vegetables in your diet," says McConnell.
"Taking vitamin C supplements daily won't have any impact on you getting a cold and mega doses will certainly cause tummy upsets like diarrhoea and cramping.
"However, taking an extra 1000mg per day of vitamin C when you have a cold has been shown to reduce your cold by a day. If everyone just ate more fruit and veg this would be the ideal way to boost your immune system. Aim to eat a rainbow of colour each day as brightly coloured fruit and vegetables are loaded with vitamin C and beta-carotene."
3. Never forget to hydrate
Our bodies are around 60% water, give or take, and even mild dehydration can seriously impair brain function and energy levels.
Personal trainer and nutritional medical profiler Niamh Fitzgerald says that water intake is obvious but it's one of the first things she always checks with clients.
"Whether they've been sick or not, I always ask how much water they're drinking," she says.
"If you're not getting enough water, nothing is going to function correctly, and if you've had a genuine case of flu, rather than a bad cold, you'll have been at serious risk of dehydration anyway. I start by ensuring that everyone is getting a minimum of two litres every day."
4. Vitamin E: to fight off infection
Vitamin and mineral supplements have long been a nutritional hot potato: the theory is that we should get all the nutrients we need from a healthy, balanced diet.
However, an increasing number of us don't, partly because it isn't always possible to eat a perfectly balanced diet every day.
"Having a flu can be hugely depleting for your body, so it's really important to stock up on vitamin E, which helps the body fight off infection," says personal trainer Niamh Fitzgerald.
"We always recommend getting essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients from food. As a rule of thumb, I'd always try to have a green, leafy vegetable with every meal (spinach, broccoli, kale), and try to keep your diet as unprocessed and varied as possible. Eat loads of lean protein and leafy veggies and drink loads of water."
5. Protein: for maintenance
The importance of eating enough protein for health is sometimes overlooked and we've come to associate it with fad diets and compulsive gym goers. But protein supplies what are effectively the bricks and mortar of the body, required for the development and maintenance of organs etc. It's also essential when your body needs to repair itself.
"Eat good quality protein with each meal as you recover from the flu," says dietitian Gillian McConnell. "Proteins are the building blocks for the antibodies that fight infection. You will find it in meat, poultry, seafood, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and dairy."
6. Relax and meditate
Learn simple relaxation techniques. In a recent study, University of Wisconsin scientists found that people who'd meditated produced more antibodies in reaction to a flu vaccine than a control group did.
"Poor health, stress and anxiety go hand in hand," says GP, Dr Tim Hinchey. "Techniques as simple as slow breathing (that's breathing out for longer than you breathe in) or practising mindfulness help to release stress and make you feel better instantly."
7. Stop smoking
"Your lungs have just been through a serious infection and now is a very good time to think about quitting smoking," says Dr Tim Hinchey. "Envisage what each puff is doing to your lungs.
"Stopping isn't easy but there is plenty of help available. You could try one of the nicotine products on the market - they come in different forms like gum, lozenges and mouth sprays.
"These reduce your addiction by weaning you off nicotine with a steady, lower dose of it. There are medications available from your GP to help you quit too - for example Zyban is an antidepressant-type drug which helps reduce cravings."
8. Rest up and regenerate
The vast majority of your body's regeneration occurs during sleep, so it's crucial that you're getting quality sleep as you try to recover.
"Sleep is important when you're on the mend," says Dr Tim Hinchey. "Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. Don't have screens in there and avoid the light from your smart phone for a full hour before bedtime. Make sure that your bedroom is a good temperature, that your bed is comfortable and that noise is minimal.
"Avoid caffeine and alcohol, especially in the evening, and never go to bed until you're tired. Stick to a strict bedtime schedule - unfortunately, weekend lie-ins can do more harm than good."
9. Don't skip exercise
"People often think that being sick means you shouldn't train - but, in fact, training can really help your body recover from illness," says personal trainer Niamh Fitzgerald.
"You just have to be smart about it. I wouldn't suggest that someone recovering from the flu start into an intense marathon training regime, for example, or that someone who's still chesty after a respiratory virus start upping their cardio, but maybe some compound lifts that will help get your body up and running again."
For those who don't exercise regularly, gentle exercise at home, yoga or a short walk are good places to start, but it is essential that you consult with your GP first.
10. Get the vaccine
"Long-term problems caused by flu are fairly rare, but you are better off not catching it in the first place, so consider getting the vaccine next winter to protect yourself," says Dr Tim Hinchey.
"Viruses mutate with amazing speed, so each flu season brings slightly different genetic versions of the viruses. Even if you've had the flu vaccine this year, you will need a vaccine next winter.
"The good news is that the more of us who get the vaccine, the less likely flu is to spread."