Stay well this winter with the ‘neck check’ and the garlic boost

Experts share their winter-beating tips: Flu vaccine, herbal tea and syrup can all help

Some experts scoff at the idea that one can boost the immune system. Others swear by the efficacy of elderberry or echinacea. So as the nights get longer and the flu season approaches, I asked some of those on the frontlines of health to tell us what they do to prevent themselves getting ill in the colder months and what advice they pass on to others.

Dr Donal Bailey is a GP with Centric Health at the Beacon South Quarter in Sandyford, and a cyclist. 
When it comes to reducing the risk of viral infections over the winter, I stick to a few things that have research and evidence behind them. That can be tricky as there are many studies that contradict each other. But some supplements, namely zinc, vitamin C and vitamin E, have been shown to reduce the risk of the common cold. I take a daily multivitamin with zinc for a month at a time followed by a month's break and so on over the autumn and winter. I also take a daily supplement of 400-800IU of vitamin D from late autumn to early spring.

I make a concerted effort to keep fit and active. Getting about 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise most days is one of the better ways to reduce your chance of catching a flu-like illness.

Avoiding the common cold is a challenge for anyone working in healthcare over the winter. The most important thing I do to protect myself and my patients is so simple but so important – good hand hygiene to remove any bugs on my skin so I don’t transfer them to a patient or to myself. Anyone with a cold can prevent it from spreading throughout work or the family with regular hand-washing, and shielding your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. I also get the flu vaccine every year by October and I strongly recommend it to any of my patients who are considered at risk. It’s a quick way to prevent a potentially serious infection.


Even with the best intentions, I still catch one or two colds. Paracetamol and ibuprofen are helpful but once the infection has started it takes about a week to resolve usually. If it’s getting worse at that stage, it’s time to have it checked out. It’s also important to know when to cut back on exercise and life stresses.

I used to get regular colds every winter when I was doing a lot of outdoor sports and cycle races; occasionally the infection would move to my chest. Some great advice I got at the time was a rule of thumb called “the neck check”: if you have symptoms below your neck, then you need to cut back and rest for a few days – that includes a chesty cough or stomach problems, as well as generalised symptoms such as fevers and muscle or joint aches.

Lorraine Maher is a registered dietician and co-author with Paula Mee of Gut Feeling, a recipe book for those with IBS.
For the most part, my diet doesn't change in winter but I try my best to have heaps of vegetables and two to three pieces of fruit most days. I also include garlic in nearly everything I cook. Here's a tip: If cooking with garlic, let crushed or sliced garlic stand for 10 minutes before you cook it to activate the immune-boosting properties.

From September to May, I take vitamin D. If I am really busy or feeling tired, I take a multivitamin and mineral supplement. If I feel a cold coming on, I probably invest in a vitamin C and zinc supplement until it subsides.

When it comes to others, I advise upping your vegetable and fruit intake. The more colourful the foods on your plate, the more vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre you are getting, which all play a role in staying healthy. Include lots of zinc-containing foods such as meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, beans, dairy produce, oats and nuts. Take regular exercise. Even if it’s walking around the office, up and down stairs, to and from work or the shop – it all counts. Get a good night sleep – aim for eight hours every night.

Take a probiotic as they may enhance your immune system and reduce your risk of infection. It’s hard to know which work best, but strains of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are most studied. Try live yogurt or kefir, or buy probiotic supplements.

To get over a cold or flu, drink lots of fluids. Hot drinks are particularly good. Soup is a good choice if you have lost your appetite. Make it with a chicken carcass, chicken meat and vegetables such as onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potato and lots of garlic. (But discard the carcass before blending!)

Fiann Ó Nualláin is a holistic gardener and author of Natural Cures for Common Ailments
Food that is in season tends to treat the potential conditions of the season. The nuts and seeds of autumn have all the zinc and other minerals that support the immune system in preparation for winter ailments. Winter veg, such as cabbages, leeks and garlic, have compounds that help the plant fight off infections and that support us in the same manner. So I eat seasonally. Nature is cool really.

I grow a lot of my own herbs and I research what phytochemicals they might yield and how those phytochemicals are similar to the chemical agents in big pharma products. So I am a fan of peppermint tea, for example. It is stimulating, pain-relieving and works to alleviate many ancillary symptoms around viral infections. I love meadowsweet tea too – aspirin was synthesised from it and, for thousands of years before that, the Irish used it as their go-to remedy for pains and fevers. I forage for immune-stimulating, elderberry flowers in summer and berries in autumn and make my own cordials, jam and syrups from them. You can buy natural extracts in health stores too. Elderberry is particularly effective against respiratory viral infections. Just make sure to cook them.

I am a huge fan of thyme, which I use for its medicinal actions. It stimulates the production of infection-destroying white blood cells. A little garden aromatherapy – inhaling thyme, sage, peppermint, rosemary, lavender and eucalyptus – can help clear congestion and also address tiredness and poor concentration.  The antimicrobial herbs, such as oregano, rosemary, lavender and thyme, help to damage or destroy viral particles.

In my Natural Cures for Common Ailments book, I look at what foods best target issues such as coughs, colds, flu, fever, nausea and headaches.  There are specific foods for specific ailments but in general the best thing is real food – not tinned or processed.

Watch what you drink too. An amino acid vital to optimal immune system functioning, known as L-theanine, is abundant in black and green tea. Green tea not only stimulates the liver to secrete interferon, a key part of the body’s chemical defence against infection, but it contains potent antioxidant compounds to neutralise free radicals that inhibit the healthy functioning of our immune system.  The tea break might just be the break you need.

Caithriona Millington is a health coach with a background in biochemistry and food technology.
I rarely get sick but when I do I take it as an opportunity to look at where my diet or my lifestyle needs tweaking. Throughout the year I try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, rich in phytonutrients, to stay healthy and in winter I also eat garlic every day. Garlic has more than 200 biologically-active compounds and it's naturally antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal. I add it to soups, curries and pasta dishes.

I’ve started to take better care of my gut health too by using bone broth in my soups and ensuring that every day I eat at least one serving of food containing probiotics. It is estimated that 80 per cent of our immune system is in our gut, so you can consider those healthy bacteria your own personal army to help fight colds and flu.

Each day I take a multivitamin and mineral supplement, vitamin C and an omega 3 capsule simply because some days I just know I’m not getting everything I need from food alone. I’m a busy mum with two young kids and, with running my own business on top of that, I feel I need the supplements just in case.

I have also cut way back on my sugar as it competes with vitamin C in the body. So the more sugar you eat, the more vitamin C you need. In addition sugar can reduce your white blood cells’ ability to fight bacteria and viruses for up to five hours after you consume a lot of it. So you may be more likely to catch a cold from your colleague after having a sugary treat. It’s about making small sustainable changes rather than striving to be perfect.

Jo Goodyear is a medical herbalist with a background in environmental biology and ecological research.  She leads foraging walks in Cork.
I tend to cook seasonally, so I'm making soups, stews and casseroles with squashes, root vegetables, greens, pulses and grains. These are hearty, warming and easy to digest, as well as being good vehicles for herbs that help fight bugs such as garlic, onion, chili, ginger, oregano, thyme and rosemary. A curry is good for preventing and treating colds and flus thanks to the warming antimicrobial action of the spices. Mushrooms, even white button mushrooms, contain compounds that help to boost the response of the immune system and are worth eating regularly. I rarely get ill and I don't take supplements unless I'm under a lot of stress, preferring to get my nutrition from whole foods.

Similarly, a lot of spices we associate with Christmas and winter goodies – cinnamon or nutmeg in apple pie or cloves and star anise in mulled wine – are antiviral and warming to the body, helping to keep out the cold and associated microbes.

The main herbs I use for improving immunity in autumn are the wild berries that nature thoughtfully provides at this time of year: elderberries and rosehips. Both are abundant this autumn and easily made into syrups, which my children adore taking (see recipe below). While many might baulk at using so much sugar, it is there as a preservative as well as a sweetener (as in jam) and so is acceptable in medicinal amounts. Elderberries contain some of the same anti-viral constituents as the much-marketed and endangered echinacea. As elderberries are plentiful in Ireland, this is a sustainable, low-mileage medicine with good levels of vitamin C. For an additional vitamin C boost, rosehips contain 40 times the vitamin C of oranges weight for weight, and the two combine well.

To prevent colds and flu, take one teaspoon of syrup per day. It can be diluted like a cordial. To treat flu, you can increase the dose to 1 tsp (5ml) per hour. Hot drinks with lemon and slices of fresh ginger root will also fight infection and adding a little honey will soothe a sore throat.

Recipe: Elderberry and rosehip syrup
This makes about 700ml

  • 750ml water
  • 85g dried elderberries and rosehips (double the quantity if using fresh)
  • 500g honey/ freeze-dried sugar cane juice / unrefined sugar


  1. Place the berries in cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 20mins until water volume is reduced by one-third.
  2. Strain the liquid carefully. (Rosehip seeds have irritating hairs that need to be removed.)
  3. Note the volume and return to a saucepan. For each millilitre of liquid, add 1g of honey or sugar.
  4. Heat gently until the honey has dissolved and a thin syrup has formed.
  5. Pour into sterilised glass bottles and keep in the fridge once cool.