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Jane clarke's books are read by millions and she acted as adviser to Jamie Oliver on his groundbreaking School Dinners TV programme. As well as being an advocate of healthy eating, she passionately believes that many of our illnesses can be treated through our diet. In Good Health every Tuesday, she answers your questions.
Is there anything I can do to strengthen my immune system? I usually get two or three colds every winter and am keen to try to avoid this.
Helen Walker, by e-mail.
First, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables — at least five portions a day. This will ensure you get adequate supplies of vitamin C, the antioxidant that keeps your immune system strong.
As I've said before, food is the best source of nutrients such as vitamin C. Even supermarket produce, despite being transported over great distances and then kept in cold storage, still provides enough of the vitamin C and other essential nutrients the body needs.
I never take supplements but make sure I eat lots of good fresh fruit and veg. And if I can't get fresh produce, I'm happy to use frozen because it's picked and packaged so quickly it retains much of its nutrient content.
Frozen ready-meals are not great, but when it comes to berries and vegetables, they're a good alternative to fresh.
When you don't manage five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and are keen to take a supplement, I'd suggest 250mg of vitamin C, but that's all.
An adult's daily requirement is only 60mg, so this gives you more than enough — the body excretes the surplus. (Children under the age of ten need only 30mg which they can easily get from their diet.)
Larger doses than these can cause gastric upset and stomach bleeding. Some people believe taking large doses of Vitamin C — ie 1–2g — can help stop a cold or flu in its tracks, but I am not convinced the evidence for this is strong.
There are other dietary changes you can make. Increase your intake of beta carotene, an antioxidant, useful for boosting the immune system. The richest sources are carrots, squashes, sweet potatoes, spinach, mangoes, cantaloupe melons, broccoli and tomatoes.
Make sure you take enough zinc. A lack of this mineral has been shown to hinder the body's ability to fight infection.
Again, your body is better off getting zinc from food: it's found in lean red meat, nuts, nut butters, wholewheat products such as wholemeal toast and muffins, oats (think flapjacks), Quorn, soya products and hard cheese such as Parmesan.
Vitamin E is good for the immune system. A good source is vegetable oil such as sunflower, rapeseed and groundnut. Use these in cooking, but allow just a drizzle or two, as even these good oils are high in calories.
Other vitamin E-rich foods are pinenuts, avocados, muesli, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and herrings.
Nuts and oily fish are rich in a lesser-known antioxidant called selenium. Men can eat up to four 140g portions a week, women of childbearing age can eat two portions — more than this and you risk exposing an unborn child to excessive levels of toxins.
The B vitamins are important. These are found in wholegrain bread, crackers, yeast extracts such as Marmite, lean red meat, nuts, seeds, dairy produce, lentils and green leafy vegetables.
Take some Manuka honey. It comes from New Zealand and has been shown to boost the immune system. Although honey is soothing in warm drinks, the heat kills some of the good bacteria it contains and so reduces the honey's benefits. I'd suggest eating it straight off the spoon, or with yoghurt.
Children under the age of one should not have honey. Garlic is a great immune-booster. If I feel I'm coming down with something, I have a crushed garlic clove in a mug of warm milk. It doesn't taste as bad as it sounds! Another option is a garlic supplement. Look for brands such as Allimax and Alliforce, which are stocked at good health food stores.
I have been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, and I gather that diet can help. What do I do as I'm desperate not to let this rule my life and would ultimately like to have a family, so any help is very appreciated. Anthea Graham, Thames, New Zealand. POLYCYSTIC ovary syndrome is one of the leading causes of infertility in women. It occurs when a woman's eggs mature and form into cysts in the ovaries.
These have a tendency to bleed or become twisted and can cause severe and chronic pain.
The condition leads to excessive levels of androgens (male sex hormones) in the body, which can lead to hairiness and acne. A woman's periods may stop and she can become overweight (especially around the middle). Not surprisingly, PCOS is linked with poor libido and depression.
It can occur at any time during a woman's reproductive years, although it's not clear what exactly causes the problem.
It's important to see your GP if you suffer from these symptoms. The condition is usually diagnosed using a glucose-tolerance test, as around 40 per cent of women with this condition have problems with their sugar levels. Ultrasound is also used to diagnose it.
Many patients respond well to drug treatment, but PCOS can also be treated amazingly well by making certain dietary and lifestyle changes.
It's a good idea to lose weight, which can dramatically improve your symptoms. It's vital to do so sensibly, however, which means combining a healthy-eating plan with exercise. By releasing feel-good endorphins, exercise is likely to lift low moods.
Focus on incorporating GI foods into your diet. Low-GI carbohydrates are digested slowly, so they stimulate only a small rise in sugar levels, helping to lower insulin production. Insulin is important for the balance of oestrogen and testosterone in the body.
The best carbohydrates are porridge oats, sugar-free muesli, rye, multigrain and pitta bread, sweet potatoes and noodles, beans, lentils, apples, peaches, dried apricots, plums, cherries, avocados and most vegetables (apart from potatoes, parsnips, cooked carrots, squashes and swedes).
Steer clear of high-GI foods as they cause large rises in insulin and unsettle the sex-hormone balance, as well as making you shaky, more inclined to moodiness and lightheadedness.
Anything that tastes very sweet is likely to be high GI. If you have sugar cravings, try sniffing a small bottle of vanilla essence to reduce the urge. Nobody knows exactly why this works, but it does.
It's good to keep your overall calorie intake low, especially by watching fat consumption.
This means sticking to vegetable-derived fats (such as avocado) and eating cream, butter, cheese and other animal fats only occasionally. Steer clear of the trans fats found in fatty processed foods and cheap margarine.
An aromatherapist colleague recommends mixing ten drops of clary sage, ten drops of fennel, seven drops of geranium and three drops of rose essential oil with 30ml of light vegetable base oil, and massaging this gently over your abdomen every day. (Some oils may have contraindications for some people so always read the labels or consult an aromatherapist to make sure.)
Combine this with small, well-balanced meals, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly, and hopefully your ovaries and hormones will soon start to behave.
WRITE TO JANE: Jane will answer a selection of readers' questions in Good Health every Tuesday. Send your nutritional queries to Jane Clarke, Good Health, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email firstname.lastname@example.org Jane cannot enter into personal correspondence. Please include contact details (not for publication). Her replies cannot apply to individual cases and should be taken in a general context. Contact your GP with any health problems.