Can drinking hot lemon water boost immunity?

For years, we’ve been downing hot lemon water with honey in a bid to protect against colds and other bugs, but just how nutritious is it really?

Loads of celebs and fitness influencers claim to kick off the day drinking hot water with lemon. It’s supposed to be ultra-hydrating, provides a good source of vitamin C, improves skin, aids digestion and more. 

And, of course, many of us have turned to it as a way of boosting our immunity against colds and flu, especially when mixed with honey. But given that most of the supporting evidence is anecdotal (I’ve done it myself on and off over the years as a morning replacement for caffeine), how much truth is behind the benefits of hot water with lemon and is it worth adding to your daily routine?

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Spoiler alert: I was surprised to find that upon speaking to several certified nutritionists, it turns out that there isn’t much to back up many of the claims behind this popular wonder-drink.

Nutritionist Isa Robinson tells me that the hype around hot water and lemon is simplydown to ‘good PR’. “We don’t have loads of evidence that drinking hot water with lemon has all these additional benefits, it’s not necessarily any better than having an herbal tea.”

Carola Becker, a nutritionist and fitness instructor, also dispels the ‘detoxing’ myth. “Lemon water seems to be getting a massive amount of hype recently, and sadly a lot of false claims are made about it. That includes the old myth of detoxing – we have got a liver and kidneys which are busy 24 hours a day detoxing our bodies.” So no, you can’t thank the hot drink for that one. 

While the experts I spoke to cleared up that it’s not the panacea we thought it was, they also stressed there are some benefits to having lemon – in particular from the Vitamin C it contains. “Like any citrus fruits, lemons are high in vitamin C, which support a healthy immune system”, nutritionist Sophie Elwood tells me. It’s also well known that vitamin C supports bone health, which is especially important if you train as bones are “alive” and undergo stress during exercise in the same way your muscles do. In fact, a study on post-menopausal women showed that drinking lemon juice-based beverages helped with bone metabolism, prevented the loss of bone mineral density, and inhibited the breakdown of bone tissue.

There’s even some research that citric acid – which lemons are packed with – can have a positive impact on how you respond to training. One study showed that people who took an oral citric acid supplement scored lower for physical fatigue after undertaking manual work compared to that of the placebo group, while another piece of research on women doing aerobic training found that those who were given orange juice (another citrus-rich drink) decreased their blood lactate threshold by 27% – compared to 17% in those who didn’t have any. This suggests that despite these women performing the same aerobic exercise, those who drank orange juice experienced less muscle fatigue.

Isa tells me that lemon juice can also help with iron absorption from plant-based foods, which are less ‘bioavailable’ than red meat and therefore usually harder for your body to extract iron from – although drinking it isn’t the best way to reap those rewards. “If you’re vegetarian or vegan, and most of your iron comes from nuts, pulses, and vegetables, squeezing some lemon juice over it can enhance the bioavailability of that iron.” Note to self: drizzle lemon juice over my next spinach salad. 

Benefits of lemon water: lemon juice helps the body absorb iron from plant-based foods

On top of the benefits offered from the lemon, the hot water component does of course mean that you’re getting closer to meeting your daily hydration needs. Research by Kantar showed that only 48% of people in the UK manage half the daily recommended amount of water by having a litre a day, so we could probably all do with drinking more of it. Both Sophie and Isa also pointed out that water with lemon is a helpful alternative if you don’t like the taste of plain water.

As for the idea that hot water with lemon is best drunk first thing in the morning or on an empty stomach, all the experts I spoke to said there’s no optimal time of day to drink it, and there’s no “right” way to make it either. 

Carola’s method is to “use the juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon and mix it in a glass of water (but bear in mind that vitamin C is very unstable and suffers when heated)”, while Sophie suggests a way to make it extra flavourful; “slip a couple of lemon slices into a mug, along with a slice of fresh ginger and a teaspoon of honey, then pour the hot water.”

If hot water and lemon is pretty harmless either way, is there any risk of overdoing it? It turns out that when it comes to your teeth, there actually is. Sophie says, “Too much acid quickly erodes our enamel, which can lead to tooth decay. It’s worth limiting the amount you drink per day, and go easy on the lemon. It’s also not ideal for people who suffer from heartburn or acid reflux, since citrus fruits can aggravate these symptoms.” Carola adds that “you may want to drink another glass of plain water afterwards to help remove the acid from your teeth.”

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Overall, it turns out that lemon and hot water isn’t going to deliver a host of superfood benefits. However, if you want to give it a go or enjoy having it in your routine already, it’s certainly not a bad way to start the morning or to relax in the evening. It doesn’t contain caffeine, so it’s perfect if you have a sensitivity to that or find that having caffeine-containing beverages keeps you awake at night. 

Lemons and their juice do contain vitamins that contribute to a number of the body’s functions, and you’re getting extra hydration as the drink is mostly water. So, feel free to enjoy it if you prefer hot water and lemon to a morning tea or coffee, and just make sure to wait an hour or so if you’re brushing your teeth afterwards to avoid scrubbing the acid in. 

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