Top Foods to Boost Your Immune System to Fight Cold and Flu
It is official – the annual flu season is upon us. In addition to getting a flu shot, the best protection you can give yourself from getting colds and flu is taking good care of your health, which includes eating the right foods that can help boost your immune system.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity commonly peaks in the United States in January or February, however, flu activity can begin as early as October and last until as late as May. Plus, during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more people are out and about, shopping and having family gatherings and parties, so more people are in contact with each other, potentially spreading germs faster.
As with football, the best defense is a good offense. Taking charge of your own health through a healthful diet, adequate rest and eliminating bad habits such as smoking and excess alcohol can build up your immune system so it can do its job against outside invaders.
First and foremost, you should strive for a healthful diet that cuts out junk foods that weaken the immune system. Excess fats in particular suppress immune system activity. Sugar inhibits the ability of the white blood cells to fight viruses and bacteria.
Following are 10 additional dietary changes you should make now to help stop cold and flu in its tracks:
Live active cultures found in yogurt (probiotics) are healthy bacteria that keep the gut and intestinal tract free of disease-causing germs. A study from the University of Vienna in Austria found that a daily 7-ounce dose of yogurt is effective in boosting immunity – more so than taking probiotic dietary supplements.
A separate Swedish study found that patients drinking a product containing Lactobacillus reuteri, a specific probiotic that appears to stimulate white blood cells, took 33% fewer sick days than those given a placebo. Stonyfield Farm is the only US brand with this particular strain of probiotic, however, aiming for at least one serving of yogurt with live cultures daily of any brand should help with immune-boosting activity.
Even if you do end up with a cold or flu, the yogurt can help settle those undesirable gastrointestinal side effects you might experience.
To get kids to try yogurt, mix a chocolate flavored Greek yogurt with ¼ cup of high-fiber cereal for a “breakfast parfait.” You can also freeze yogurt to make a healthy flu-fighting dessert.
Oats, Barley and Other Whole Grains
Fiber is not only good for your heart and your digestive system, it may also be beneficial for fighting bacteria and viruses. Beta-glucan, a component of fiber (particularly oat and barley), may activate white blood cells known as macrophages and neutrophils which can assist the immune system in defending itself against invaders. The nutrients may also help speed wound healing and help antibiotics work more effectively.
While it is recommended that adults get at least 25 grams of fiber a day, most Americans tend to get only around 11 grams – primarily because of a dependence on refined flour products and not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Try including oatmeal for breakfast or sneak some barley into a hot soup this winter.
Water, Water, Water
Stay hydrated this winter. The body needs water to keep mucous membranes moist and soft which will inhibit the creation of tiny cracks that would allow the entrance of pathogenic microorganisms. Although most of us like our water cold, liquid at room temperature hydrates the body better than cold.
Some people just don’t like to drink a lot of plain tap water, so for some of your daily liquids, try tea. One study found that people who drank 5 cups of black tea for 2 weeks had 10 times more virus-fighting interferon in their blood than those who drank a placebo hot drink. The amino acid responsible for this immune boost (L-theanine) is abundant in both black and green tea – even the decaf versions. Another compound found in all teas, alkylamine, keeps immune system T-cells at a state of “readiness” to help fight bacteria and other allergens.
Hot beverages are also very comforting when you have a cold or the flu, opening nasal passages that are blocked.
This isn’t just an old-wives tale! Chicken soup really has the ability to block the migration of inflammatory white cells. This is important, because cold symptoms are a response to the cells’ accumulation in the bronchial tubes. The amino acid cysteine, released from chicken during cooking, chemically resembles the drug acetylcysteine which helps to loosen mucus in the airways, helping you breathe easier.
The added salt in the broth, while you would normally avoid this for other health reasons, could be beneficial during a cold because it keeps mucus thin the same way cough medicines do. Throw in some vegetables and spices and you really have a terrific immune-boosting soup.
Garlic contains an active ingredient known as allicin, which fights infection and bacteria. In one study, those given garlic extract for 12 weeks were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold. Toss some into that chicken noodle soup above!
Pumpkin and Sweet Potatoes
Orange vegetables are packed with powerful antioxidants. And coincidentally, these winter vegetables are peaking this time of year! Pumpkin and sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene which helps fight off harmful bacteria. Beta-carotene is a precursor to Vitamin A which helps keep skin strong and healthy, providing a first-line fortress against invading bacteria and viruses. Other fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene include carrots, squash, and cantaloupe.
While you might not be up to scraping out pumpkin flesh when you are feeling poorly, opening up a can of pure pumpkin puree can have the same positive benefits as fresh. Try adding a tablespoon of pumpkin to Greek yogurt and you have a double-boost of immune fighting goodness.
Mushrooms may help increase the production and activity of white blood cells, making them more aggressive. Shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms appear to pack the biggest immunity punch.
Fish and Seafood
Selenium, a mineral plentiful in shellfish such as oysters, lobsters, crabs and clams, helps white blood cells produce cytokines, proteins that help clear flu viruses out of the body. Salmon, mackerel and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, increasing airflow and protecting lungs from colds and respiratory infections.
You may also want to try seaweed. One serving has more vitamin C than an orange. This vitamin is well-known for its cold-fighting activity, and may help shorten the duration of sickness.
Beef (and other foods rich in Zinc)
Red meats contain zinc, an important nutrient for the development of white blood cells that recognize and destroy invading bacteria and viruses. Zinc deficiency can increase your risk of infection. For those cutting back on red meat, zinc is also a plentiful nutrient in some seafood such as oysters and crab, in fortified breakfast cereals, baked beans, yogurt, and nuts (especially cashews).
Other Helpful Tips for Boosting the Immune System
There are other habits you should change now that are bringing your immune system down. First, if you smoke, please stop. Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds of which at least 43 are known carcinogens (cancer-causing). Smoking also causes heart disease and chronic lung disease. Chronic conditions and tissue damage exacerbated by smoking weakens the immune system.
Second, get plenty of rest. Sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on the immune system as it lowers its function and reduces the number of “killer cells” that fight germs.
Third, find ways to lower stress. Severe and chronic stress has a direct impact on the immune system as it also lowers levels of “killer T-cells” and diminishes the activity of other cells known as macrophages.
Fourth, it cannot be stated enough to get up off the couch and get some exercise. Sedentary lifestyles have an enormous impact on health, and millions of Americans suffer from illnesses that can be prevented or treated through exercise. Just thirty minutes a day of aerobic exercise can kick the immune system into gear.
Lastly, don’t become a germophobe and isolate yourself, thinking that it will protect you from cold and flu. Actually, social isolation leads to poor health, decreasing the ability to fight off illness. Depression as well contributes to a weakened immune system. Stay close to friends and family this time of year, but of course protect yourself by washing hands frequently and get that flu shot!