It’s that time of the year again, the dreaded cold and flu season. Most adults suffer from at least two colds a year, with children catching them twice as often. Since over 80 percent of colds occur between September and March, most people consider themselves lucky if they survive the winter months without getting sick at least once. Is this really luck? Not so, according to most experts. There are many things you can do to avoid getting sick in the first place.
Aside from the most common advice—getting a flu shot and washing your hands often, a healthy lifestyle can offer plenty of protection. Sleep at least 8 hours a night, drink plenty of fluids, don’t smoke, manage your stress well, and exercise regularly. And don’t forget to eat right. You are what you eat, and a healthy diet makes a healthy immune system.
The immune system is a team of organs and body cells with various functions and a lot of communication. The body needs a constant supply of many different nutrients to build and maintain these defenses. As boring as this may sound, eating a variety of healthy foods is one of the most effective ways to provide your body the nutrition it needs. Below are immune-boosting nutrition ideas:
Eat Your Fruits and Veggies!
Eat colorful produce, bursting with phytochemicals that help the body prevent disease. Especially helpful to immunity are beta-carotene and bioflavonoids, found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Citrus fruits, mango, papaya, peaches, apricots, carrots, and sweet potato are just a few examples.
A deficiency of Vitamin C impairs immunity. Protect yourself by including a daily dose of Vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus, tomatoes, kiwi, strawberries, or sweet peppers.
Garlic, hot peppers and mushrooms are just a few other foods that have been shown to help fight infections. (And if you do catch a cold, hot peppers help clear up the sinuses!)
Get Your Vitamin E and Omega-3’s
Even a mild deficiency of the antioxidant Vitamin E can weaken immune cells. Protect yourself by including Vitamin-E rich green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and wheat germ in your diet. As an added benefit, many of these foods are good sources of omega-3 fats (also found in oily fish such as salmon and sardines), which work with Vitamin E to enhance immunity.
Don’t Forget Protein and Whole Grains
Since immune cells are made of protein, this nutrient is especially important for a strong immune system. Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, beans, nuts, cheese, milk and yogurt are good protein sources.
Red meats, beans, nuts and tofu are also good sources of zinc, while fish, red meat, whole grains and wheat germ are good sources of selenium. These minerals have antioxidant properties that boost immunity by protecting the body from harmful substances.
Include a Daily Dose of Probiotics
When the intestinal tract is lined with ample “good” bacteria, harmful germs are less able to invade the body. Studies have shown that probiotics, foods that contain healthy bacteria, can ward off diarrhea-related illnesses and even the common cold. Yogurt (with live cultures) and kefir (a yogurt-like drink) are examples of foods that contain probiotics.
The antioxidants in tea have been linked to many health benefits, including protection from heart disease and cancer. Now there’s evidence that tea can boost immunity. In a study of people who drank 20 ounces of tea daily for 2 weeks, immune cells produced a wealth of anti-bacterial chemicals when exposed to bacteria. In contrast, study participants who drank coffee instead of tea produced no disease-fighting chemicals in response to the same bacteria. The beneficial component is L-theanine, which the body turns to ethylamine. This is found in black, green, oolong and pekoe teas.
What About Supplements?
The supplements below are quite popular during the cold and flu season. According to experts, none of these supplements actually prevent colds. But if you do get sick, some of these may help you get back on your feet a few days faster.
Echinacea. Many experts agree that Echinacea kicks the immune system into gear and gives the body a better defense when faced with the common cold. While taking this supplement the onset of a cold may lessen the symptoms, it is not believed to prevent colds. In fact, taking Echinacea on a regular basis may be unwise, since animal studies have shown suppression of immunity after 8 weeks of supplementation. In general, short-term use is considered safe unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have HIV/AIDS, or if you have an autoimmune disorder where stimulating the immune system isn’t a good idea.
Vitamin C. In 1970, Dr. Linus Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, claiming that megadoses of Vitamin C can prevent and reduce the severity of colds. In doing so, he invited skepticism from the medical profession but popularity from the masses. In the decades that followed, scientists have tried to prove or disprove his theories. At present, most experts agree that while Vitamin C supplements will not prevent a cold, they might reduce the duration and symptoms.
Zinc is known to benefit immunity, but research offers mixed results on the role of zinc lozenges, tablets or nasal sprays. Some studies have linked these products to a speedy recovery from a cold, while others have shown no benefit.
In summary, eating healthy for immunity isn’t about one particular food or supplement. It’s about the whole diet and the interactions between many nutrients and phytochemicals. While supplements may give you an edge, they are intended to supplement, not take the place of a healthy (and colorful) diet. Eating a poor diet is like leaving your front door unlocked and hoping the cold and flu viruses don’t let themselves in. This winter, protect your body with a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet!