Cold and flu season is officially here.
Public health officials say the best way to prevent the flu is to receive an annual flu vaccine, but doctors say there are lifestyle adjustments you can make to reduce your chance of getting ill — and help you recover faster if you do contract a virus.
Wash your hands, avoid crowded places, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze — these actions can all help.
It’s also essential to stay hydrated, and eat a well-rounded, nutritious diet throughout the season, Heidi Skolnik, a nutrition consultant in New Jersey and advocate for Florida orange juice, told weather.com. “Your immune system is either working or it is suppressed,” she explained. “Foods can’t ‘boost’ your immune system, but certain nutrients can help make sure your immune system is well-maintained.”
She said proper immune-system maintenance doesn’t have to be “magical.” “It’s just as close as your refrigerator,” she added. Read on to find out which foods are best for cold and flu prevention.
Garlic is considered a very powerful immune booster, Skolnik said. “It can fight infection and bacteria and increase your body’s efficiency of antibody production,” she explained.
Foods high in vitamin A, which your body gets from the antioxidant beta-carotene, found in red and orange foods, are thought to help your immune system. Vitamin A is an anti-inflammatory, and it stimulates the production of T cells, which help fight foreign infections, Skolnik said.
Sweet potatoes are a great vitamin A-rich foods. As a bonus, they’re also in season this time of year.
Oats and oatmeal have beta-glucan, a type of fiber with antimicrobial and antioxidant capabilities, Skolnik said. Beta-glucan could help fortify the immune system and even help antibiotics work better.
“Mushrooms have been used in the Asian world forever, as really powerful remedies,” Skolnik said. All types of mushrooms have ergothioneine, a powerful antioxidant good for your immune system. “It doesn’t get destroyed during cooking,” Skolnik said, so she recommends adding mushrooms to stirfrys and other dishes for added nutrition.
Most people associate vitamin C with orange juice and citrus fruits. But broccoli and other green vegetables have a quite a bit of the vitamin as well. Broccoli also has an abundance of 3,3′-diindolylmethane (DIM), a chemical produced when it and other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and kale, are chewed and digested, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. This chemical stimulates immune cell production in mice, Berkeley researchers reported in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.
The old adage is that chicken soup cures colds. Although there might be a specific amino acid released from cooked chicken that helps fight infection, Skolnik said, more likely it’s the soup’s heat that helps. “The heat helps us break up some of the congestion,” she explained. A salty soup broth can also help you stay hydrated if you’ve been sweating with fever, she added, and the fluid can help anyone stay hydrated throughout the dry winter season.
Another vitamin A-rich food, carrots can help improve immune system function by promoting the production of T cells, which help fight foreign infections, Skolnik said.
Bell peppers — particularly yellow and red ones — can help the immune system through both vitamins A and C. The jury is still out on whether vitamin C actually helps reduce a person’s risk of catching a cold, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. But there is evidence that consuming a variety of nutrients throughout the day can help you stay healthy, Skolnik said.
Oysters are often cited as an immune-fortifying food because they’re high in zinc, another nutrient fingered as a cold-fighter. As with vitamins D and C, there’s little scientific consensus on how much zinc can help prevent or treat colds. But it’s still a good idea to make sure you’re getting at least the minimum daily recommended amount of zinc throughout cold and flu season — that’s 11 mg/day for men and 8 mg/day for women, according to researchers at Oregon State University.
All types of tea contain polyphenols, antioxidants that have been shown to improve the function of many of your body’s system and possibly reduce your risk for diseases such as cancer.
When you’re sick, it’s important to stay hydrated — drinking plenty of unsweetened tea can also help with this, while the heat from tea can help loosen some congestion.
Your gut is often the first line of defense against infection, Skolnik said. As more and more research points to the bacteria in our digestive tract as one of the keys to a healthy body, a diet rich in probiotic foods, such as yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut, is key for an immune system functioning its best, she added.
The best way to keep your immune system running is through regular, balanced nutrition. Nuts should be a part of that, particularly Brazil nuts, which contain selenium, an antioxidant that protects against certain pathogens and can shield your cells from damage.
In 100-percent orange juice (no sugar added), there’s vitamin C and other nutrients such as folate, potassium and thiamin that can help support the immune system, Skolnik said. Again, it’s unclear how much vitamin C really helps your immune system. But a variety of nutrients from many different sources will help you avoid not only colds, but also chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Another plus: Citrus fruits are in season during the winter, meaning they’re more readily available, more affordable and often, more nutritious this time of year.