Our immune systems are responsible for fighting off attackers like viruses, bacteria and toxins — but sometimes they need a little help. Here, how to give your immune system a boost and help to fight off infections.
Healthy habits make the difference
Let’s forget colds and flu bugs for a moment. Research on how our immune system functions is pretty consistent. We know we’re better able to fight off infections when we get enough sleep, keep stress in check, exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet that provides plenty of nutrients.
In contrast, when we’re lacking in these key areas, we’re more likely to get sick and have a harder time fighting off a bug. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to fight the flu or ward off longer term threats like diabetes and cancer. The preventative measures are essentially the same.
However, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, it’s sometimes hard to know if we’re getting enough of the right ones. While the information about supplements and “super foods” can be confusing, health experts are clear on one thing: it’s a healthy diet — not any single food or supplement — that makes a difference for keeping your immune system strong. Eating a wide variety of healthy foods ensures you’re covered when it comes to essential infection-fighting nutrients like protein, vitamins A and C, zinc, beta-carotene, selenium and a host of other anti-oxidants.
Citrus fruits. We know the virtues of vitamin C for fighting colds, so it’s no surprise that citrus foods often make the grocery list. Keep in mind that whole fruits are better than juices as they keep the original pulp (fibre) intact.
Honey. It’s good for your gut — or rather, the good bacteria in your gut. It’s also a favourite sweetener for tea and great for soothing sore throats.
Oats and barley. In addition to being some serious comfort food, these grains feature fibre, vitamins B and E, selenium and beta-glucans — which helps the immune system recognize and destroy intruders. A hot bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit or honey is an instant warm-up in cold weather and a good way to kick-start your day.
Tea. Black or green, tea contains protective antioxidants like polyphenols (which are anti-inflammatory and infection-fighting) and catechins (also known for their anti-inflammatory properties). Tea also helps soothe the throat, and provides a calorie-free way to stay hydrated. (For more information, see A cup of tea for your health.)
Lean meats. We need protein to fight infections, but high-fat cuts of meat are still a no-no. A little bit of red meat is okay, but chicken and turkey are better choices.
Seafood. Salmon, mackerel and herring are good choices for getting some protein, and shellfish — like shrimp, mussels and oysters — pack a triple punch with selenium and zinc added as well.
Mushrooms. Button, Portobello, cremini… It doesn’t matter which variety you choose, they all contain beta-glucans. Serve them up on the side or use them to top your favourite dishes.
Yogurt. It may seem counter-intuitive to put bacteria into your system, but research has shown that pro-biotic cultures in yogurt help bolster our immune system by increasing our white blood cell count. It’s also a way to cure a sweet craving at a time when we should be cutting back on sugary foods. Try topping plain yogurt with fresh berries, or mix in a little honey to sweeten.
What foods should you avoid? No surprises here: Processed foods, fatty foods and foods high in sugar aren’t recommended. (After all, they aren’t the best choices even when you are healthy.) Sugar can actually impede immune system functioning, so try not to fill up on sugary drinks when you’re sick.