Our immune systems are responsible for fighting off attackers like viruses, bacteria and toxins — but sometimes they need a little help. While there is still controversy over the safety and efficacy of flu vaccines, many people are looking for natural ways to give their body a helping hand.
How can you give your immune system a boost? Here’s what experts are saying:
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.
Does your diet need a little help? Here are some of the top recommendations:
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.
Red fruits. The more colour, the better! Not only are they visually appealing, fruits like berries, prunes, raisins, red grapes and plums are rich in anti-oxidants.
Dark green vegetables. Leafy greens (like cabbage, spinach and kale), broccoli, peppers and Brussels sprouts are packed with vitamins C and E. Make a salad, or steam them with some garlic for a tasty side dish.
Orange-coloured fruits and vegetables. They’re high in beta-carotene which helps boost the immune system. On the veggie side, try pumpkins, carrots, peppers, squash and sweet potatoes. For fruits, choose nectarines, apricots, peaches, mangoes and melon. (Many of these foods have vitamin C too.)
Of course, orange and green aren’t the only colours. Dietitians recommend choosing a wide variety of colours and textures. Try steaming or stir frying a colourful mix, or tossing them in a salad with vitamin C sources like grapefruit segments. Aim to include as many colours as possible in your meals.
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.
Spices. Who says bland is better? Many seasonings like cinnamon, cloves, oregano, sage, thyme and turmeric are also packed with anti-oxidants. Ginger is particularly handy during flu season because it will help calm queasy stomachs. (See Spices of life for details.)
Garlic. Good news for garlic lovers — this potent food contains phytochemicals that help kill bacteria. It’s also thought to have antiviral properties as well.
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.
Chicken soup. There are many theories as to why this classic remedy is so soothing — it could be the amino acids that block inflamed cells, the chicken itself and the healthy veggies. You can’t go wrong stocking your freezer with this favourite — and it’s an easy meal to prepare when you don’t feel like cooking.
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.
Legumes. Meat doesn’t have to be your only source of protein. In fact, dietitians recommend we should be getting more vegetable-based proteins like beans, lentils and nuts in our diet. Many legumes are easy on the budget, and they’re also a source of zinc too. Enjoy some peanut butter on whole-grain crackers or toast, or substitute lentils for beef in your spaghetti sauce.
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.
If you want the full effects, make these food choices a healthy habit. Don’t wait until you’re already sick to start eating a healthier diet. Think bright, deeply coloured produce, whole grains, lean meats and healthy spices and you’ll be on the right track for better health this fall and winter.
Sources: American Dietetic Association, EatRightOntario.com, Forbes.com, Ohio State University Extension, WebMD
Updated December 2010.
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