Boost your ability to fight off infections this cold and flu season.

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.


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.



Immune-boosting choices

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.

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Elizabeth Rogers