With the cold and flu season in full bloom we want to keep our immune system healthy, so we can avoid getting sick. Fortunately, there are many ways to naturally boost your immune system, including living a healthy lifestyle and eating a well-balanced diet.
You may wonder, what does a well-balanced diet have to do with our immune system? Our immune system is commonly associated with the health of our respiratory system. However, the immune system extends way beyond our nose, throat and lungs! Believe it or not, 80% of our immune system lives in our gut, which includes our small and large intestines. Our gut is designed to filter out any harmful particles and only lets in the nutrients from our digested foods. With an unhealthy gut, harmful bacteria and other unwanted particles can sneak past the gut barrier into the rest of the body and be seen as a foreign invader, similar to how a cold virus is detected.
By feeding our gut immune-boosting nutrient-rich foods, we can help keep our immune system strong and healthy from the inside-out. (To learn more about our complex immune system, read this article by John Hopkins Medicine) The easiest way is to eat the rainbow, or eating a wide variety of colorful whole foods and produce that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants. (Sorry, not Skittles!)
Below are a few additional specific foods and their superpowers listed for you to try incorporating into your diet.
Foods High in Zinc and Vitamin C: This powerful duo is known for cold-busting properties for a good reason. Zinc acts as an antioxidant that fights off free radicals, maintains the immune and repairs body tissues.
Sources of zinc:
- Red meats
- Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans)
- Seeds (hemp, pumpkin, sunflower)
- Nuts (pine nuts, peanuts, cashews, almonds)
- Whole grains (quinoa, wheat, rice, oats)
Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that helps to increase production and protection of white blood cells.
Some common sources of vitamin C foods (and less common ones):
- Citrus fruits (75mg/cup = 100% of daily recommended)
- Broccoli (81mg/cup raw)
- Bell peppers (95-341mg/ pepper)
- Strawberries (85mg/ cup)
- Pineapple (79mg/cup)
- Brussels sprouts (75mg/cup)
- Kiwi fruit (125mg/ 2 fruits)
- Tomato juice (170mg/cup)
Bone Broth (and Chicken Soup): Ever wondered why grandma’s chicken soup was a favorite when everyone got sick? Or why is drinking bone broth is so popular these days? Bone broth is created by slowly cooking seared/cooked bones for multiple hours to draw out all the beautiful nutrients from the bone marrow into a savory beverage. The finished product is packed full of amino acids, collagen, and natural gelatin that helps the gut to heal, improve overall wound healing and support our special immune cells. Chicken (and poultry in general) also packs a lot of vitamin B6, which is a crucial component in many of our immune system and inflammatory response systems. The broth overall also promotes hydration, which is crucial in cold recovery. (Grandmothers always know best, right? There is even a research paper to back up grandma, on how chicken soup significantly reduces the cold severity. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center also explains why the soup works.)
Mushrooms: The mushrooms I am about to refer to are not just your typical white-button mushrooms. These mushrooms are reishi, maitake, and more commonly found in stores, shiitake. Reishi mushrooms are not edible in its original form, but often made into capsules or teas for its powerful antiviral and anti-cancer properties. Maitake mushrooms enhances our immune cells’ ability to breakdown and eat up the harmful bacteria. Shiitake mushrooms are the easiest of the 3 to find in stores. They stimulate the immune system and strengthen our white blood cells to fend off the bad guys.
Garlic: Garlic is fragrant (and sometimes a little smelly) for a very good reason. The strong smell is from a sulfur compound called allicin, which also boasts immune-boosting properties to help fight infections. Add some minced garlic to your chicken noodle soup for a savory power boost!
Ginger: Ginger root is well known for anti-inflammatory properties, minimizing nausea and its spicy heated flavor. The heated spiciness comes from the compound gingerol, which is a relative to capsaicin (the spicy compound in chili peppers). Gingerol also contains antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Ginger tea with a squeeze of lemon is the perfect combination to warm you up this season. Simply put 2-3 thinly sliced ginger root (or 1+ tablespoon of ginger powder) in a mug and pour hot water over like a cup of tea. Squeeze lemon juice to your liking and let the flavors mingle for 5 minutes before drinking. You can also incorporate ginger by grating fresh ginger root into stir fry or fried rice for a nice spicy kick.
Yogurt & Probiotics: Yogurt is well known for its probiotic effects, which are very beneficial to the gut health. Probiotics help reinstate healthy bacteria into your gut and keeps your gut lining strong and healthy, lowering your chances of developing infections. Be sure to look for yogurts that are low in sugar and specify live and active cultures. (Please consult your physician and/or dietitian before starting a probiotic.)
Feel free to try incorporating some (or all) this season to give your immune system that extra boost! By taking good care of your immune system now, you are taking care of yourself in the future.
In good health,
Adriana Ho, MS, RDN, CD
Note: The post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have.
To read more blog posts written by Adriana, click here.