With all the concerns about coronavirus – as well as seasonal colds, stomach bugs and the flu – it’s a good time to look for ways you can give your immune system a bit of a boost. One of the best ways you can do so is to take a look at what foods and nutrients you’re consuming. Good nutrition can’t prevent illness, but along with proper hand-washing techniques, getting plenty of sleep and getting an annual flu shot, the foods we eat play an important role in maintaining the overall health of our immune systems.
“There are some foods that you may not have considered as being particularly ‘good for you’ that really can strengthen your immune system,” Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman said. “There are six foods and nutrients that are not only healthy options in general, but also can help your body fight off viruses and bacteria. Fermented foods – such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi – contain live and active cultures that act as healthy bacteria, or probiotics, to keep your gut and digestive tract in balance. Having plenty of the good bacteria seems to help keep the bad bacteria ‘in check.’ One study found that people consuming a daily dose of yogurt took 33 percent fewer sick days than those given the placebo,” she explained.
“Vitamins C and D also are important immune boosters,” Tillman continued. “Vitamin C may help play a role in healthy skin, which is the first line of defense against bacteria and viruses. Vitamin C also acts as an antioxidant, helping protect immune cells. Some studies show increasing vitamin C intake during the common cold can potentially reduce severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of the cold. Great sources include citrus fruits, bell peppers, kiwi, broccoli and kale,” she explained. “Low vitamin D levels are associated with more frequent cold and flu infections. People tend to have lower vitamin D levels in the winter, so it’s especially important to focus on getting more of it through the foods we eat. Vitamin D is naturally found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, but it’s also in liver and egg yolks,” she said. “If you still find you’re not able to get enough vitamin D in your diet, it may be worth talking to your doctor about supplementing,” she added.
Tillman says garlic, too, offers several immune-boosting properties. “Garlic contains the active ingredient allicin, which fights bacteria and infections,” she said. “One study found that people who consumed garlic extract each day were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold. Another study found that people who eat more than six garlic cloves a week have up to a 50 percent reduced rate of colorectal and stomach cancer,” she added.
Immune-boosting benefits extend to some drinks, as well. “I recommend taking a look at teas,” Tillman said. “Green and black teas contain L-theanine, which is an amino acid that helps increase your virus-fighting capabilities, as well as antioxidants, which help stimulate the immune system. One study found that people who drank five cups of black tea per day had 10 times more virus-fighting interferon in their bloodstream than others who drank a placebo hot drink. Herbal teas such as peppermint, ginger and Echinacea, among others, may also help boost immune system responses,” she said.
“As for meals, if you’re looking for an immune-booster, try sticking with soup or the traditional meat-and-potatoes dinner, particularly if it incorporates sweet potatoes,” Tillman continued. “Sweet potatoes contain vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, which can help keep both the skin and respiratory system healthy. The skin is the body’s first line of defense against bacteria and viruses,” she explained. “Chicken soup made with real chicken broth contains B-vitamins, calcium, zinc and magnesium. Load it up with garlic, onions, herbs and vegetables for even more immune-boosting power. Beef contains zinc, a nutrient many Americans simply don’t get enough of that is key to the development of white blood cells. Their job is to recognize and destroy bacteria and viruses. If you don’t eat red meat, you can get zinc from oysters, fortified cereals, poultry, pork, nuts, beans, seeds and dairy products,” she added.
“Again, it’s important to remember that we can’t expect a healthy diet alone to keep us from getting sick,” Tillman continued. “However, focusing on healthy lifestyle habits – including eating a healthier diet – can improve our overall health, can potentially decrease our likelihood of catching an illness, and can help reduce the severity of illnesses and viruses we do catch,” she explained.