As temperatures start to drop, the chances of catching a cold start to rise. And as we enter the holiday season, illness is one thing we can certainly do without. Keeping our immune system in tip-top shape becomes even more crucial during this time of the year as our natural defense against those pesky germs.
Fortunately, making wise food choices can help. To help fight viral and bacterial crime, try incorporating these ten immune-boosting foods into your diet.
Nope, it’s not the smell of garlic that scares away the bacteria and viruses that make you feel sick. According to Alissa Rumsey, RD, CDN, CNSC, CSCS and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it’s allicin, the major active component found in garlic, that’s responsible for its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Research studies have shown that people taking garlic supplements experienced fewer and less severe colds compared to those taking a placebo. “Garlic also helps promote healthy gut flora, which rids the body of toxins, bacteria and viruses,” says Mirchandani. While you could pop a pill, Rumsey says it’s best to eat the actual thing. “The active components are more bioavailable when you eat real garlic.” Try whipping up this Roasted Garlic Paleo Pesto (pictured above) next time you feel the sniffles coming on.
If you want to boost your immune system, eat some beef. “Beef is a good source of zinc, and zinc is important in the development of the white blood cells that defend your body,” says Rumsey. Research has shown that having a zinc deficiency decreases a person’s immune function and response. Plus, the extra protein you get from chowing down on beef supports the body in building antibodies and fighting off infection, according to Mirchandani. This Steak with Chimichurri Sauce Recipe packs 23 grams of protein per serving; add it to your dinner menu this week.
- Sweet Potato
While sweet potatoes may not be considered a traditional cold-fighting food, they’re a great source of Vitamin A, which plays a key role in maintaining the health of your mucosal surfaces. “That includes the inside of your nose and your gastrointestinal tract as well as your skin. You might not think of your skin as part of your immune system but it keeps infections from entering your body. It’s your first line of defense,” says Rumsey. “Keeping your mucus membranes healthy is key to keeping infections at bay.” These Spicy Sweet Potato Fries and Avocado Dip will help you load up on good old vitamin A — while simultaneously satisfying your winter comfort food cravings.
One of the most recent spices to be crowned a superfood, turmeric is a rich yellow powder often used in curry dishes. It’s high in antioxidants and considered a natural anti-inflammatory. “If you take it on a daily basis, it is known to relieve the body of toxins,” says Mirchandani. “It has been shown that people who consume turmeric are less susceptible to colds, coughs and congestion.” Order up a curry from your favorite Indian restaurant or mix up this Fresh Turmeric Tonic for a quick immunity boost.
- Dark Leafy Greens
While people typically associate citrus fruit with vitamin C, dark leafy greens, like spinach, kale, Swiss chard and arugula, are also great sources of the cold-fighting vitamin. According to Rumsey, some research shows that if you consistently take in adequate amounts of Vitamin C, it can reduce the duration of a cold. Mirchandani recommends sautéing vegetables and combining them with other healthy spices and foods, such as garlic. When the greens are cooked, they shrink in size and you can consume more of the vegetables than if you were eating them raw. Remember – the darker the greens, the higher the nutrient content. This Fall Cleanse Kale Salad should do the trick.
- Wild Salmon
As daylight hours decrease during the fall and winter, so do your vitamin D stores. This nutrient is critical for fending off colds and flu so it’s important to mindful of consuming foods rich in it, like wild salmon. Research has shown that those with healthy levels of vitamin D suffered from fewer respiratory tract infections compared to those who were deficient — and felt better faster after getting sick. Whip up this Roasted Salmon with Cucumber-Dill Yogurt, or build a meal around other good sources of D such as fortified milk, canned tuna, canned sardines and egg yolks.
- Chicken Soup
Your mom was right. You should eat chicken soup when you’re sick. This age-old elixir combines many elements that help speed your recovery. The warm broth not only soothes your throat but helps you stay hydrated, too. “Hot liquid, like soup, raises the temperature in your body and airways, loosening mucus secretions,” says Rumsey. “Also, when you cook chicken, it releases the amino acid cysteine, which resembles a drug that is used to treat bronchitis.” Mirchandani says, “When you’re sick, I believe in soup. With its high concentration of protein and vegetables, it’s like you’re giving your body a super-vitamin.” Slow-Cooker Chicken Soup will let you rest up in bed while your meal simmers away.
Oily fish—including salmon, tuna, and mackerel—are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, compounds that help reduce harmful inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation prevents your immune system from working properly, and can contribute to colds and flu as well as more serious diseases.
Omega 3s may fight colds on more than one front. In a placebo-controlled 2011 study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, medical students who took fish oil supplements for three months had lower inflammation levels and also fewer symptoms of anxiety—a condition that can itself weaken immune function.
Zinc, an essential mineral, has a strong track record of fighting the common cold. A comprehensive review of the research, published in a Canadian medical journal in 2012, concluded that taking zinc lozenges appears to shorten the duration of cold symptoms in adults.
Zinc supplements carry a risk of side effects such as nausea and headaches, however. A better bet, says Ansel, may be to get zinc straight from your diet. Oysters contain more of the nutrient per serving than any other food—but if you’re concerned about staying healthy, you might not want to eat them raw. “Uncooked shellfish could contain harmful bacteria that could make you sick in other ways,” Ansel says.
- Citrus fruits
Recent research suggests that vitamin C may not be as useful in preventing colds as once thought. However, studies do show that taking the vitamin at the first sign of illness may reduce a cold’s duration by about a day, which can feel like a lifetime when you’re suffering.
Eating lots of citrus—whether that entails digging in to orange and grapefruit slices, or using lemons and limes in recipes—will provide plenty of this powerhouse nutrient. Don’t worry about overdoing it, since it’s very hard to overdose on vitamin C. Anything your body doesn’t use is just washed right out of your system.