As we head into mid-fall, cold and flu season kick into high gear. You can get sick any time of the year (just think back to your last summer cold!), but flu season peaks between December and February. Some studies point to the fact that our immune system gets a little sluggish when the weather is cold, but on top of that, we spend more time inside—in cramped cubicles, malls, movie theaters, and the like—where people may be coughing and sneezing around us. Even if they’re careful with covering their noses and mouths, following a sick person in line at the ATM or reaching for the same door handle (among other things) can leave you susceptible. No one wants to get slowed down by sickness so here are some natural ways to boost your immune system.
Green tea. Consider getting your caffeine fix from green tea instead of coffee. Evidence links certain compounds in green tea with the potential to help inhibit viruses, including the flu. You’ll get similar compounds in matcha as well as in decaf versions of both beverages.
Bell peppers and broccoli. Like citrus foods, both of these veggies are top sources of the immune-boosting nutrient, vitamin C. In fact, a cup of either veggie provides at least 30% more vitamin C than an orange—enough to meet your daily needs. Optimizing your vitamin C intake with these foods helps your immune system defend you against invaders, like viruses. Everyone needs plenty of vitamin C, but if you’re into tough workouts, the physical strain this places on your body makes it especially important to pay attention to this nutrient.
Cocoa powder and dark chocolate. I love dark chocolate as much as the next person, but cocoa powder is another great choice to bolster your immune system. Both dark chocolate and cocoa powder supply a compound that may help quiet coughs, according to one study. Of course, with dark chocolate, the amount matters. I usually recommend a few squares—the equivalent of about 100 calories—in order to align with your other feel-good goals. If you’re looking for another way to incorporate cocoa powder besides hot cocoa, my favorite way is to blend it in a smoothie. Cocoa powder is bitter, but fruits like dark cherries, strawberries, bananas, raspberries, and blueberries balance out the bitterness, which means you don’t have to add much (if any) added sugar. Beyond that, smoothies also provide plenty of additional immune-boosting substances from the fruit and veggie blends.
Mushrooms. These meaty veggies pack a one-two immunity-boosting punch. For one, mushrooms are a source of prebiotic fiber—the type that fuel the healthy bacteria that live in your gut. Your gut is host to the majority of cells that make up your immune system, so paying attention to gut wellness is a top-line defense strategy. Mushrooms may also have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, which not only help keep your immune system strong, but also fend off invading viruses. Mushrooms have a meaty texture and I love them sautéed in olive oil and finished with a high quality balsamic vinaigrette. You can serve them as a side dish, atop a salad or turkey burger, or mixed into a whole grain-veggie bowl.
Pumpkin seeds.These natural immune-boosters supply zinc and iron, which are both critical to keeping your immune system functioning. They also have some selenium, which is another important mineral that plays a role in immunity. I love plain, roasted pumpkin seeds as a crunchy alternative to croutons in salads, but I also enjoy snacking on them—especially these maple, sea salt flavored pumpkin seeds by Super Seedz. They’re a nice match to a piece of fruit (like a banana), over a yogurt and fruit parfait, or simply as a stand-alone snack (but not straight from the bag!).
Turkey. Poor intake of selenium can leave you susceptible to colds and flus (as well as other immune system invaders) so it’s important to meet your daily needs. A small portion of roasted turkey provides about half of your daily needs, making it a great choice to serve over salads or as the main course for dinner. If you’re anything like me and don’t cook turkey often, you can usually find it pre-roasted and ready to pair with some veggie-based sides at places like Whole Foods and other top retailers.
Cashews. I hate singling out nuts since they all have great properties, but cashews are especially rich in zinc. Inadequate zinc intake alters your immune functioning, but it isn’t hard to meet your body’s needs, especially if you’re eating meat and seafood. However, I selected cashews because they’re easy to include as a daily habit, whether as a salad topper, mixed into stir-fries, or in cashew nut butter. If you’re going with cashew nut butter, I love sprinkling it with a little cinnamon and stuffing it inside a dried, pitted date as an easy, energy-boosting, immune-supporting snack!
Sweet potatoes and canned pumpkin.Vitamin A insufficiency leaves us vulnerable to infections and while deficiency isn’t terribly common, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re getting plenty of this natural immune-booster through foods. Star sources include orange-hued produce, like sweet potatoes and canned pumpkin. In fact, both provide more than double your daily targets. Cut sweet potatoes into coins or fries and roast them to serve alongside main dish meats or enjoy a small baked sweet potato as a simple side. As for canned pumpkin, I love a smoothie blended with a spoonful plus ¼ banana, some blueberries, spinach, Greek yogurt, ½ Tbsp. of tahini or almond butter, and a dash of cinnamon. You can also use it as the base of soup, to make a lower-sugar pudding, stirred into a Greek yogurt snack, and to make healthier treats. My article for NBC News Better has some recipes using canned pumpkin and/or pumpkin pie spice to inspire you to make this one of your go-to immune-boosting foods!
While I wholeheartedly believe that nourishing your body with healthful foods can strengthen your immune system and provide a good line of defense against viruses, like the cold and flu, it’s also important to take other common-sense measures. They include:
Getting your flu shot
Being vigilant about hand-washing—especially after you’ve been in common areas and before you eat
Guarding your sleep, ensuring you get 7-9 hours of rest each night
Minimizing stress and finding good ways to cope with the stress that comes your way
Staying active in whatever way you like—even during the colder weather
Stay healthy, my friends!!