When you’re sick, eating the right foods is more important than ever. Most people know that when they have a cold it is a good idea to take a vitamin C supplement and drink more orange juice, but that is often the extent of their knowledge.
A strong immune system helps to keep a person healthy, and nutrition and lifestyle can help, or hinder, your immunity. To understand how to stay well we need to know how to boost the immune system.
What is The Immune System?
The Immune System is one of the most intricate of our body systems, and consists of organs, cells, tissues and proteins. Together, these carry out bodily processes that fight off pathogens, which are the viruses, bacteria, and foreign bodies that cause infection or disease.
When the immune system comes into contact with a pathogen, it triggers an immune response. The immune system releases antibodies, which attach to antigens on the pathogens and kill them.
The strength or weakness of the immune system is individual. Incorporating specific nutrients into the diet may strengthen a person’s immune response, but despite our body’s best effort’s, sometimes, harmful tiny invaders break through the body’s defence and cause illness.
Take the example of someone infectious sneezing on you. While the body is trying to defend itself, you may experience a sore throat, a blocked nose and headaches. You may get unwell, however, if you have a strong immune system, you should remain relatively unaffected.
What foods can assist recovery?
Certain foods have powerful properties that can support your body while it’s fighting an illness. Choosing foods that give you the right nutrients and building blocks for healing, help speed up your recovery, and prevent some of the side effects of illness.
As outlined in our article on Stay healthy during cold & flu season adequate rest and sleep, plenty of clear fluids, natural remedies, and sensible nutritional choices ensure a healthy body and assist in getting good health back on track.
Consume foods which boost the immune system like protein for cell repair. All body cells, tissues and organs are made from amino acids, the building blocks found in protein-rich foods.
- Salmon is an excellent source of protein. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which fight inflammation and boost immune function.
- Chicken soup has been recommended as a remedy for the common cold for hundreds of years — and for good reason. It’s an easy-to-eat source of vitamins, minerals, calories and protein, which are nutrients your body needs in larger quantities while you’re sick.
Eat nutritious foods, including fruits and leafy green vegetables which are rich in antioxidants that assist the body to get rid of toxins more efficiently. Fresh or cooked produce are a good source of essential dietary fiber to aid digestion and help bowel movements return to normal after illness.
Some fruits also contain beneficial compounds called anthocyanins, that can fight viruses and bacteria and stimulate the immune system. These give fruits their red, blue and purple color. Some of the best sources are strawberries, cranberries, blueberries and blackberries.
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, romaine lettuce and kale are packed full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are especially good sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and folate.
- It is recommended to have a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
- A serving of fruit is the equivalent of a cup of berries or diced melon, a small banana, half a grapefruit or 2 tbls of dried fruit. Similarly, one serving of a vegetable might be a cup of raw greens or 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables.
Turmeric is a yellow spice that may improve a person’s immune response. This is due to the qualities of curcumin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Foods with Vitamin A, C & E
Vitamin C is perhaps the most important vitamin for the health of the immune system. It has potent antiviral properties, is antibacterial and is essential in the production of white blood cells, such as lymphocytes and phagocytes, that help attack and destroy invading pathogens. Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant that helps to protect your cells from damage.
The body cannot make vitamin C, so you must obtain its daily requirements through diet or nutritional supplements. Rich natural sources include kiwi fruit, strawberries, watermelon, oranges, grapefruit and sweet potato. Make a fruit salad with these fruits to get a healthy dose of this vitamin.
- Sweet potatoes are also rich in beta carotene, a type of antioxidant that gives the skin of the potatoes its orange colour. Beta carotene is a source of vitamin A, which has potent antiviral properties.
- Broccoli is another source of vitamin C. It also contains potent antioxidants, such as sulforaphane. For these reasons, it is a good choice of vegetable to eat regularly to support immune system health.
- Spinach may boost the immune system, as it contains many essential nutrients and antioxidants, including: flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Probiotics and immune boosting foods for good bacteria. The immune system is closely related to the health of your gut (or colon). The colon has a natural balance of bacteria, yet this balance is sensitive and can easily be upset by an excess of simple sugars and taking antibiotics.
- Antibiotics destroy colonies of “friendly” bacteria in your gut, which aid digestion and help prevent the overgrowth of harmful types of bacteria. If your doctor prescribed a dose of antibiotics to beat a bacterial infection, you may experience digestive after-effects such as diarrhoea or an overgrowth of the yeast candida albicans. Probiotics recolonise the gut with good bacteria and are proven to reduce the incidence of antibiotic-related gut issues.
- Probiotics should be used routinely to help reduce recovery time and health care costs. We suggest supplementing with probiotics in the form of live unsweetened bio yoghurt rich in Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria. It should be eaten three times a week. If preferred, supplements of these probiotics are available.
Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which is the garlic plant’s natural protection against insects and microorganisms. Garlic can fight bacteria, viruses and stimulate the immune system. It helps you avoid illness and recover faster when you get sick.
- Adding garlic to chicken soup or broth can both add flavour and make them even more effective at fighting off cold or flu symptoms.
Hydration to beat fatigue: it is important to drink plenty of water and other fluids during and after illness. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, weakness, light-headedness and nausea. Hydration is especially important when you have a fever, sweat a lot or have vomiting or diarrhoea, which can cause you to lose a lot of water and electrolytes.
- Drinking plenty of fluids helps loosen up mucus in your nose and relieve congestion. Plain water and coconut water are great choices to hydrate. Tea is a good source of fluids and acts as a natural decongestant when hot, helping clear the sinuses of mucus. Also try herbal tea i.e. fresh ginger tea, hibiscus tea, Manuka honey and lemon tea, echinacea tea and broth, as they stimulate the immune system, help relieve congestion and may shorten the length of the cold or flu.
Stay well-nourished through food
Nausea and loss of appetite is common when ill or run down, especially with cold and flu, however your body actually needs more energy and nutrients to help it fight the infection and your body’s energy requirement will be highest if you have a fever.
- Ginger is probably best known for its anti-nausea effects. It has also demonstrated antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-cancer effects.
- Bananas are a good source of calories and nutrients. They can also help relieve nausea and diarrhoea.
- Oatmeal is a good source of nutrients and easy to eat. It can stimulate your immune system, improve blood sugar control and decrease inflammation in the digestive system.
- Avocados are full of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that can decrease inflammation and stimulate the immune system.
‘Winter warmer’ recipe
Here is a hearty ‘Winter warmer’ recipe from Pete Evans’ mum, Joy (with a couple of tweeks to suit our family!) chock full of restorative ingredients the whole family will love. Chicken Soup helps to relieve cold and flu symptoms and reduces inflammation which in turn helps clear mucus and reduce congestion.
Joy’s Chicken Soup
- 3 chicken breast fillets, chopped into large chunks
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- ½ sweet potato, chopped
- 1 zucchini, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 450g pumpkin, peeled and chopped
- ½ tsp paprika
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 2L chicken stock
- 1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 2 handfuls baby spinach leaves
- Place chicken, vegetables, spices and stock in a large pot
- Bring to simmer then cook on low heat for 1-1½hrs
- Remove chicken pieces, shred and set aside
- Add spinach and parsley to soup mix and blend in batches until smooth
- Pop chicken back into soup and mix well
- Season with salt/pepper.
Resting, drinking fluids and getting proper nutrition are some of the most important things you can do to feel better and recover faster when sick.
But some foods have benefits that go beyond just providing your body with nutrients.
While no food alone can cure sickness, eating the right foods can support your body’s immune system and help relieve certain symptoms.
Get back on top of everyday activities by being kind to yourself and ensure you are fuelling your body with the best nutritional protection.