This winter everyone knows someone who’s had the flu or a bad cold. Even my doctor called to cancel an appointment because he was so ill! I am just too busy to get sick, so I pay special attention to what I eat. My father was a doctor in Southeast Asia and he always said that if you are in general good health, get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water and wash your hands frequently, you’re doing a lot to prevent a nasty case of the flu.
Here are some immune-boosting foods that are great for keeping your immune system strong against common viruses. Some may be familiar—like your grandmother’s home remedies. However, there is science behind many of them.
Known to Jewish mothers for generations as a cure for common colds and flu, there is solid science that makes it work. University of Nebraska researchers tested a dozen brands of chicken soup and found that practically all of them blocked the migration of inflammatory white cells. Congestion is a response to the cells’ accumulation in the bronchial tubes. Cooked chicken releases an amino acid called cysteine, which is chemically similar to the bronchitis drug acetylcysteine. The salty broth thins mucus and the steam helps open nasal passages. When you add spices such as garlic, turmeric and onions, you not only make the soup delicious, but increase its immune-boosting power as well. For a hearty chicken soup, with Asian flair, check out the recipe below.
Both green and black teas contain FoodTrients that help your body fight off viruses. According to a Harvard study, people who drank five cups a day of black tea for two weeks had ten times more virus-fighting interferon in their blood than those who drank a placebo hot beverage. L-theanine is an amino acid present in green and black tea that is an effective immunity booster. Decaf versions have this amino acid, too. Green tea contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants. A laboratory study has suggested that a particular type of polyphenols called carechins may kill influenza viruses. To get more green tea into your diet, try my recipe for Edamame Green Tea Noodles. It’s one of the most popular from my cookbook, FoodTrients – Age Defying Recipes for a Sustainable Life.
Probiotics are active, “good” bacteria found in foods like yogurt, kefir (liquid yogurt) and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kim-chee. These bacterial cultures help to keep your intestinal tract free of disease causing germs, aiding digestion and boosting immunity. Be sure to look for products that say, “Live and Active Cultures” on a seal from the National Yogurt Association on yogurt cups. This ensures that it contains a minimum level of two specific types of beneficial bacteria. Sure, you can buy pills that provide a daily dose of probiotics, but wouldn’t you rather eat creamy yogurt with some fresh berries instead?
Oats, Barley & Wheat Germ
According to a Norwegian study, oats and barley contain beta-glucan, a type of fiber with antimicrobial and antioxidant capabilities. Beta-glucan appears to boost immunity, speed wound healing, and may help make antibiotics more effective. Wheat germ contains zinc, antioxidants, B vitamins and other vitamins and minerals that help your body fight disease. The soluble fiber in oats also helps fight inflammation. For a real power breakfast put wheat germ in your morning oatmeal.
An undisputed superfood, the active ingredient in garlic is allicin, which fights infection and bacteria. Studies suggest that those who consume garlic on a regular basis tend to have fewer colds than those in control groups who were given a placebo. When test subjects did catch colds, their symptoms lasted half as long as those who were not consuming garlic. There is some evidence that people who consume six or more cloves a week have lower rates of colorectal cancer and stomach cancers. Garlic has been shown to have lipid-lowering, anti-blood coagulation, antioxidant, antiviral and antimicrobial properties. For a delicious dose of garlic, try my Garlic Crab Royale , a tasty first course that calls for a whole head of garlic. I’ve served this dish to VIPs from all over the world to rave reviews.
Beef is a nutrient dense food, which means you don’t have to eat much of it to receive plenty of benefits. Just 3 ounces of beef delivers 30% of your daily need for zinc, which helps fight infections. According to William Boisvert, PhD, an expert in nutrition and immunity at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, “Zinc in your diet is very important for the development of white blood cells, the immune system cells that recognize and destroy invading bacteria, viruses, and assorted other challenges to your health.” Oysters, pork, poultry, yogurt and milk are also good sources of zinc. My recipe for Mustard-Crusted Tri-Tip is a great main course for company or to have on hand for sandwiches all week. I like to use grass fed beef for its omega-3s and other healthful fats.
Fish and Shellfish
Oysters, lobsters, crabs, and clams contain significant amounts of the trace element, selenium, which is protective against cancer and helps white blood cells produce cytokines, proteins that help clear the body of flu viruses. Wild salmon, mackerel, and herring are rich in omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation, increasing airflow and protecting the lungs from respiratory infections. You can use wild salmon or mackerel in this recipe for my Home Smoked Fish . It takes a while, but it’s easy to prepare and you don’t need special equipment to get that delicious smoky flavor.
Mushrooms have been used as medicine for hundreds of years. They are a fungus and grow in decaying plant material, like rotting logs. When you eat mushrooms, your body puts to work their ability to absorb and eliminate toxins. “Studies show that mushrooms increase the production and activity of white blood cells, making them more aggressive,” says Douglas Schar, director of the Institute of Herbal Medicine in Washington, D.C. Certain mushrooms have the most healthful properties—maitake, shiitake and reishi, but according to Regina Wilshire N.D., even the humble white button mushroom provides 50% of the daily value for cancer-fighting selenium, 40% for riboflavin, 35% for copper, and 30% for niacin along with traces of zinc, magnesium, calcium, folate and iron.
Skin is your first line of defense against invading bacteria and viruses. Foods high in vitamin A-rich beta-carotene such as sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, pumpkin and cantaloupe are important for building and repairing connective tissue, a key component of skin.
Vitamin D is both a nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies manufacture. It helps ensure that the body absorbs and retains calcium and phosphorus, both critical for building bone. Laboratory studies also show that vitamin D can reduce cancer cell growth and has an important function in controlling infections. Clinical studies suggest it may help immune cells identify and destroy bacteria and viruses that make us sick, says Adit Ginde, M.D., M.P.H., a public health researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. To get enough vitamin D, experts recommend supplements– at least 800-1000 IU per day. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children who took daily vitamin D supplements (1,200 IU) were 40% less likely to contract a common flu virus than kids who took a placebo. You can get small amounts of vitamin D from fortified milk and fatty fish such as tuna and wild salmon.
Asian-Style Chicken Soup
This comforting soup becomes a one-pot meal.
2-3 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, cut into fine strips
1 Tbs. fresh garlic, diced
½ onion, diced
2 lb. whole chicken, skin removed and cut into 10-12 pieces
¼ tsp. white pepper
1 Tbs. sea salt
8 cups water
4 cups chopped spinach, kale or bok choy, or moringa leaves
- In an enamel casserole dish, heat oil and sauté ginger, garlic and onion over medium heat until the vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes.
- Add chicken pieces, white pepper and sea salt to season. Cook chicken in the casserole dish (uncovered) until it is half cooked, about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Add the 8 cups of water, cover and simmer about 25 to 30 minutes.
- Add green leafy vegetables as desired—spinach, bok choy, kale (chopped), or moringa leaves
- Check broth and season with more salt and pepper if desired.