It’s the time of year when sickness strikes, causing missed days at work and school. Scientists haven’t always known why the flu is more common in winter months, but research from the National Institute of Health reveals that viruses travel more efficiently from person to person in cold climates.
With winter upon us, it’s time to bolster your immune system, and that of your family. While taking care of yourself in terms of sleep and exercise helps, nutrition also plays an important role in preventing and fighting off the flu. Here are some flu-fighting foods you should consider adding to your diet:
1. Fermented Dairy Products contain probiotics and include yogurt, specialty yogurts (like Dannon or Activia), smoothies, specialty drinks (Yakult) and cultured milk such as Kefir. Probiotics are microorganisms (good bacteria) that, when taken in adequate amounts, offer health benefits to individuals.
In the book Gut Insight, author Jo Ann Hattner, RD explains how probiotic microorganisms stimulate the immune system and increase the acidity of the gut so undesirable bacteria can’t grow. After all, the gastro-intestinal tract is the body’s first line of defense, acting as a protective barrier to the body.
2. Bananas (and other Prebiotics): Prebiotics are nondigestable plant ingredients that stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. In other words, they are food for the good bacteria. Bananas are a prebiotic as are onions, garlic, asparagus, whole wheat and barley.
Symbiotics are foods that contain both pre- and probiotics such as a smoothie with a banana, frozen strawberries, yogurt or kefir and orange juice.
3. Pork is an excellent source of zinc, a mineral actively involved in cell metabolism, supporting the immune system. Zinc shortages make it hard for the body to fight off infections, and because the body doesn’t have a way to store zinc, consistent intake is important.
Other good sources of zinc include beef, crab, lobster, oysters, chicken legs, baked beans, cashews, almonds and yogurt.
4. Carrots are high in vitamin A, which is known to play an important role in immune defense. As a maker of infection-fighting white blood cells, vitamin A plays a crucial role in fighting off infections. Other plant sources of vitamin A include spinach, kale, cantaloupe and apricots.
5. California Cuties: Clementine Mandarins, also called Cuties, are harvested from November through January. Just two Cuties contain more than two times a full day’s supply (260% DV) of vitamin C and are easy to peel, seedless and the perfect size for kids.
Vitamin C helps maintain the integrity of disease-fighting cells and low levels can compromise the body’s ability to fight disease efficiently. Other vitamin C-rich foods include red/green peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe, broccoli, kiwi and sweet potatoes.
6. Sunflower Seeds: An ounce of sunflower seeds contains about half the daily recommended amount of vitamin E and is perfect as a topping on salads or cereal or as a healthy snack.
In addition to its function as a fat-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E has other important roles in immune function. Population studies find that adults and children are falling short on vitamin E in the diet. Other sources of vitamin E include wheat germ, almonds, vegetable oils and peanut butter.
7. Vitamin D: While is not a food per se, vitamin D plays an important role in the immune system, increasing the production of “antimicrobial peptides” in cells, which protect against infection. It has been theorized that lower levels of vitamin D during the winter months may at least partly explain why the flu is more common in colder climates.
In a 2010 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, school-aged children who took 1200 IU of vitamin D from December through March experienced an almost 50% reduction in flu infections compared to kids who didn’t take D. So don’t forget to get your vitamin D levels checked — and make sure you are getting enough vitamin D yourself.
This great article was written by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD for WebMD.