As humans, we share our environment with a host of microorganisms — bacterial, viral, parasitic — that are foreign to us. The body does its best to deal with these invaders with a complex process that relies on a number of factors. But what can we as humans do to support our immune systems?
As cold and flu season approach, and COVID-19 remains a threat, you are likely thinking about how to boost your own and your family’s immune system. Many of us stuff our pill boxes full of supplements, reach for cleansing drinks and down more chewable vitamin C than you can shake a flu shot at — all in the hopes you won’t get sick.
The question is, does it all work? And does it work as well as — or better than — things we might do naturally, like eating well, sleeping, washing our hands and avoiding cigarettes?
Experts have recently voiced that the concept of “boosting” the immune system might not be what the body needs. Instead, a person should want their body to have the correct immune response at the necessary time. This requires a balanced immune system.
In addition to known immunity regulators, such as getting enough physical activity and eating a healthy diet, these are the few foods and supplements out there that can help support the immune system.
Foods that may help your body combat COVID-19, cold and flu:
1. Colorful fruits and vegetables
Fruit and vegetable consumption boosts your circulating levels of all the cold- and flu-fighting nutrients you’re trying to get in pills like vitamin C, D, E, zinc and selenium. Varying color and type of fruits and vegetable is essential to getting yourself and family beneficial nutrients.
Garlic belongs in the allium family. Any member of this family, including onions and leeks, can help build up your immunity to ailments most common during fall and winter. A 2020 review of 33 studies, determined a list of whole foods that can reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections, and garlic made the cut. While studies were run prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they still conclude the effectiveness of a healthy diet for prevention and healing support of illnesses.
3. Chicken soup
“Chicken noodle soup is good for the soul." We have all heard it before, but did you know it is good for more than just that? A study in the journal CHEST is probably the largest cited in articles demonstrating why chicken soup works for colds. It concluded that yes, chicken soup may in fact be a bonafide remedy for the common cold. It provides fluids, which we may need more of when COVID-19, a cold or the flu hits. Also, chicken soup hopefully contains carrots and onions in the recipe, which boost antioxidants as well. It doesn’t hurt that its delicious, especially for your kids!
4. Whole grains
Whole grain consumption (think intact grains like buckwheat, brown rice and oats) helps healthy gut bacteria flourish. This process can help tune up your immune system. Whole grains are one of the foods recommended for consumption to help support a strong immune system that may help combat COVID-19.
5. Fish oil (omega-3)
When you think about battling COVID-19, a cold or the flu, fish is likely not the first food you think of eating. Perhaps that thinking needs to change. A recent review from the International Journal of Molecular Sciences notes that dietary omega-3 fatty acids actually promote specific immune responses.
If you are a smoker, a habit that severely reduces the body's ability to fight COVID-19 and seasonal illness like cold and flu, you should quit. To help you along, you can use a healthy dose of fish oil every day as well. One study found doing so could reduce cravings for nicotine and the amount of cigarettes smoked daily. You can get your daily dose of omega-3s by adding salmon, trout and sardines to your diet, as well as plant-based sources like hemp seed and walnuts.
Supplements that can strengthen your immune system:
1. Vitamin D
Even if you consumed the “perfect” diet, it would be very difficult to get enough vitamin D because very few foods provide enough of it. Fatty fish is probably the best source of vitamin D, followed by egg yolks and liver. The best source of vitamin D comes from the sun’s UV rays absorbed through the skin. Since many of us live in areas where UV rays are weak, or we just don’t want to be exposed to the sun, a supplemental option is the next best thing. A 2017 study in the British Medical Journal found supplementation could protect against colds and flu. Another study conducted in 2021 by the University of Chicago Medicine, found that increased levels of vitamin D, above recommended allowances, may actually reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection among those black individuals studied.
A 2016 study found zinc supplementation in elderly adults helped boost zinc levels and immunity. Though you can get zinc from foods like sesame and pumpkin seeds, lentils and turkey, the elderly population studied was more prone to not getting adequate amounts in their diet, making them more susceptible to infection. Further studies have demonstrated zinc can decrease the duration of the common cold.
When it comes to building up defenses against the cold and flu, start by building the army in your gut. A 2017 animal study found a specific gut microbe, triggered by the consumption of flavonoids found in tea, berries, and chocolate, could help reduce the incidence of viral infections.
4. Vitamin C
Many studies have linked the consumption of larger doses of vitamin C to a reduction of the common cold and COVID-19 by reducing inflammation in the lungs. Additionally, the vitamin provides an increased ability to fight infection. Keep in mind, however, that consuming mega doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea and gastric distress. So, while its most likely safe to take the tablets and powdery packets this winter, try not to pop them all day long. The upper tolerable limit for adults is 2000 mg.
In addition to dietary factors, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, getting adequate sleep, regular physical activity and good hand washing practices are critically important factors in helping to fight against COVID-19, cold viruses and the flu.
Supplements work best when you need some higher doses, like vitamin C, or when you’re trying to get a nutrient your body struggles to get from food, like vitamin D. However, you should most likely skip the various cleanses and vitamin combos that promise a remedy from infection above and beyond proper hand washing.
As with most things that help reduce the risk of infection, chronic disease and early death, it’s not one thing that provides the “miracle cure,” it’s a variety of good lifestyle choices that make the difference.