Time to bust out the tissues: Tis the season for sniffles, drips, coughs, and sore throats. But as cold and flu season ramps up, hand-washing shouldn’t be your only mode of defense. When it comes to fighting nasty bugs, turns out the best medicine around might just be a healthy diet rich in immune-boosting foods.
Feeling under the weather? Your fast food habit may be to blame, says Carina Sohaili, founder of Vibrant Healthy Life and a Board Certified Celebrity Nutrition and Health Counselor. “Nutrition and the immune system are inextricably linked,” Sohaili notes. “The immune system needs specific vitamins and minerals to thrive, which you get from eating real, whole foods. When you pollute your system with processed ingredients and junk foods, it takes a toll on your body.”
In other words, your prescription for good health begins in the kitchen, not the medicine cabinet. For optimal immune functioning, fuel your body with a diet rich in Vitamins A, C, E and Zinc. Sohaili recommends eating these 10 immune-boosting foods to help you stay well and fend off illness all season long:
1) Pumpkin seeds: This autumn treat is a fantastic source of Zinc, which is crucial for warding off illness. Most people don’t get sufficient levels of Zinc in their diet, Sohaili notes. “Research has indicated that zinc is correlated with antibody production in the body. Antibodies fight off infectious diseases,” she says. Munch on a handful of pumpkin seeds as a snack, or throw them on top of soups, salads and more.
2) Dark chocolate: Here’s an excuse for chocolate lovers to indulge: Raw dark cacao contains a naturally high content of immune-fortifying Zinc. To keep your immune system revving at full speed, treat yourself to a small square of dark chocolate every day.
3) Chickpeas: Another good source of Zinc, chickpeas (also called “garbanzo beans”) are a nutrient-dense, fiber-rich addition to salads.
4) Spinach: There was a reason Popeye swore by spinach: This nutrient-dense vegetable is chock-full of immune-boosting zinc, Vitamin A and a host of other healthful antioxidants.
5) Red bell peppers: Red bell peppers are a good source of Vitamin C, E and other powerful antioxidants. Toss some chopped bell pepper in your morning omelet, or snack on sliced peppers and hummus.
6) Oranges: Oranges have long been touted as an immune boosting food, and for good reason—one medium orange delivers 70 mg of vitamin C.
7) Strawberries: Strawberries are a sweet way to get your daily dose of Vitamin C. Slice them and serve atop your morning bowl of oatmeal.
8) Squash: A seasonal favorite, squash packs a powerful punch of illness-fighting Vitamin A. Serve squash in soups or stews, or roast in the oven with some olive oil and salt and pepper.
9) Carrots: This crunchy vegetable supplies a hefty dose of vitamin A, which is essential for resisting infection. Munch on carrots and hummus as an afternoon snack.
10) Lemon: A good source of Vitamin C, lemon is an illness-fighting all-star. “Lemon does wonders for the immune system,” Sohaili says. “I love starting my morning with lemon-juice and warm water because it is a great way to clean out your digestive tract.”
In addition to consuming nutritious foods, there are a number of lifestyle habits that promote a healthy immune system. Because sleep deprivation can weaken the body’s defense, aim to get 7-8 hours of quality shut-eye every night. Also, make it a priority to carve out some time for daily exercise—regular exercise can be a boon to the immune system, studies show.
But that’s not to say you need to drastically overhaul your lifestyle. At the end of the day, even small tweaks can add up to give your immunity a big boost, Sohaili says. “My advice for building up a strong immune system is finding a formula that works for your lifestyle and sticking to it. It can be as simple as morning lemon-juice and warm water, eating real foods without processed ingredients and turning the television off a bit earlier at night. Try it and see how you feel after a couple of weeks, especially with flu season right around the corner.”