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The immune system helps protect the body from unwanted foreign invaders year-round, but its role is especially crucial during cold and flu season. While we can't entirely avoid coming into contact with germs, eating a healthy diet to boost your immunity can keep the body's defenses up to battle pesky viruses and bacteria. Increase your intake of the following foods and you might just stave off the sniffles or feverish flu altogether this season.
Fruits and Vegetables
Vitamins A and C are potent antioxidants that promote immune function, ensuring that immune cells can do their jobs well. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of both vitamins, while providing additional vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals (naturally occurring plant chemicals) that contribute to good health and help prevent disease.
"Oranges are very high in vitamin C, and so are red peppers," says Kerry Neville, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "And carrots are a great source of beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A."
Add colorful fruits and vegetables, such as berries and leafy greens, to your plate or bowl to bolster the body's defenses. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a viable option when fresh ones aren't available. Lightly steam, sauté or add vegetables to soups to reap the benefits. Eat fruits whole or incorporate them into smoothies and hot cereal.
Nuts and Vegetable Oils
Neville recommends nuts and healthy oils, such as canola and olive varieties, as good sources of fat-soluble vitamin E, another nutrient essential to immunity. Research has shown that even a marginal vitamin E deficiency can hinder immune function.
Nuts and non-hydrogenated vegetable oils are also rich sources of unsaturated fats, making them good substitutes for saturated and trans fats (such as hydrogenated oils) in the diet that may impair immunity and contribute to heart disease.
Reach for a small handful of almonds or other raw nuts as a snack, and drizzle canola or olive oil in salads, soups and sauces.
This pungent and flavorful food is revered for its immune-boosting and anti-microbial action, making it a favorite of Glen Nagel, N.D., Adjunct Clinical and Academic Faculty at the National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) in Portland, Ore. "A constituent called alliin is converted, when crushed, to allicin, which is probably responsible for some of garlic's antimicrobial action," Nagel explains. Allicin may also increase antibody production, immune cell activity, and other immune-system activity.
"The best way to prepare it is to peel and crush the fresh clove of garlic, then wait five to ten minutes and spread it on bread with olive oil," Nagel recommends. "If you cook the garlic the healthful properties are reduced." If you do cook garlic, Nagel recommends at least adding it to the dish at the end.
Not all bacteria are bad for you; live, active bacteria cultures found in yogurt actually benefit the body, fortifying your gastrointestinal tract and stimulating immunity to defend against illness-promoting bacteria.
Naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in the gut can be depleted by changes in lifestyle or diet, viral or bacterial infections and antibiotics that wipe out the good with the bad bacteria. A resulting overgrowth of harmful bacteria can lead to constipation, diarrhea and other problems. Eating yogurt containing live active cultures can help replenish the healthy bacteria. Seek out products containing Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium strains.
Zinc is essential to the normal development and function of various types of immune cells, and research has shown that insufficient intake can decrease the body's resistance to infection. Lean meats and seafood are especially rich sources, and eggs, milk and Brazil nuts are other foods that contain significant amounts of zinc.
In addition to these immunity-boosting foods, consider taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, especially during cold and flu season. It's yet another way to up your intake of immune-supporting nutrients--an ounce of prevention, as they say.
About the Author
Liz Brown is a health, nutrition and travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.S. degree in Nutrition and is co-author (with Chris Meletis, N.D.) of the book "Enhancing Fertility: A Couple's Guide to Natural Approaches" (Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2004). Brown is also a Spa magazine contributing editor.