It’s that time of year again. The sound of sniffles can be heard at any given time from your sea of cubicles, Kleenex sales go through the roof, the stockpile of tea bags in the break room is nearly always depleted – cold and flu season. In fact, I’m writing this sitting next to a box full of tissues after my nose started running uncontrollably this morning (yes, I see the irony). I’m blaming it on a whirlwind trip to Iowa to learn about conventional farming practices where I sacrificed sleep for cool running temps. The tricky thing with the flu is that once you’ve got it there’s no real cure other than to let it run its course, so the two categories of medical intervention are prevention of the flu in the first place (have you gotten your flu shot?) and alleviating symptoms. Nutrition can be a benefit in both of these categories.
Prevention of the flu includes the obvious, like hand washing and getting a flu shot, but you can also help yourself stay healthy by keeping your immune system in tip top shape so that if you do encounter the virus, your body is able to fight it off before it becomes a problem.
Fruits and Vegetables – We all think of vitamin C when it comes to preventing cold and flu, though there isn’t a lot of research to back that up. Supplementation with Vitamin C has actually proven ineffective. That being said, there are many different essential vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables, and many are important for the function of the immune system. People always ask which ones they should supplement with, but in reality these things function better in your body if they come from whole foods, which may be related to better absorption from food sources or may be related to other factors within the plant that help. Instead of trying to find a “magic bullet” nutrient, strive to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables every day to keep your health in good shape.
Booze less – Alcohol depresses the immune system, can impact sleep (which is essential for a strong immune system) and just generally can make you feel like crap whether or not you’re coming down with the flu. If you tend to have nights of excessive drinking here and there, it would be a good idea to try to keep your alcohol consumption more moderate.
When Prevention Fails
Sometimes, your immune system will be breached. In these cases, it’s imperative to support the body’s fight against the influenza virus and also use nutrition to help alleviate any symptoms you’re feeling. Here are some key things to remember:
Protein – When your body fights a virus, it makes a bunch of antibodies cells to attack it. These cells are made of protein. Even though you probably won’t feel like eating much, be sure to get adequate protein – about 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Chances are in your every day diet you get this without any issues, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. If eating meat sounds like too much work, try using Greek Yogurt by itself or in smoothies since it is easier to swallow with a sore throat.
Water, water, water – A runny nose and watery eyes are an important part of your body’s attempts to flush out any virus that may be attacking through those easily permeable mucus membranes, but it really can dry you out! Dehydration is never good, especially when fighting off a virus. Be sure to drink plenty of water.
Teas and hot liquids – Steam can help clear clogged up nasal passages, so you may wish to snuggle up with a mug of hot tea, water with lemon, or even a broth made by boiling the carcass of a roasted chicken. A homemade broth that’s simmered for a long period of time will have extra protein from collagen whereas store-bought broths have a minimal protein content.
Spicy stuff – So I haven’t actually looked up research to back this up and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want to, BUT everyone has had a spicy food and felt their sinuses immediately clear out. Except maybe my mom because that would have to be spicier than black pepper (we’re working on it, some day she will like spice). Here in Houston, there is no shortage of spicy food. We’ve got Tex Mex, we’ve got Cajun, we’ve got about every ethnic cuisine under the sun. There’s plenty of sinus-clearing spice to go around.
So what’s my favorite food when I get sick?
Easy – chicken soup. Pho can be the best! It’s hot liquids made with a long-simmered bone broth that often has jalapeno and spicy ginger. The. Bomb. But truly, any soup is my favorite. Pack that baby with veggies for extra nutrients and that’s just icing on the cake 🙂