Cold weather brings with it lots of nasty viruses. What’s your best defense against these unwelcome guests that inevitably overstay their welcome? A strong immune system. Your immune system is the gatekeeper that helps keep the bad guys in check so you won’t have to miss out on holiday parties and other wintertime activities.
Some of how your immune system works is genetics but it’s also influenced by your lifestyle. For example, research shows exercise, in moderation, boosts immune system function, partially by activating cells called natural killer cells that are skilled at wiping out viruses. In contrast, bad habits like smoking increase your susceptibility to respiratory infections.
Immune Health and Nutrition
Another factor that affects the efficiency of your immune system is the dietary choices you make. Your immune system depends on certain key vitamins and minerals to function effectively. Although you need a full array of vitamins and minerals for general health, certain minerals and vitamins are strongly linked with immune health, including vitamins A, C, B6, D, E and the minerals zinc and selenium.
When you’re deficient in any of these vitamins and minerals, your risk for infection goes up. Yet supplementing with megadoses of these vitamins and minerals won’t offer additional protection against illness. Plus, it isn’t safe to take high doses of a one particular supplement, especially in the case of vitamins A, C and the mineral selenium. The best way to get enough of these vitamins and minerals is from food sources.
Best Food Sources of Vitamins and Minerals You Need for a Healthy Immune System
Let’s look at which foods are high in the vitamins and minerals that most strongly support immune health.
Vitamin A – Load up on fruits and vegetables that are orange in color – pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, carrots, winter squash, apricots, and papaya.
Vitamin C – Enjoy citrus fruits, kiwi, berries, green peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, and leafy greens and you’ll have no problem meeting your vitamin C requirements.
Vitamin B6 – Vitamin B6 is highest in meat, including chicken, beef, and salmon. Eggs and legumes are also a good source. Although fruits and vegetables usually don’t contain large quantities of B6, bananas are the exception. They have more vitamin B6 than chicken and beef.
Vitamin D – It’s hard to get exclusively from food sources. Sun exposure is the best source. Look for foods fortified with vitamin D and include eggs and salmon in your diet.
Vitamin E – Nuts and seeds are among the best sources of vitamin E. In the veggie department, sweet potatoes stand out. Sunflower seeds and almonds are particularly high in vitamin E.
Zinc – Zinc is strongly linked with protein-rich foods. Beef, liver, and crab are among the best sources. If you’re limiting the amount of meat in your diet, wheat germ and nuts contain respectable amounts of this mineral important you need for healthy immune function.
Selenium – Seafood contains abundant quantities of selenium, including shell fish. Sunflower seeds and Brazil nuts are also rich in this trace mineral important for helping your antioxidant defense system work properly.
The key to getting enough of these vitamins and minerals is to eat a diverse diet – rich in fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables get bonus points because they contain other phytochemicals that support immune function. Lean sources of protein, especially fish, along with nuts and seeds also support immune health
With vitamin D being so important for immune function and so hard to get during the winter ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level – to be sure you’re not deficient. Zinc is another one to watch out for, especially if you eat a mostly vegetarian diet. Some studies also suggest we need more zinc past the age of 60.
Eat Foods Rich in Probiotics
We now know that gut-friendly bacteria called probiotics help regulate the 70% of our immune system that lies in our gut. When you add probiotic-rich foods to your diet, you seed your intestinal tract with “good” bacteria that protect you against foreign invaders that cause illness.
Yes, yogurt with active cultures, as long as it hasn’t been heat processed, is a good source of gut and immune-friendly bacteria, but so is miso soup, derived from fermented soy. You’ve probably had miso soup as an appetizer if you’ve eaten at a Japanese restaurant.
Other natural sources of probiotic bacteria are fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and kefir. Tempeh is also an excellent source of plant-based protein to help your body fight off infection.
Have a Cup of Tea
According to research, green tea and white tea both have anti-viral and anti-viral properties. In one study, white tea beat out green tea with respect to its anti-viral properties. Make green and white tea your main sips during the long winter months.
White tea has a light, naturally sweet taste – perfect if you enjoy tea with a more subtle flavor. To maximize the health benefits, buy loose-leaf tea and brew it yourself at home. Bottled tea contains only a fraction of the immune-friendly compounds that freshly brewed tea does.
Don’t Skimp on Protein or Calories
If you don’t consume enough protein or calories, your body will have a harder time fighting off infection. After all, antibodies, one of your body’s major defenses against infection, are made of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Plus, if you’re restricting calories to lose weight, you’ll have a tough time getting enough of the vitamins and minerals you need to stay well.
Know what not to eat too. Processed foods and foods high in sugar alter your gut bacteria in such a way that reduces your body’s ability to fight off infection. Stick with whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible.
The Bottom Line
If you want to avoid the latest viruses making their rounds, be sure you’re eating a vitamin and mineral-rich diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds – and wash it down with green or white tea. Fermented foods, rich in probiotics, are also a good addition to your plate during the winter and any time of year.
Even if you eat a healthy diet, there’s no guarantee you’ll dodge the flu or get fewer colds, but when you combine it with moderate amounts of exercise and at least 7 hours of sleep a night, you’re shifting the odds in your favor. Eat smart and stay healthy this winter!
Science Daily. “White Tea Beats Green Tea In Fighting Germs”
Science News. “Typical American diet can damage immune system”
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