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Superhero Foods to Boost Your Immune System

Dr. Neal Malik

DrPH, MPH, RDN, CH ES, EP-C, Department of Nutrition & Exercise Science, Bastyr University


Flu season is upon us, and some of my family members have had some really nasty cases already this year. This brings up an important question: how much control do we have over our immune systems? The immune system is the body’s defense against potentially harmful pathogens. Researchers are discovering that a healthy immune system, one that is not overactive (i.e., without chronic, systemic inflammation) but not too lethargic either, can mean the difference between feeling our best and wanting to lay in bed with extra covers pulled up over our heads. Our lifestyles can influence the strength of our immune systems: the duration and quality of our sleep, the frequency and type of exercises we perform and, of course, the foods we eat can make all the difference. The immune system is a complex network of cells and chemical messengers that seem to be in constant communication. Our daily behaviors, like the foods we consume, could help this system perform at its best. Incorporating the following eight foods as you plan your weekly menu may be a good starting place.

» Turmeric – typically found as a bright yellow powder, this spice is often used in Asian curry dishes. You may also find turmeric supplements, but be careful with these—many have failed quality testing but can still be found at your local health food store or pharmacy. Curcumin, the main compound found in turmeric, has been shown to help keep the immune system from becoming hyperactive, and a result may help reduce systemic inflammation. Add this spice the next time you decide to make a homemade curry or stew! Consuming between 500 and 2,000 milligrams (mg) of turmeric per day is considered safe for most.

» Cinnamon – a fall and winter favorite, it contains essential oils that may help reduce the amount of time we spend getting over a cold or the flu. But be careful about using cinnamon sugar, which is not the same as pure cinnamon! Add it as a topping to your oatmeal or homemade applesauce.

» Ginger – researchers are discovering that this common household ingredient may also help our immune cells win the battle against colds and the flu. Researchers are learning that a particular compound found in ginger, 6-Shogaol, may be ginger’s secret weapon. It appears that 6-Shogaol may be a strong antioxidant and may help reduce inflammation in the body. Add fresh ginger to your stir-fry recipes or as part of a salad dressing!

» Garlic – a member of the onion family, garlic may help kill bacteria and viruses. When possible, consume garlic in its whole form as opposed to relying on garlic capsules/ supplements—the jury is still out as to whether these have the same effect. And if you want to maximize the potency of garlic’s health-promoting compounds, crush it at room temperature, then let it sit for about 15 minutes before cooking.

» Mushrooms – an often-underutilized immune-boosting food, mushrooms are easily digested and absorbed, are a source of protein (which is also important for immune functioning) and contain vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. Clinical researchers discovered improved immune responses in cancer patients who receive chemotherapy and radiation after consuming mushrooms. Other data suggest that regular consumption of shiitake mushrooms may result in improved immunity and less systemic inflammation.

» Sweet Potato – a fall and winter favorite, sweet potatoes are high in vitamins A and C, a one-two punch when it comes to potentially knocking out harmful bacteria and viruses. Vitamin A helps repair the cells that line our respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts beginning with the nose and every - where in between! These cells can become inflamed and damaged when we’re exposed to bacteria and viruses. Vitamin C helps our immune cells perform at their best. Adding sweet potato to your meals this week may help provide your immune system with the nutrients it needs to help you feel your best.

» Berries – naturally high in vitamin C, dietary fiber and other powerful anti - oxidants, berries can be enjoyed fresh or frozen. Consuming a fiber-rich diet has been shown to help improve the health of our gut microbiome, which we are learning is vitally important for a healthy immune system. Preliminary research has shown some signs that elderberries may help you recover from illnesses faster, but further research is needed to know for sure.

» Hot Tea – a perfect beverage on a cold day, hot tea may help our bodies ward off infections. Black tea and green tea are widely studied and both are good sources of antioxidants. Not only that, but as an added bonus, drinking tea will help keep you hydrated, which is important year-round.

With cold and flu season upon us, why not consider incorporating some of these foods into your meals? The immune system is your defense against harmful microbes, so it’s important we provide it with the nutrients it needs to help us feel our best. Get creative, try new recipes, and you might be surprised at just how tasty these foods can be!

Dr. Malik leads the Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program and teaches core courses at Bastyr University California.

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