Written by Kirstyn Brown
Don’t let a cold keep you from your workouts. Find out which
foods will give your immune system a fighting chance.
Cold and flu season is in full swing, which means your efforts to stay healthy—and in the gym—just got a bit more challenging. Luckily, when it comes to warding off illness, you’re already at an advantage. As an avid exerciser, you’ve probably noticed that you catch fewer colds—and bounce back from them more quickly—than your couch potato friends. This is no coincidence. Regular exercise boosts the activity of your immune cells, allowing them to respond quickly when viruses and harmful bacteria try to attack. In fact, studies show that people who work out at least five times a week suffer fewer and less severe colds compared to those that sweat just once per week.
But whether you train like a beast each and every day or you limit your higher intensity workouts to a few times per week, you can give your body’s natural defense system a hand in fighting viruses simply by arming it with the proper weaponry: food. “The immune system functions most effectively when we fuel it with micronutrient-rich foods that contain anti-microbial and immune-boosting phytochemicals,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, family physician, nutritional researcher and best-selling author of Super Immunity (HarperCollins, 2013). In other words, you can keep your body healthy (and your butt in the gym) by feeding it foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Read on to find out which foods pack the most immune-boosting power, then click here for three easy recipes to help your body fight off the flu this season.
According to Fuhrman, several different varieties of mushrooms enhance immune defenses, particularly in the respiratory tract and your “natural-killer cell activity” or “NK cells.” “These are the immune cells that attack and destroy cells that are cancerous or infected with viruses,” he says. Mushrooms offer a mega dose of the mineral selenium (a cup of criminis provides 34 percent of your recommended daily intake), as well as decent amounts of zinc and manganese, all of which are necessary for the proper functioning of antioxidant enzymes.
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Get a Boost: Try raw sliced mushrooms on salads, or tossed into a stir fry with chicken, shrimp and other flu fighting veggies.
These three powerhouses along with the rest of the Cruciferous vegetable family (think cauliflower, bok choy, arugula and Brussels sprouts) are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to defending you against invading viruses. Not only are they chalk full of antimicrobial properties (natural bacteria fighters), they are also known for releasing isothiocyanates (ITCs), powerful phytochemicals linked to both cancer prevention and immune support, when they’re chopped and chewed, adds Fuhrman.
Get a Boost: Add shredded kale to soups and stews or lightly sautee with garlic and olive oil. Try roasted cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts for a cold-crushing side dish.
You may be tempted to head straight for the orange juice when flu season hits, but research shows you’re better off to chow down on berries. Not only are they delicious on yogurt, in shakes or on their own, but they’re also a source of antioxidants, especially flavonoids and resveratrol, which have been shown to defend against viruses and even cancer. When you can, go for the blue ones. A 2013 study in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that the compound pterostilbene in blueberries was strongly linked to improved immune function (even more so when combined with vitamin D).
Get a Boost: Use mixed berries to sweeten oatmeal, salads and smoothies. During the winter months, buy the unsweetened frozen variety—they’re packaged when they’re perfectly ripe!
Your favorite flavor-booster also happens to be a superstar in the medicinal department. Thanks to its abundance of antibacterial properties, garlic has been used for centuries to combat everything from the common cold to the plague. Garlic and its onion cousins contain a powerful antibacterial and antifungal compound called allicin, as well as other phytochemicals that enhance our viral-killing defenses, says Fuhrman. These foods are most beneficial when consumed raw, as these compounds become less potent when heated. Raw garlic and onions have also shown to be cancer preventative.
Get a Boost: Add crushed raw garlic to homemade salad dressings and vinaigrettes. If you have a juicer, toss in whole cloves for an antibacterial boost.