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Food as Medicine: Ten Immune Boosting Ingredients to Help You Fight the Flu

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January 15, 2019
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Bastyr University adheres to a whole-food philosophy that guides all of its nutrition programs, emphasizing the consumption of a variety of foods in their least-processed forms. When assessing health and wellness, the university integrates mind, body, and spirit by drawing connections between whole food, exercise science and health psychology.

This month, Dr. Neal Malik, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Basic Sciences, talks about how food can play a role in your preventative healthcare routine.

The Problem

Flu season is here. Some of my family members have had some really nasty colds already this year. This brings up an important question: how much control do we have over our immune systems?

The Natural Defense

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., 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 heads.

The immune system is a complex network of cells and chemical messengers that seem to be in constant communication. 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 help this system perform at its best.

The Culinary Reinforcements

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 and try new recipes as you incorporate the following ten foods into your weekly menu.  

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TEN IMMUNE BOOSTING FOODS TO EAT RIGHT NOW

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 are receiving chemotherapy and radiation after consuming mushrooms. Other data suggest that regular consumption of shiitake mushrooms may result in improved immunity and less systemic inflammation.

Turmeric

Typically found as a bright yellow powder, this root 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 the dried, ground spice the next time you decide to make a homemade curry or stew, or sprinkle some in your morning latte. Consuming between 500 and 2,000 milligrams (mg) of turmeric per day is considered safe for most people.

Ginger

Spicy and sweet at the same time, this distant cousin of turmeric, 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.

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Credit: Food Photographer

Garlic

A member of the onion family, researchers are discovering that this common household ingredient 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.

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 everywhere in between. These cells can become inflamed and damaged when were 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. Try them simply baked or boiled with a little salt.

Hot Tea

A perfect beverage on a cold day, we are finding that all kinds of teas 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.

Cinnamon

This warming spice 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 the ground stuff to your oatmeal or homemade applesauce. It is also great in savory dishes like stews.

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Credit:zeljkosantrac

Berries

Naturally high in vitamin C, dietary fiber, and other powerful antioxidants, 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 been some talk that Elderberries may help you recover from illnesses faster, but further research is needed to know for sure.

Honey

This sweetener has been used as an antibiotic for centuries. It was believed that ancient Romans would apply it to their eyes when they had a bout of conjunctivitis (“pink eye”). Turns out, they were on to something: honey has been found to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Add it to your tea or as drizzle it on your whole grain pancakes or waffles. No need to overdo it here, honey is mostly sugar.

Yogurt

A good source of vitamin A, protein and zinc, it’s no wonder yogurt is such a great snack. Not only that, but yogurt contains strains of healthy bacteria that may protect your digestive tract from disease-causing germs and support a healthy microbiome.

Whether you prefer yogurt made from cow’s or goat’s milk, the benefits appear comparable. To reduce added sugar consumption, choose plain yogurt, then add your own fruit and a dollop of honey.

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