As temperatures start to drop, the chances of catching a cold start to rise. And as we enter the holiday season, illness is one thing we can certainly do without. Keeping our immune system in tip-top shape becomes even more crucial during this time of the year as our natural defense against those pesky germs.
Fortunately, making wise food choices can help. To help fight viral and bacterial crime, try incorporating these seven immune-boosting foods into your diet.
01. Yogurt & Probiotics
Take a stroll down the dairy aisle, and you may notice the words Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium on containers of yogurt. While it sounds like gibberish, they happen to be yogurt’s legit claim to fame. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two major strains of “good” bacteria—also known as probiotics—that care about your immunity just as much as you do.
To understand how probiotics give you immune support, let’s take a few steps back. The bacteria found in your gut is also known as intestinal microflora. Trillions reside in the intestinal tract, outnumbering human cells ten to one, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Gut bacteria’s number one job is to keep our bodies balanced and well,” says Katerina Melekos, RDN, a registered dietitian in New Jersey. The European Molecular Biology Organization also shares that intestinal microflora is responsible for creating the immune response. When your body experiences stress—such as a bacterial infection or an injury—your gut bacteria is the first to know. Once it gives your body a signal (such as inflammation), your immune system will begin to fight back.
But in order to do this, your crew of microorganisms must be healthy, diverse, and ready to roll. They can’t do it alone. This is where yogurt consumption comes in.
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are probiotics that can bolster your stomach bacteria’s potential. This duo adds to the community of good guys, making it possible to effectively produce an immune response.
“Regularly eating yogurt keeps your gut bacteria in check,” Melekos says. “In turn, your immune system will flourish.”
Yogurt is a versatile food product, as long as you choose plain over the sugary flavored kind. It’s ideal for bulking up a fruit smoothie. You can also mix it with fruit, oatmeal, or cereal for a filling breakfast. For something less conventional, add spices and herbs for a healthy chip or veggie dip. Want to go the extra mile? Use it as a base for a pasta cream sauce. Not only will you save a good amount of calories and sodium, but you’ll also boost your immunity in the best way.
When it comes to boosting your immune system, leafy greens and oranges may come to mind. While these foods can certainly keep you in good shape, there are other tasty unexpected options out there. We’re talking about protein-rich beans. From lentils and chickpeas to black or kidney beans, you’ve got a ton of choices.
Along with carbs and fat, protein is a macronutrient that our bodies require to live and thrive. Without this trio, basic cellular functions don’t happen properly. “Protein aids the immune system by providing leverage for cells to grow and regenerate,” Melekos says. “Without it, our cells can’t do their jobs properly.”
For women ages 19 or older, the Institute of Medicine recommends a daily protein intake of 46 grams (about two to three servings). According to Melekos, 1 cup of beans contains 15 grams of protein. “Not only are beans extremely filling, but they are also protein-rich and tasty,” she says.
Critical Care Medicine states that protein malnutrition is associated with an impaired immune response and poor activity of white blood cells. Without sufficient protein, your white blood cells are unable to protect your body from invaders. While the fresh kind is always best, canned beans provide greater accessibility for the busy lady. Opt for the kind without added sodium or preservatives.
“Beans are great for your rice, pasta, or salad,” Melekos suggests. They’re the perfect base for side dishes or dips. Experiment with different types and combos. Regardless of your favorite, they are an amazing meatless protein source that will boost your immunity and keep you feeling full.
Garlic has been used for thousands of years, thanks to its health-related superpowers. Apart from its mythical use to ward off vampires, this cousin of the onion happens to be quite talented. It’s a natural antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral, and antiseptic, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. In a nutshell, garlic is amazing.
The Journal of Immunology Research shares that garlic can aid the immune system by helping maintain balance in your body’s cells. It also stimulates the production of macrophages and lymphocytes, two types of white blood cells that attack invaders.
Garlic pulls this off by stimulating secretion of a protein called cytokine. When cytokine comes into contact with other cells, it changes their behavior and actions. Cytokines nudge macrophages to start attacking cellular waste, unfamiliar bacteria, and anything else that is detrimental. Talk about teamwork.
Because garlic is so versatile, adding it to your cooking is easy. Plus, you’ll get a major dose of flavor. Minced garlic is ideal for dishes such as omelets, pastas, and salads. Whole garlic adds a punch to stews and sautéed vegetables. If you don’t already use garlic, don’t be afraid to experiment by incorporating it into different dressings, sauces, and dishes.
Ginger’s superpowers have been known for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. More recently, Westerners have realized its potential as a magical food that can soothe ailments from a sore throat to an upset stomach. Between bringing flavor and health benefits, it’s no wonder ginger gets so much love.
According to Food and Chemical Toxicology, ginger knows a thing or two about keeping our bodies in check. Not only can it regulate the immune system, but it can also inhibit tumor growth and relieve cellular stress. The University of Maryland Medical Center also states that ginger is useful for alleviating the common cold, motion sickness, and flu-like symptoms. It can also lower blood cholesterol, maintain blood sugar levels, and reduce joint pain.
Create a tea by boiling fresh ginger root in a pot of water. Add lemon and honey for complementary flavors. “You can also add it to sauces or dressings for that extra kick,” Melekos suggests.
05. Sweet Potatoes
Come autumn, we can’t get enough sweet potato. This delicious vegetable is perfect for bringing in that quintessential fall flavor and color that we love so much. From decadent pies to addicting side dishes, sweet potato makes us swoon.
This fall staple also happens to be a team player in the immunity-boosting game. It’s full of vitamin A, a component that plays a big part in the immune system. Nature Reviews Immunology explains that it all comes down to vitamin A’s adaptive nature and ability to alter extremely specific aspects of the immune response.
Remember our gut bacteria? Vitamin A also supports immune receptors in the body, of which our gut flora are on the front line. In a study in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, vitamin A was capable of enhancing antibody responses, especially antibody responses in mucosal tissues such as our intestines. And since the key to a well-played immune response depends on healthy gut flora, it’s not surprising that vitamin A deficiency correlates with poor immunity.
Vitamin A is so awesome that, contrary to popular belief, it is a stronger immune booster than taking vitamins C and E when you think you’re coming down with something. And according to the National Institutes of Health, sweet potato is at the top of the list of rich vitamin A sources.
As if you needed another reason to eat more sweet potato, doing so will increase your immunity in time for the cool weather. Just another reason to make a batch (or five) of mashed sweet potatoes or candied yams.
06. Matcha & Green Tea
As the days get chillier, there’s nothing quite like curling up with a cup of hot green tea. Matcha is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea. Aside from tasting delicious (and easing PMS symptoms), green tea is yet another immunity booster. This widely consumed superfood can play a major part in preventing chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and high cholesterol. Like garlic, it also has natural antibacterial, antiviral, and antioxidant properties.
“This means that green tea has the ability to prevent unhealthy conditions from forming before they even start or progress,” Melekos explains. “As an antibacterial, it can kill the bad bacteria. As an antioxidant, it can deplete the cellular waste that naturally forms from the body’s normal processes.” These types of actions are necessary to keep your immunity in good shape.
Green tea’s talents come down to a natural compound called catechin. Aside from protecting cells from damage, catechin can lower blood pressure and aid in weight maintenance.
While green tea is typically consumed as a hot beverage, there are ways to switch things up. Add honey, fruits, lemon, or a cinnamon stick for more flavor. Combine it with other teas for a delicious brew that’s all your own. Stir in milk for a creamy finish, or order a matcha latte at your favorite cafe. Feeling adventurous? Blend it with yogurt and frozen fruit for the ultimate immune-boosting smoothie.
When it comes to cooking, spices go a long way. With a flick of the wrist, they transform dishes by bringing in major flavor and color. To top it off, spices such as turmeric can also help your health and wellness. Known as an immune-boosting spice, turmeric is one to reach for this cold season.
Turmeric comes from the ginger root family and is native to southwest India. The Journal of Clinical Immunology attributes turmeric’s abilities to one of its components, curcumin. Like garlic, curcumin has been shown to activate white blood cells in times of need. Even at low doses, curcumin can also halt the growth of bacteria, according to the Journal of Periodontology. By keeping bad bacteria at bay, your immune system can protect you from a problem before it even starts.
Add this peppery, mustardy spice to scrambled eggs, stews, rice, or pasta. Curry, which gets its color from turmeric, is also a savory option. Turmeric has a strong, rich flavor; a little goes a long way.
With this diverse list of immune-boosting foods, you’ll be able to take on the chilly weather in stride. They’re easy ways to give your immune system the right tools to do its job. And the more you help your body out, the more it will help you.
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