Shore Up Your Defenses: What to Eat to Support Your Immune Health
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
You may take it for granted, but your immune system does battle with potentially harmful bacteria and viruses 24/7. Here are some simple strategies to give it a fighting chance.
You’ve heard the old wives’ tale: Feed a cold, starve a fever. Or is it the other way around? Actually, it’s neither. Certain foods and nutrients can help you head off colds and flu and recover faster when you do get sick.
Protein-packed foods. Protein provides the raw materials to make the cells that fight off germs that may make you sick. Aim for about six ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or seafood in your daily eating plan (in addition to three servings of dairy foods, which are also rich in protein), or the equivalent, such as eggs, beans, and soy products. Include protein-packed choices at meals and snacks.
Multivitamins. Your immune system requires an array of nutrients to work properly. Nobody eats a balanced diet every day, and sometimes you may have gaps in your eating plan that affect immune health. Taking a daily multivitamin that provides a wide variety of vitamins and minerals helps you to meet your daily requirements for nutrients that support immune health, including vitamin C. For example, people who do not eat the suggested five servings of fruits and vegetables combined daily may not satisfy the recommended daily intake for vitamin C, and may benefit from a modest dietary supplement. This is especially true for cigarette smokers, who have higher vitamin C requirements.
Milk and other vitamin D-rich foods. Vitamin D may play an important role in immune health, as several types of immune cells have vitamin D receptors. Vitamin D may also stimulate the production of immune cells and other components of the immune system, helping to guard against infection. Vitamin D is found naturally in few foods, including eggs, tuna, and salmon, but is added to milk and some yogurts. The suggested daily intake for vitamin D is 15 mcg, which is the equivalent of six, eight-ounce glasses of milk, four ounces of cooked sockeye salmon or about 14 eggs. Dietary supplements can help you meet your daily vitamin D needs. (Source: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/)
A balanced diet goes a long way to strengthening the immune system, but other lifestyle habits count, too.
Work it out. Regular, moderate exercise may help to bolster your defenses against colds and flu. Physical activity is also helpful for managing the stress that may disturb your sleep and run down your immune system, making you more susceptible to germs.
Get your ZZZ’s. Rest and relaxation supports the immune system. People need different amounts of sleep, but most adults need between seven and eight hours nightly.
Snuff the butts. Smokers may be more prone to catching colds. Once they are sick, smokers may have a harder time healing.
Wash your hands. Lather up with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating or preparing food. Frequent hand washing helps prevent the spread of germs.
Take a shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone six months of age and older needs the flu (Source: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm#high-risk) vaccine. It’s especially important for some people to get vaccinated, including pregnant women, those over age 65, and people with medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.
Arcavi L and Benowitz N. Cigarette Smoking and Infection. Arch Intern Med 2004;164:2206-2216. http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/164/20/2206
National Sleep Foundation. How Much Sleep Do Adults Need? http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/white-papers/how-much-sleep-do-adults-need
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hand Washing: Clean Hands Saves Lives http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/