The ‘old wives’ tale’ of a warm drink of honey and lemon may have some truth for naturally fighting off coughs and colds. The foods we eat can have such an impact on immune function that it is important that we have the right nutrients going into the body to support it properly.
Keeping illness at bay may be possible for some individuals with a healthy diet and plenty of water, a stress-free lifestyle and enough sleep. In reality, however, our busy stress ridden and sleep deprived habits can make us more susceptible to catching a cough or cold. If you feel like you are coming down with something and want to knock it on the head quickly, here are a few food suggestions to help to support your body’s natural defence mechanisms.
The active ingredient released from garlic when crushed, chopped or chewed is allicin, which is a strong antimicrobial. If you don’t fancy eating raw garlic, as it may keep your friends away as well as those bugs, don’t worry, cooked garlic (less of a problem socially) also contains some allicin. For the best immune results, aged black garlic has the highest levels of antioxidants and has shown the strongest immune stimulating activities (1). Aged black garlic can be eaten raw and has the added bonus of almost no garlic aftertaste or smell. Garlic can also be bought in supplement form.
Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables
The message of five fruits and vegetables a day has certainly been around for a long time, but for a very good reason. Most of us could do with eating a few extra fruits and vegetables to improve our general immune health. If you are trying to fight off an infection, choose the most nutrient dense fruits and vegetables to get high doses of antioxidants from these foods. Peppers, chillies, berries, broccoli, sweet potatoes and dark leafy green vegetables are particularly high in vitamins C and A, which are essential for proper immune function.
Derived from the nectar of the manuka tree grown in New Zealand and Australia, manuka honey is best known for its antibacterial properties. The major antibacterial component of manuka honey is methylglyoxal, which has even been shown to be effective against forms of MRSA (2). The ‘unique manuka factor’ (UMF) labeled on manuka honey identifies the strength of the antibacterial properties, so the higher number, the higher the potency. The UMF usually ranges from 5 to 20. The antibacterial properties of manuka honey are not very heat stable, so it is best consumed cold, or in lukewarm water, i.e. not straight out of the kettle!
The root of a flowering plant, ginger is rich in antioxidants, as well as being anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, so is an all round good contestant when you are feeling ill. If you are feeling nauseous, ginger has proven itself particularly good at reducing feelings of nausea and vomiting (3). Try adding ginger to cooked meals, ginger tea or supplements.
Zinc rich foods
Zinc is a very important mineral for the immune system and deficiencies are very common. If you
already consume sufficient zinc in your diet, taking extra zinc when you get a cold may not necessarily have a significant effect, however for those who have fairly low levels in their diet, boosting intake during an ill episode may help to reduce the duration of an infection (4). Zinc is found in good amounts in seafood, beef, lamb, spinach, nuts and seeds. If you take zinc in supplement form, take at least 75mg per day temporarily, for the days you feel ill. Supplementing 10mg per day long term may be an adequate dose to prevent illness.
Who would have thought that bacteria can actually help your body to fight off infections? Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, which help to populate the gut and provide your body’s first line of defence against illness. High doses of probiotics can be taken in supplement form, and also the friendly bacteria are naturally occurring in probiotic (live) yoghurt. Probiotics taken long term are especially effective at reducing the risk of catching a cold in the first place (5).
Beta-glucans are a type of fibre found in high quantities in oats, and may help to trigger the immune system. Beta-glucans are also powerful antioxidants, and can be found in other grains such as barley, as well as in mushrooms.
A perfect day’s immune-boosting meals
Breakfast – Berries, probiotic yoghurt, oats, ground linseeds and a drizzle of manuka honey.
Lunch – Spinach salad with pumpkin seeds, roasted sweet potato and smoked mackerel
Dinner – A stir-fry with plenty of garlic, ginger, chillies, onions, broccoli and peppers, with beef or cashew nuts.
Drink throughout the day – Warm water with grated ginger, juice of ½ lemon, manuka honey (added at the end).