You wake up with a scratchy throat, body aches and an overall run-down feeling and immediately begin to think of ways to knock out whatever virus is looming so you can make it to work the next day or enjoy the upcoming weekend with your family.
Before heading out the grocery store to pick up some over-the-counter medicine, take a look in your pantry and fridge and make a list of these 11 immunity-building foods for a natural way to get your body back to optimal health.
By stocking your shelves with foods containing disease-fighting nutrients you are creating a win-win situation by not only opening the door to wellness within your body but also enjoying the taste of nutritious foods.
"Nutrition plays an important part in maintaining immune function," explained George L. Blackburn, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the division of nutrition at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts in an article published by CNN Health. "Insufficiency in one or more essential nutrients may prevent the immune system from functioning at its peak."
David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Connecticut added:
There is no one magic food or pill that will make you resistant to colds and viruses, yet a plateful of nutritionally packed fruits, vegetables and antioxidant-rich herbs, drinks and snack options is one of the best immunity-building line of defenses that you can weave into your life on a daily basis.
To help you build and maintain a healthy body year-round, below is a list of some of the best "super foods" to incorporate into your daily diet and recipes.
1.) Greek Yogurt
The vitamin D benefits you consume from just one cup of yogurt a day can reduce your risk of getting a cold. When looking for a yogurt to buy, look for live and active cultures on the label as some research has shown these may work to trigger the immune system to help ward off diseases.
These live active cultures (also known as probiotics) are the healthy bacteria that protect and line your intestinal tract to keep it clear of disease-causing germs and improve your immune response by increasing the white blood cell count in the body.
Remember, 70 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive system. This means that if your gut is overrun with bad bacteria, there's a good chance your immune system will not be functioning at its best. Eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt can help keep your digestive system functioning at its peak.
Look for plain Greek yogurt, as opposed to flavored varieties, as you'll avoid excess sugar and sweeteners.
2.) Sweet Potatoes
Not only do they taste good, but sweet potatoes are gaining a lot of attention for their nutritional health benefits including high fiber content. Eating one sweet potato with the skin on is equivalent to the amount of fiber in a half cup of oatmeal, resulting in fewer bouts of constipation and reducing the risks of diverticulosis and colon and rectal cancers.
This dark orange member of the vegetable family is also a rich source of vitamin A (beta carotene). The amount of antioxidant beta-carotene found in sweet potatoes wipes out potentially damaging free radicals, works to slow down the aging process and in some studies has been shown to reduce the risk of certain types of cancers.
Despite the fact they are made up of 90 percent water, these fungi are packed with immune-bolstering punch. With the mineral selenium, antioxidants and the B vitamins riboflavin and niacin, research has shown that mushrooms can aid in a variety of important immune functions such as suppressing both breast and prostate cancers and decreasing the size of tumors.
In a CNN Health article, Clare Hasler, Ph.D., a well-known expert in functional foods and executive director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California, Davis, pointed out that mushrooms offer a healthy helping of the blood-pressure-lowering mineral potassium.
"Most people might be surprised to learn that while orange juice is touted as one of the highest potassium foods, one medium Portobello mushroom actually has more potassium," said Hasler. "And five white button mushrooms have more potassium than an orange."
Although virtually all mushrooms are good for your immune system, shitake mushrooms appear particularly beneficial. An active compound in shitakes called lentinan has been found to boost the immune system. In fact, studies have found this compound to be even more effective than prescription drugs for treating flu and other viruses, and it may improve the immune systems of people with HIV.
The bottom line is although they may not look attractive, these fungi are full of healthy nutrients that strengthen your immune system.
Almonds are another excellent source of riboflavin and niacin B vitamins but in addition contain 50 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin E that works to elevate your immune system.
And if you've had a stress-filled day, just a handful of these nuts or 1/4 cup has been shown to lessen the effects of stress. Also the rich amount of antioxidants found in almonds is comparable to those found in several fruits and vegetables. Researchers at Tufts University discovered that a handful of almonds equals the amount of antioxidants as a serving of cooked broccoli!
Since almonds are considered a low-glycemic food, they may also contribute to improved blood sugar levels after eating a high-carbohydrate meal. Proper blood sugar levels help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Another study revealed that almonds play a key role in keeping cholesterol levels in check by reducing LDL -- otherwise known as "bad" -- cholesterol, similar to the effects of using a cholesterol-lowering medication.
5.) Green Tea
Drinking a cup of green tea not only produces soothing effects on the body but also several health benefits due to its rich antioxidants. One of its powerful antioxidant flavonoids called epigallocatechin (EGCG) has been linked to anti-inflammatory effects, acting as a line of defense for the body and protecting it from the common cold and flu.
In your body, flavonoids act as powerful antioxidants that neutralize damage from free radicals. They're known to:
- Help protect your blood vessels from rupture or leakage
- Enhance the power of vitamin C
- Protect your cells from oxygen damage
- Prevent excessive inflammation in your body
Studies have also found an association between consuming green tea and a reduced risk for several cancers including skin, breast, lung, colon, esophageal, and bladder.
Drinking green tea is also good for your heart. According to one Chinese study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, there was a 46-65 percent reduction in hypertension risk in regular consumers of green tea, compared to non-consumers of tea.
Plant-derived antioxidants abundant in green tea, particularly catechins, have been found to have stronger disease-fighting properties than vitamins C and E, play a significant role in reducing the risk of heart disease by blocking the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and improving artery function.
6.) Wild Salmon
The American Heart Association calls salmon a heart-healthy food, rich in omega-3 fats, and recommends eating it twice a week, especially for those at risk of cardiovascular disease. In a study of heart failure participants reported by the American Heart Association it was discovered that after one year of receiving omega-3 supplements, heart patients showed a 10.4 percent increase in heart function, compared with a 5 percent decrease among those taking placebo.
Other research has revealed that omega-3 fatty acids like those found in wild salmon decrease arrhythmia, triglyceride levels and slow the rate of plaque buildup. If you need more reasons to start eating salmon you can choose from one of the following: it's low in calories, contains a lot of protein, is a good source of iron and is very low in saturated fat.
When shopping for your salmon be sure to pick out wild salmon over farm-raised for health and safety reasons. Studies have shown that wild salmon contains more of the healthy omega 3s than farm-raised salmon. Farm raised salmon, on the other hand, accumulates more cancer-causing PCBs and dioxins -- in some cases up to 16 times more -- than in wild salmon.
7.) Spinach and Broccoli
Winter marks the peak season for broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. You can easily add these staple vegetables to your salads, rice, soup or side dishes. Broccoli is loaded with a myriad of healthy antioxidants including vitamins A, C, E and K, strong anti-cancer agents and glucosinolates that work to stimulate the body's immune system. All of these nutrients work together in harmony to keep your body and immune system working at its peak level.
Popeye the Sailor Man had the right idea by eating his spinach, too, to stay big and strong and now research is showing that he could have also reaped the benefits of healthier hair follicles from its abundance of vitamins A and C, which produce an oily substance called sebum that acts as a built-in natural hair conditioner.
This superfood also contains folate, a nutrient that plays a key role in generating new cells, repairing DNA and producing red blood cells. Folate also works at fighting depression and keeping your brain in a youthful state by slowing down the effects of aging.
8.) Grapefruit and Oranges
Fill your body with vitamin C and protect yourself from cold and flu season by having a grapefruit with your breakfast. This nutrient-dense fruit is packed with flavonoids and natural chemical compounds that have been found to increase the activation of the immune system.
If grapefruit is too tart for your taste buds then pick up a bag of oranges or tangerines to optimize your immunity, or if you're in the midst of fighting off a cold, possibly shorten its duration with these vitamin C-enriched foods.
One important thing to keep in mind is that your body isn't able to store vitamin C, so you need to replenish it every day with healthy citrus fruits and vegetables.
Citrus fruits also offer your body a great source of fiber to help move things along the digestive tract. They have even been shown to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood and lower the risks of certain types of cancer.
9.) Berry-Oxidants -- Blue, Elder and Acai
Out of all the fruit families, blueberries rank the highest in antioxidants, protecting against damage caused by free radicals that may lead to dangerous health conditions such as blood vessel disease and some cancers. A few blueberries go a long way -- just one cup supplies you with 14 percent of the recommended dose of daily fiber and almost a quarter of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.
These wonder berries are also responsible for slowing down the normal aging process while warding off age-related diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. They may also reverse some effects of brain-aging diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease by helping improve memory and concentration.
A relative of the blueberry, the acai berry (native to Central and South America) has been stirring up antioxidant activity of its own with research showing it may help prevent diseases resulting from oxidative stress such as heart disease and cancer.
The richly colored elderberry, native to North America, grows on trees referred to as "the medicine chest." It boasts anti-viral capabilities and an abundant source of flavonoids (quercetin and anthocyanins) that work in sync with its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, fending off viruses and activating immune cells. One of the components of elderberries, lectins, has been proven in laboratory tests to stop the reproduction of 10 different strains of the flu virus.
This strong-smelling food will not only temporarily keep romance at bay, but also infections, colon and stomach cancers and bacteria, fungal and parasitic infections.
Often touted as a miracle food, garlic contains powerful antioxidants that battle foreign invaders from the body such as H. pylori, bacteria associated with certain ulcers and stomach cancers. Its immunity-building properties provide your body built-in anti-tumor and antioxidant properties that forge a wall against daily wear and tear on the body.
11.) Immune-Boosting Supplements
Fresh whole fruits and veggies are among your best sources of immunity-building nutrients, but you can also help fortify your immune system health with high-quality supportive supplements.
Ask you Doctor which supplements would be best for your identified deficiencies including what amounts. Be certain your Doctor also knows exactly what medications you are taking to assure there are no possible health concerns that could be caused by a supplement.