Nutrition Solutions for a Healthy Immune System

Fall is upon us and you know what that means…winter is just around the corner! Sniffles and sneezes and coughs, oh my! With COVID-19 still lurking and the world attempting to “return to normal”, perhaps prematurely, many people are wondering what they can do to stay as healthy as possible. 

We know that diet and nutrition play a large role in preventing illness. While there is not one food or supplement that will ward off viruses completely, there are some nutritional interventions that may reduce your risk of upper respiratory infections,  or at least shorten the duration, should you become ill.

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1. Vitamin C.  This essential micronutrient and antioxidant is often promoted for protecting against the common cold. Scientific data supports vitamin C as an effective way to decrease the duration of a cold when taken daily at 200mg. However, its role in preventing a cold has not been proven yet. In order to reap the benefits of vitamin C, include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Berries, citrus, mango, kiwi, tomatoes, broccoli, and bell peppers are rich in this antioxidant. 

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2. Echinacea. While the scientific data are mixed, some studies have shown this herb to be effective in preventing upper respiratory infections and others have shown a reduction in duration and severity of symptoms

Anecdotally, when I drink a cup of echinacea tea at the first symptom of a cold–a scratchy throat or a plugged nostril–the symptoms have not developed further in many cases. I usually repeat for a couple of nights.  Since incorporating echinacea tea, I have also found that the number of colds that I get throughout the year is considerably less. I did not make any other changes to my diet or sleep schedule that would have influenced this occurrence. The results speak for themselves and I will continue to use this remedy. If you decide to try echinacea, make sure that your doctor is aware, as it may interact with certain heart medications.  Side effects, while rare, may include rash, nausea, or upset stomach.

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3. Probiotics.  Affectionately known as “good bacteria”, probiotics are associated with several health benefits, including healthy digestion, improved gut motility, and restoration of the balance of microflora naturally present in our bodies.  There is also evidence that probiotics have antiviral effects, implicating their use in the prevention and treatment of upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold and flu viruses. Although probiotic supplements are available, these beneficial bacteria are also present in a variety of foods.  Fermented foods, including yogurt, tempeh, and sourdough bread, as well as fermented beverages, such as kombucha and kefir, contain probiotics. 

As the research stands, there is promise for all three of these nutritional remedies in the battle against common respiratory infections. However, there is a need for higher quality and more specific studies on each of these interventions to be able to provide more robust public health recommendations.  Fortunately, the safety data on vitamin C and probiotics suggest that side effects are minimal, particularly when these substances are introduced in food form, as opposed to taking a supplement.

With this knowledge, aim to include a fruit or vegetable with every meal to boost your intake of vitamin C and make probiotic-rich foods, like plain Greek yogurt, a regular part of your diet.  Adopting these habits may set you up for your healthiest cold and flu season yet! 

Aucoin M, Cooley K, Saunders PR, Carè J, Anheyer D, Medina DN, Cardozo V, Remy D, Hannan N, Garber A. The effect of Echinacea spp. on the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 and other respiratory tract infections in humans: A rapid review. Adv Integr Med. 2020 Aug 1. doi: 10.1016/j.aimed.2020.07.004. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 32837894; PMCID: PMC7395221.

David S, Cunningham R. Echinacea for the prevention and treatment of upper respiratory tract infections: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2019 Jun;44:18-26. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2019.03.011. Epub 2019 Mar 19. PMID: 31126553.

Hemilä H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 31;(1):CD000980. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4. PMID: 23440782.

Lehtoranta L, Pitkäranta A, Korpela R. Probiotics in respiratory virus infections. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2014 Aug;33(8):1289-302. doi: 10.1007/s10096-014-2086-y. Epub 2014 Mar 18. PMID: 24638909; PMCID: PMC7088122.

Shah SA, Sander S, White CM, Rinaldi M, Coleman CI. Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. Lancet Infect Dis. 2007 Jul;7(7):473-80. doi: 10.1016/S147

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