As the world reacts and reels in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—with no known treatments or vaccines yet available—it may be comforting to know that there are some foods you can turn to that can boost your immune function. We are here to guide you and make you aware of the value of proper nutrition in bolstering cellular health and, therefore, immune health.
Here are a few of the foods and spices that you can turn to in these infectious times to give your immune system a fighting chance.
Poultry. Chicken soup is perhaps the quintessential “sick” food. Its origins stretch as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, and is associated with the domestication of fowl, probably in either ancient India or Southeast Asia.
The combination of beneficial ingredients in chicken soup make it the ultimate immune booster. For example, researchers have shown that chicken soup can significantly inhibit neutrophil migration to sites of infection or inflammation in those with symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections. Cysteine, in particular, is an ingredient of chicken that has been shown to stop the movement of white blood cells and decrease the mucus associated with colds.
No list of immune-boosting foods would be complete without a shout-out to poultry, namely chicken or turkey. All poultry is high in vitamin B6, and just 85gr contains up to 50% of the daily recommended amount. Vitamin B6 is important in the formation of new and healthy red blood cells. Chicken soup also contains vitamins A and C, magnesium, phosphorus, and antioxidants, which are all important for immune function. The protein in chicken and turkey also provides you with amino acids, which are used by your body to build antibodies to fight infection. Also, boiling poultry—to make soup—releases gelatine, chondroitin, and other nutrients that help your gut and immune system as well. Chondroitin, for example, is an important component of mucin that affects gut permeability and intestinal immune mediation.
Although canned chicken soup is fine, try to make chicken soup from scratch for the most immune benefits. Fresh is always better!
Mushrooms. Mushrooms are high in selenium and B vitamins, including riboflavin and niacin. All are great for your immune system. Selenium, for example, is an antioxidant that helps lessen oxidative stress, reducing inflammation and enhancing immunity. And vitamin B6 has been shown to support important biochemical reactions in the immune system.
Another plus? Mushrooms are high in polysaccharides, which are sugar-like molecules that boost immune function. The polysaccharides found in mushrooms interact with macrophages, neutrophils, monocytes, and dendritic cells—all big immune system team players. Polysaccharides work to enhance and/or activate the immune responses of these cells and increase the production of reactive oxygen species and enhance cytokine and chemokine secretion.
Shiitake mushrooms, in particular, are a great choice because they are high in the B vitamins, vitamin D, selenium, niacin, and seven of eight essential amino acids. Chaga mushrooms are also an excellent immune-boosting choice. They have the highest concentrations of antioxidants and also contain a high amount of zinc, which is also important for immune function.
Mushrooms are a savory, delicious addition to any meal. You can sauté them with onions, for example, for a welcome side dish to any meal. Or include them in a salad, or just eat straight, with a little dip.
Garlic. Garlic is an important ingredient in nearly every cuisine in the world—and for good reason. Garlic contains the sulfoxide alliin, and when crushed or chewed, alliin turns into allicin. Because allicin is unstable, it converts to sulphur-containing compounds, which are thought to give garlic its medicinal properties. Garlic has been shown to enhance the function of the immune system by stimulating macrophages, lymphocytes, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, and eosinophils. It does so by modulating cytokine secretion, immunoglobulin production, phagocytosis, and macrophage activation.
Garlic is simple to include in most any meal you are preparing. Use it when making roasts, chicken, lamb, and fish. Or even add it to rice or mashed potatoes while boiling for a delicious, flavourful, and healthy kick to your meals.
Citrus fruits. Citrus fruits contain vitamin C, an essential micronutrient. It contributes to the improved health of your immune system by supporting cellular functions in both the innate and adaptive immune system. For example, vitamin C supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens. It may also enhance differentiation and proliferation of the mega-important immune system superstars: B- and T-cells.
Vitamin C may also increase the production of white blood cells, lymphocytes and phagocytes—that protect the body against infection. In addition, vitamin C supplements may prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections. Vitamin C also acts as an antioxidant, helping to fight free radicals that damage the immune system and keep it from functioning properly.
Vitamin C, however, isn’t the only power player found in citrus fruits. Flavonoids plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and free-radical scavenging properties—are another ingredient of citrus fruits that give the immune system a boost by helping to reduce inflammation and speed recovery from illness.
Because your body can neither produce nor store vitamin C, it’s important to consume rich sources of vitamin C daily—especially when you are ill and your levels may be depleted. Citrus fruits, for example, are excellent sources, and include oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and clementine’s. Some other ways of adding some natural vitamin C to your diet include topping a salad with a squeeze of lemon or lime or adding a squeeze of any citrus fruit to a cup of plain water or even tea. All are easy ways to get your daily vitamin C fix.
But, if you’re not a fan of citrus fruits—or if you take certain medications that may adversely interact with citrus fruits or citrus juice—consider taking vitamin C supplements, which are plentiful and easy to find.
The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of Western medicine, once said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
Unfortunately, conventional over-the-counter cold and flu treatments are known to cause unwelcome side-effects that disrupt your digestion, energy levels and sleep. Prolonged use of some of these medications can even contribute to liver damage.
The good news is there are many viable and centuries-proven alternatives that can give your immune system the boost it needs to combat the seasonal sniffles. Natural spices are wonderful because, unlike drugs, you don’t need to “take” them. Instead, you can add them to your favourite dishes for a kick of flavour and increased immunity.
Some of the best spices to help your body bolster immunity levels and fight off viruses, infections and inflammation:
Tumeric: You’ve likely seen turmeric showing up on the labels of today’s trendiest foods ― for good reason. This powerful and flavourful ancient spice gets its vibrant colour from curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory compound with properties rivalling that of ibuprofen, without the side effects.
Turmeric comes from the root of a flowering plant of the ginger family and has been used medicinally for more than 4,500 years. Turmeric remains a staple treatment for skin conditions, digestive issues and bodily discomfort in Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian healing system still practiced today.
The active ingredient, curcumin, boosts the body’s antioxidant capacity by being highly effective against free radicals. Turmeric has also been shown to inhibit fungal growth and suppress tumor cell growth.
Ginger: A ubiquitous ingredient in kitchens around the world, ginger is filled with nutritional properties that greatly benefit your health. Originating from China, ginger contains chemicals called sesquiterpenes that target cold viruses. This immune-boosting spice also has antibacterial properties that can help prevent nausea.
Other functional chemicals include gingerols, shogoal and paradols that have the potential to prevent various cancers. The spice’s anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties help control the process of aging, aid digestion and demonstrate the potential to treat degenerative disorders, as well as cardiovascular disease. Ginger also contains antimicrobial compounds that allow it to help in treating infectious diseases.
Make your own ginger tea by combining fresh ginger root, lemon juice and honey with 12 ounces of boiling water. Our quick and easy go-to recipe is as follows:
- two tablespoons of lemon juice
- two three-inch pieces of raw ginger
We love this tea because it’s quick to prepare, soothing to drink (especially during flu season), and infuses the body and immune system with powerful immune-boosting compounds.
Cayenne Pepper: The distinguishing ingredient in some of your favorite spicy dishes, cayenne pepper is a member of the Capsium family, also known as the chili peppers family. Cayenne peppers contain a high amount of capsaicin that suppresses a neuropeptide involved in inflammatory processes called substance P.
According to a 2015 study, the pepper contributes to digestive health by fighting gastrointestinal pathogens, ulcerations and cancer. It also regulates appetite and digestive function.
Modern herbalists also use cayenne to activate the circulatory system as
a cold and flu treatment. In one tablespoon (5 grams) of cayenne pepper, there
is 44% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.
In addition to its potent immune-boosting nutritional composition, the spice is also an excellent source of beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant. Whatever you decide to use it for, cayenne pepper can be a staple for
Cinnamon: The key ingredient in snickerdoodles and your favorite Starbucks lattes, cinnamon has also been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. Made from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum tree, its use has been dated as far back as ancient Egypt.
Cinnamon fights inflammation and helps ward off infections and heal damaged tissue. Containing large amounts of polyphenol, cinnamon outranked “superfoods” like garlic and oregano in a study comparing the antioxidant activity of 26 spices. Some studies have shown that Cinnamon may have anti-diabetic effects and help cut the risk of heart disease.
While you should first consult your doctor in the event of any abnormalities to your health, these immunity-boosting spices may help bolster a healthy immune system and prep your body for a higher immune response while fighting off infections. If you haven’t already, maybe it’s time to spice up your life.