Foods That Help Boost Your Immune System During Cold and Flu Season
Most of the time, this column focuses on food as joy, whether it’s the taste or the gathering we have around it.
I’m going to interrupt this regular lineup with a little detour as we head into cold, fall weather and a winter season that may be post-pandemic, but is still full of opportunities for us to get sick. That’s because food can be so much more than momentary bliss. According to many researchers and professionals, it can concretely contribute to feeling better and have a significant impact on our overall health. (You are what you eat, right?)
Before we dive into this, please consider this my “I’m not a medical professional” disclaimer. I’m not. I am a food lover and a journalist who likes to ask questions and a person who would rather eat a hot bowl of soup than take cold medicine. With a keen awareness of the fragility of our health, it seems many of us share a sense of wanting to know how best to take care of the only bodies we will have.
Foods that boost the immune system are not a new trend. And there’s tons of research on the benefits of certain food groups that can boost the immune system and help achieve the goal of “staying healthy.” According to the Mayo Clinicthings like beta-carotene, vitamins C and D, zinc, and probiotics, including dairy products like yogurt, and fermented foods, like kefir and kimchi, are all nutrients that play a role in strengthening the immune system.
Luckily, we also have amazing resources here in Louisville from people like trained physician assistant and licensed herbalist Myron Hardesty of weeds of eden, 7505 New LaGrange Road. The Health/Life Coach helps clients feel better using a holistic approach to health and wellness with a strong focus on clinical nutrition.
Hardesty shared some of his insights into “food as health” with me in a recent heated conversation. In reality, however, his advice boiled down to this: warming foods (both hot and what he called energetically hot, or heat-inducing like fiery spices) are our friends when it comes to staying in good health.
Yes, it really is that simple. But let’s go back.
Here are some of my top takeaways on how to use food to stay healthy this cold and flu season.
Is spicy food good for your immune system?
“First,” says Hardesty, “it’s helpful to consider how we see immunity working in our bodies and try to mimic or support those efforts.”
What often happens when we start to get sick, he says, is that we see our body’s reaction – say, the fever and the sniffles – as symptoms, “and then confuse the symptoms with the illness itself. same”.
While most of us will take “some kind of fever reducer,” in order to keep going, “it actually works against the body’s age-old evolved healing mechanisms,” he says. “The fever is actually designed to help the body basically clear an infection from the body.”
These incredibly intelligent bodies also have another response when we’re “confronted with an unwanted invader,” says Hardesty. Can you guess?
It is “the triggering of mucus production as a means of isolating infections, binding them into a ball of snot…and then launching that ball of mucus directly out of the body through the mechanism of the cough reflex.”
You already know what we do when we cough. Yes, we take a cough suppressant and something to dry up the mucus. This, he explains, allows “the virus to proliferate and settle deeper inside the body … and restrict[s] our ability to isolate and eliminate the invader.”
If we look to older cultures with traditionally established systems of medicine, says Hardesty, the answer, rather than an Advil and a cough drop, is to warm the body. Eating foods like garlic, ginger, horseradish, and peppers “will increase circulation, especially to the gut and lungs where most infections invade, and cause the white blood cell cluster to ward off potential invaders.”
Opting for the spicy stuff that makes us sweat “will also help thin mucus to make it easier to expel from the body,” he says.
Is it good to eat hot or lukewarm food when you are sick?
We can also eat foods that are actually hot. There’s a reason Grandma gave us chicken noodle soup when we were sick. Include root vegetables like carrots and beets to boost infection-fighting powers, says Hardesty.
Also, a big bowl of pho (from your favorite Vietnamese restaurant if you’re not ready to make your own) does the trick in several ways, including a generous garnish of herbs that pack their own antimicrobial punch, says Hardesty.
Are proteins, meat good for your immune system?
What else? Meat heats up, and the fats and proteins found especially in red meat are beneficial for healing, says Hardesty.
A former vegetarian, “I’ll be explicit,” he says. “Meat is medicine.” (Don’t @me; “the wheels fall off the idea that dietary cholesterol or saturated fat contributes to mortality or morbidity,” says Hardesty).
That said, there are still plenty of reasons to avoid many types of meat, and mushrooms are not only a fantastic alternative, but “they’re at a peak” right now for their preventative powers and ability to fight off infections, says Hardesty.
Want the best of both worlds? Try a steak topped with mushroom sauce!
How about a giant, delicious immunity bomb? Try something like a stew.
Funnily enough, we had done just that in my own house before speaking with Hardesty. A Moroccan roast beef my husband made for Sunday supper with roasted vegetables made so many leftovers that we made a stew the next day. This concoction (no recipe, sorry, it was literally all that was left warmed with more beef broth and puffed up with chickpeas then sprinkled with fresh herbs) ticked all the boxes.
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Hot temperature: check. Red meat: check. Warm up the Ras El Hanout spices (a Moroccan spice mix that we bought in Logan Street Market): Check. Root vegetables: check.
It was so delicious, we ate it for three days in a row.
With Hardesty’s advice in mind, and winter looming in drafty old Victorian Louisville that you’d have to win the lottery to get warm enough, I look forward to warming dishes like Taiwanese beef noodle soup that we are preparing to usher in the cold weather. And now I won’t just feel happy eating them because they taste good, but because they’ll help me stay healthy and healthy with the people I love.
Tell it to Dana! Send your restaurant “dish” to Dana McMahan at [email protected] and follow @bourbonbarbarella on Instagram.