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Boost Your Immune System to Beat the Flu!

MJ O'Leary


Sore throat, stiff neck, aches and chills — we know all too well the early and uncomfortable signs of the flu.

While NyQuil and DayQuil may provide relief, these products are loaded with ingredients you don’t want in your body (high fructose corn syrup and food dyes to name a few). But let’s back up…

Why are some people knocked down by a cold or flu several times a year while others skate through winter with barely a sniffle? Aside from the flu shot (which is between 40 and 60 percent effective) what can you do to protect yourself?

Here are tips to keep yourself healthy this winter — and to share with your college student!

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

We are continually exposed to a wide range of viruses. Whether we actually come down with the flu is a function of the strength of our immune system, which acts as a barrier between our body and invaders that can make us sick.

To effectively squash the flu virus before it can take hold, our immune system needs to be in top shape.

Insufficient sleep, chronic stress and a diet of processed food will weaken our immune system. Common sense measures like eating a plant-rich diet, drinking lots of water, maintaining a physically active lifestyle and getting plenty of sleep will boost our immune system.

  • Frequent hand washing is a great offensive play. I’m not a fan of hand sanitizers. Most hand sanitizers expose us to harmful chemicals and, when it comes to fighting the flu, are less effective than regular soap and water. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times a day.
  • Adding moisture to the air in your home can increase your resistance to infection during flu season. The combination of cold temperatures and dry air (low humidity) accelerate the spread of influenza. This explains why flu outbreaks are concentrated in the winter months. Invest in a humidifier with a built-in humidistat to help maintain a healthy humidity level (between 40 and 60 percent is recommended as too much humidity can lead to mold). This would make a great gift for your college student's dorm room as well.

Nutrient Rich Foods Boost Your Immune System

Your immune system depends on a wide range of nutrients to function properly. These foods supply critical vitamins and minerals (aim for 7+ servings of fruits and veggies each day):

Vitamin A: Sweet potato, carrots, spinach, kale, beet and mustard greens, Swiss chard, winter squash, romaine lettuce, bok choy, cantaloupe, bell peppers, parsley

Vitamin B2: Spinach, beet greens, tempeh, cremini and shiitake mushrooms, eggs, asparagus, Swiss chard, bok choy, almonds, romaine lettuce

Vitamin B6: Turkey, salmon, spinach, sweet potato and other varieties of potato, bananas, Brussels sprouts, lentils, pistachios, sunflower and sesame seeds,cauliflower, avocado

Vitamin B9: Lentils, beans (pinto, garbanzo, navy, black, kidney), asparagus, spinach, kiwi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce, papaya

Vitamin B12: Sardines, salmon, tuna, scallops, lamb, beef

Vitamin C: Papaya, kiwi, red peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruits, berries, kale, parsley, pineapple, cauliflower, mango, melon, cabbage

Vitamin D: Salmon, sardines, eggs, shiitake mushrooms

The list of foods that provide vitamin D is small (although you will find some D-fortified foods) as most of our vitamin D supply comes from sunlight. This is difficult in northern climates during the winter, so supplementation may be necessary.  Ask your physician to check your levels as part of your yearly physical and to provide guidance on supplementation if necessary as researchers have identified a link between low vitamin D level and increased risk of respiratory infection.

Vitamin E: Sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, asparagus, avocado, peanuts, olive oil, broccoli, Swiss chard, beet and mustard greens

Quercetin: Apples, plums, red grapes, green tea, elder flower, onions

A number of studies highlight quercetin's ability to prevent and treat cold and flu.

Zinc: Beef, lamb, shiitake and cremini mushrooms, sesame and pumpkin seeds, spinach, asparagus, garbanzo beans, cashews, lentils, turkey, quinoa, oatmeal

Zinc helps to weaken the flu virus. A diet low in zinc can suppress the activity of the immune system. Most adults in the U.S. are zinc deficient. 

Healthy Replacements for NyQuil and DayQuil

Ginger, lemon and honey are a potent combination. Start with a cup of warm water, add two teaspoons of raw honey, grate in some fresh ginger, and squeeze in a wedge of lemon. You can also open two capsules of Ester-C (a version of vitamin C that is highly absorbable and easier on digestion) and mix in for an added boost. Drink every few hours as needed.

Elderberry syrup can help alleviate cold and flu symptoms. When elderberry is used within the first 48 hours of developing symptoms, duration may be shortened on an average of four days.

Thyme is one of the strongest natural antimicrobials, making it effective in calming sore throats. Add a few sprigs of fresh thyme to hot water, cover and let steep for ten minutes.

Oregano essential oil is excellent for supporting respiratory health. If you have a cough or congestion, oregano oil can help ease breathing. If you are new to essential oils, there are two important rules to follow. ALWAYS dilute oregano oil with a carrier oil (coconut, olive, avocado) if applying to your body. And you get what you pay for: look for USDA-certified organic. You can also add a few drops to a diffuser. Learn more.

Any combination of the above will help put you — or your college student — on the road to recovery!

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    MJ O'Leary is founder and executive director of wellnessmultiplied. A certified Integrative Health and Wellness coach and mother of four, MJ has a BA in psychology from Gettysburg College, a certification in finance from the University of Chicago, and is a 2017 graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

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