When you're under the weather, your body needs immune-supportive nutrients to fight off a cold or virus. While foods can't prevent, treat or magically cure your illness, what you eat can soothe your symptoms and potentially help you bounce back quicker.
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Here, we share nine foods that'll help — and three that can hinder — your recovery.
Especially when you're fighting an infection, you need to stay hydrated. Drinking fluids helps every system in your body function at its best, carries much-needed nutrients to your cells and aids in flushing bacteria, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Next to water, there's nothing better than a warm, comforting cup of tea. "Drinking tea can help restore hydration, which is important for recovery, as well as soothe digestion and a sore throat," Lisa Moskovitz, RDN, founder and CEO of The NY Nutrition Group, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
And, depending on what ails you, sipping specific kinds of teas may mitigate your symptoms. For example, peppermint tea, which contains menthol, can ease an upset stomach, while black tea, rich in flavonoids, combats inflammation and supports healthy immune function, according to Penn Medicine.
For an extra dose of immune-boosting power, squeeze some honey into your teacup. "Not only does it make tea taste a whole lot better, but it also contains natural antiviral and antibacterial properties that could help you fight off sickness a little faster," Moskovitz says.
Honey has antimicrobial as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, per a review in the April-June 2017 issue of Pharmacognosy Research.
And honey can calm your cough, too. Case in point: A half teaspoon of honey before bedtime worked as well as a cough suppressant for children (over 1 year old), per research published in the December 2014 issue of Canadian Family Physician.
That said, adults may need to up their dose to get the same soothing, throat-coating effect. Just don't overdo it on the drizzle — honey comes with a heap of sugar and calories.
Not only does garlic enhance your food's flavor, it could also improve your immune system too. Yup, this pantry staple boasts natural antibacterial properties and can protect you from pathogens like bacteria that can cause infections, Moskovitz says.
If you're not a fan of raw garlic, there are alternatives: Aged garlic extract may boost your immune cell function and, subsequently, reduce the severity of a cold, according to June 2012 research in Clinical Nutrition.
When you're feeling foul, a few fungi might help you feel better. "Mushrooms, particularly shirataki mushrooms, have an array of important vitamins, minerals and enzymes that help your body function at its peak," Moskovitz says. "Additionally, research shows they can enhance the immune system for natural protection against different types of infections."
She's right. Eating shiitake mushrooms could improve immunity, as evidenced by an increase in the production of antibodies as well as cell proliferation and activation shown in an April 2015 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
5. Citrus Fruits
"Packed with immune-boosting vitamin C, citrus fruits can help your body defend itself against certain infections," Moskovitz says.
In fact, taking daily vitamin C supplements, which have an anti-histamine effect, can ease the severity of a cold and shorten its duration by about 8 percent, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
That said, "mega-doses of vitamin C won't cure any viruses or infections you are already suffering from," Moskovitz explains. In other words, if you're already under the weather, overindulging in oranges won't be much help. Better to consume vitamin C regularly as a preventive measure.
"Ginger has been linked to a stronger antibody response, meaning that it can help defend the body against potential viruses," Moskovitz says.
The pungent root can destroy common bacteria and pathogens, according to a June 2017 article in the International Journal of Molecular Science.
And if you're dealing with nausea and/or vomiting, ginger can be an effective and safe treatment, especially for individuals whose symptoms are related to pregnancy or chemotherapy, per a March 2016 study in Integrative Medicine Insights.
7. Probiotic-Rich Foods
Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kombucha contain gut-healthy probiotics, which can help keep your immune system strong, Moskovitz says. But how? Well, your gut plays a major role in your immune system, and probiotics — which are rich in good bacteria — strengthen your gut flora.
If you can stomach it, shellfish should be at the top of your shopping list when you're sick. That's because they're one of the best sources of zinc, an essential immunity nutrient, Moskovitz says. Your body needs zinc to produce T-lymphocytes (the white blood cells that fight infection), according to the NIH.
Hard to find in natural food sources, the healthy mineral is abundant in shellfish like oysters, which boast more zinc per serving than any other food, per the NIH.
If you abstain from shellfish for religious or health reasons, ask your doctor about zinc supplements.
9. Chicken Soup
Rich in the antioxidant carnosine and its derivative anserine, chicken soup and chicken breast extracts could aid in "thinning out and clearing mucus in the nasal passages," says Pauline Jose, MD, a clinical instructor at UCLA and family medicine specialist at pH Labs, a national nonprofit health information organization.
What's more, "the protein in chicken helps provide the body with energy to recover" and "the fluids in the soup aid in the body's hydration, which can help in its recuperation from illness, including the flu," says Denise Pate, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician with Medical Offices of Manhattan.
Foods to Avoid When You're Sick
The following everyday foods may do you more harm than good when you're fighting off an infection.
1. Artificial Sweeteners
"While they may help you keep sugar and calories low, if you're feeling under the weather, you might want to steer clear of artificial sweeteners," Moskowitz says.
"Artificial sweeteners can cause additional gastric distress and potentially contribute to pounding headaches," she explains.
A cold scoop of ice cream may sound like the perfect solution to soothe a sore throat, but milk-based foods might make your symptoms worse, especially if you're congested.
Though "studies show dairy doesn't necessarily increase mucus production, it can thicken it," Moskovitz says. So, "If you're already dealing with a stuffy nose or sinus pressure, it might help to switch to dairy-free alternatives for the time being."
"While you might be grasping at caffeine to get you through the day when you're sick, keep in mind that excessive amounts can cause an upset stomach and mild dehydration," Moskovitz says.
Because staying hydrated is essential to recovery, taking in caffeine is a major no-no. That means giving up or limiting coffee, chocolate, soda and other caffeinated drinks during the duration of your cold.
Not to mention, "caffeine can also suppress appetite, and if you're sick, you don't want to miss out on key immunity nutrients like C, zinc and antioxidants" that your body gets through nutritious whole foods, Moskovitz says.
- Clinical Nutrition: “Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and γδ-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition intervention.”
- Penn Medicine: “The Hidden Health Benefits of Tea.”
- Canadian Family Physician: “Honey for treatment of cough in children.”
- International Journal of Molecular Science: “Antibacterial and Antifungal Activities of Spices.”
- Integrative Medicine Insights: “The Effectiveness of Ginger in the Prevention of Nausea and Vomiting during Pregnancy and Chemotherapy.”
- Journal of the American College of Nutrition:” Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults.”
- Current Opinion in Gastroenterology: “Probiotics and immune health.”
- National Institutes of Health: “Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The importance of staying hydrated"
- Pharmacognosy Research: "Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research"