When you're fighting off an infection, your body needs nutrients and energy to support your immune system, and certain foods can help that healing process.
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Likewise, as you prepare to get the COVID-19 vaccination, you might be wondering whether you should eat (or drink) anything special after your shot to bolster your body's defenses.
First, an important disclaimer: Your diet can't prevent or cure COVID, and it also can't make the vaccine more effective or minimize any side effects.
Still, eating nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods can help support your immune system and aid your body as it does the hard work of forming antibodies post-vaccination. Here, Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist, discusses what to eat (and avoid) after your shot (and really, always) for a robust immune system.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
6 Foods to Reach for Post-Shot
Fresh, whole foods help your body do what it needs to do to keep you healthy:
1. Fruits and Vegetables
Nutrient-packed fruits and veggies "can help strengthen the immune system and allow the body to better fight off illnesses," Dr. Sonpal says.
Specifically, fruit and veg rich in vitamin C can help the body produce more white blood cells (the type that fight infections and diseases), Dr. Sonpal says. Citrus fruits like grapefruits, oranges and lemons contain high levels of vitamin C, but red bell peppers are an even richer source, he says.
What's more, green vegetables like broccoli and spinach are abundant in antioxidants that work to protect your cells from harmful free radicals, Dr. Sonpal says. That's important because free radicals — unstable molecules that damage DNA and proteins within our cells — can cause oxidative stress, which may potentially make you more vulnerable to developing disease, he explains.
"Nuts are great sources of vitamins and minerals that work to support a healthy immune system and a strong heart," Dr. Sonpal says. They also help to keep inflammation at bay.
Indeed, a September 2016 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that regular consumption of nuts was associated with lower amounts of inflammatory biomarkers.
For the best health benefits, nosh on these nuts:
- Almonds are loaded with vitamin E, which works to make the immune system function more efficiently, Dr. Sonpal says.
- Cashews contain high amounts of magnesium, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties and help lower blood pressure for a healthier heart, Dr. Sonpal says.
- Walnuts had the most potent antioxidant activity, outranking almonds, pecans and pistachios, per a February 2012 study in Food & Function.
3. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are packed with omega-3s, heart-healthy fats that can decrease inflammation in the body, lower blood pressure and prevent plaque from clogging arteries, Dr. Sonpal says.
Research shows that omega-3 fats may not only help prevent heart disease and stroke but may also help manage autoimmune illnesses like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and potentially protect against cancer and other conditions, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
4. Chicken Noodle Soup
When you're under the weather, chicken noodle soup is a staple. But there's actual science to back up its healing powers.
"Chicken noodle soup has anti-inflammatory properties that work to help alleviate the symptoms that come with fighting off an illness," Dr. Sonpal says.
For one, the carrots, onion and celery in this soup supply essential minerals like potassium and iron, and they're great sources of beta carotene, which is a form of vitamin A that acts as an antioxidant, Dr. Sonpal says.
Plus, the chicken provides a hefty serving of protein, which helps power antibodies and keep the immune system running efficiently, Dr. Sonpal says.
"Even the broth is beneficial for its hydrating properties and ability to help clear stuffy nasal cavities," he adds.
There's a reason your doctor tells you to drink plenty of fluids when you're fighting an infection.
"Water is vital to ensuring the body can battle foreign cells and diseases," Dr. Sonpal says. "When a person is sick, their body loses water to things like fever, nasal congestion, diarrhea and vomiting, so it is imperative that these lost fluids are replaced."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend drinking lots of H2O after your COVID vaccine to help reduce discomfort from possible side effects like fever.
Plus, staying hydrated can even help strengthen your body's defenses to prevent you from getting sick in the first place.
"Water works to keep the nasal passages moist, so that mucus can fight off viruses and illnesses prior to them entering the body," Dr. Sonpal says.
And water also adds oxygen to the blood, which helps your immune system operate more effectively.
Turns out that pearls aren't the only valuable thing found in oysters.
"Oysters are full of zinc, which is a mineral that works to remove pathogens from the body and help make more proteins to fight viral infections," Dr. Sonpal says.
That's what makes these shellfish a superb food to eat when your immune system needs a little extra support.
Eating raw or undercooked oysters (or other shellfish) puts you at risk for certain infections that can make you very sick, per the CDC. Make sure oysters are fully cooked before you eat them.
2 Foods to Nix (or at Least Limit)
Once you've gotten the vaccine, avoid or practice moderation with the following foods and drinks to help your immune system function at its best.
1. Highly Processed Foods
While potato chips and cookies are OK to eat occasionally, they might not be the best option when you're trying to strengthen your body's immune defenses.
"Highly processed foods can cause spikes in sugar, which in turn cause the immune system to falter," Dr. Sonpal says. "And when the immune system doesn't work at its full capacity, it's far easier for viruses or other harmful pathogens to enter the body."
To make matters worse, highly processed foods also contain inflammatory properties, which hinder the body's ability to fight infections and might potentially worsen symptoms when you're sick, Dr. Sonpal says.
If you're trying to support your immune system, you might want to cool it with the cocktails. That's because alcohol can directly suppress the immune system, Dr. Sonpal says. In other words, your body won't work as efficiently or effectively to fight off viruses and disease.
"Alcohol also eliminates the healthy bacteria within a person's stomach, which makes it more difficult to protect against infection," he adds.
Not to mention that alcohol can dehydrate you, which could make some of the possible vaccine side effects (like body aches) feel worse.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Associations between nut consumption and inflammatory biomarkers”
- Food & Function: “Nuts, Especially Walnuts, Have Both Antioxidant Quantity and Efficacy and Exhibit Significant Potential Health Benefits"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Possible Side Effects After Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Oysters and Vibriosis"