Healthy You: Eating right can impact cold, flu threats

This is the perfect month to talk about chocolate and all its health benefits.

It is February, after all, when chocolate sales increase by who knows how much! As amazing as chocolate is, however, we will have to save that topic for a different time. The cold and flu season is upon us with a vengeance and what we need more than chocolate right now are ways to fight the flu and cold from your kitchen.

Fighting seasonal bugs is simple math; if you aren’t supplying your body with the things it needs to support your internal army (the immune system), you aren’t going to fare well when the sniffles and coughs come around. Many factors influence your immune system: sleep, stress, exercise, history of infections, age and nutrient status. Nutrient status is directly related to your immune system because it determines what ammunition and reinforcements your immune system has to work with.

Cold and flu medications help to alleviate symptoms and allow you to get the restorative sleep needed to boost the immune system. While helpful, these medications don’t actually aid your immune system in the fight.

It is what you eat before and especially when you have a cold or flu that’s important. Below I’ve listed some foods that support your immune system. Try incorporating them into your weekly routine in an effort to avoid or mitigate this season’s nasty bugs.


This is a gem of the Northwest and can be seen covering local hillsides during the fall hunting seasons.

Studies have shown good efficacy of elderberries to relieve symptoms of the flu four days sooner than without supplementation. It also directly combats the influenza-A bug!

There are different ways to take elderberry, the easiest being a syrup that you can purchase or easily make from the dried or fresh options available (mostly online). Note of caution: Do NOT eat elderberries raw! They contain a compound that will cause vomiting and diarrhea. This compound is removed upon cooking, so make sure you do so if making your own syrup. Also, there are some considerations for people with autoimmune diseases who wish to take elderberry, so do some research, such as online at Web MD, for more info.

Vitamin D

This is a powerful vitamin that is now considered to be a pro-hormone in the body. It has many functions including significantly influencing your immune system’s integrity. It stimulates the maturity of your immune cells and certain antimicrobial proteins regulating infection control. Studies show that there is no coincidence between the low vitamin D status of those living in cold weather climates and the onset of the cold and flu season. The math is simple, if you have low vitamin D, you are more likely to get sick in the winter months.

One proven way to boost your immune system is to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D. If you are curious or concerned, you can easily have your levels checked with a blood test administered by your doctor. While there is still some debate as to the “ideal” number, the Endocrine Society and most other research states that blood values between 30ng/mL and 40 ng/mL are adequate.

Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, shrimp and cod liver oil. Fortified dairy/non-dairy products, liver and even butter contain vitamin D. Shitake mushrooms (especially when sundried) are other good sources.

The best way to improve your vitamin D levels quickly is by supplementing with Vitamin D3 (not D2). I recommend 2,000 IUs daily up to a max of 4,000 IUs, depending on how low your initial levels were. Always check with your doctor first before supplementing and make sure you get retested after you have supplemented for a few months.

There is no benefit in over-supplementing and there can be some adverse side effects if you do.

Vitamin C

Guess where the highest concentration of vitamin C is found in your body’s cells?  Answer: your immune cells, the leukocytes. Your adrenal glands, which get overtaxed when you are stressed or sick, also use vitamin C. So maintaining adequate vitamin C status is important!

You can pop a vitamin C tablet or powder if you want, but truly, it is easy to get from food sources. You can find vitamin C in orange-colored fruits and veggies, including oranges (any citrus, really), yams and winter squash. Also try berries, raw broccoli and dark leafy green veggies.

My new favorite “food supplement” is baobab powder. It is a powder from an African fruit that is very high in vitamin C as well as iron, antioxidants and fiber.  When mixed with warm water it tastes like a citrus tea or an “Emergen-C” powder drink!

Garlic, Onion, Ginger

and Cayenne Pepper

Garlic and onions (especially raw) contain many beneficial compounds, one of them being “allium.” This is responsible for stimulating the immune system’s response in several ways and strengthening it to wage the appropriate response to infections.

Ginger and cayenne pepper are “warming” spices that can help to improve circulation and aid in the drainage of sinuses.

As strange as it sounds, you can create a tonic by combining all of these potent ingredients with a cup of hot water in a blender. Don’t expect it to taste great, but it is no worse than the taste of Nyquil. It opens your sinuses, stops your throat from hurting and actually arms your immune system for the fight.

I have personally tried this and can say, anecdotally, that it appears to help!

Fermented Foods (and Probiotics)

Here we go again. It seems as though I am always talking about fermented foods!

These provide beneficial bacteria the supports your immune system. In short, the good bacteria ferments food in your gut and creates short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These are directly used by the immune cells and a correlation has been found between how many SCFAs are produced and the immune system’s functioning. So add on the yogurt, or take your probiotic. (You may want to double up if you are around sick people!)

Other Food Tips for the Season

It is normal to have a suppressed appetite when you have a cold, so while giant green salad will likely not sound appealing to you, soups and smoothies may. Soups are my favorite. You can add anything you want to them, preferably some of the ingredients we discussed above (and I do recommend avoiding cream soups)! Hot soups open stuffy airways, provide extra hydration, and are easy on your taxed digestion. Overall, soups are comforting and relaxing. For this reason, I recommend soups before smoothies.

So do yourself a favor this flu season and use some of these ingredients and foods in your kitchen to enhance your immune system and protect yourself against the winter bugs. Before you have to hit the Nyquil, hit the pantry with these powerful immune-boosting foods!

– Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.