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Think of your stomach first to fight respiratory illnesses

Frigid winter weather keeps many of us confined indoors — the perfect breeding ground for respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, the flu, RSV and the common cold. While vaccinations and safe socializing help protect us, any preventions we take can go a long way in keeping us from an extended stay tucked under the covers.

One often overlooked way to avoid sickness is maintaining a healthy immune system through balanced eating.

“While there are not specific foods you can eat to boost your immune system, there are multiple nutrients that play an important role in supporting the immune system,” says Amanda Rubley, MS, RDN, clinical dietitian, Three Rivers Health. “If you are operating in a deficit of nutrients, your immune system will not be operating up to par.”

Much of the immune system is located in the gut where healthy microbes help fight off illness and infection. Think of your stomach as the guard that determines what gets absorbed and circulated into the rest of the body. A diverse and balanced diet feeds the good gut bacteria, which in turn interact with the immune cells to promote strong immunity and good health.

Eat well

The best diet to support the immune system includes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. A moderate intake of whole grains and some intake of high-quality meats, eggs, dairy products and fatty fish is also important. Having variety helps provide a range of nutrients, Rubley says. These nutrients include:

  • B vitamins: Meat, seafood, shellfish, leafy greens, eggs, milk, yogurt, beans, peas and organ meats.
  • Vitamin A: Cod liver oil, beef liver, dairy, eggs and orange colored fruits and vegetables.
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, kale, spinach and cabbage.
  • Vitamin D: Sunshine is the best way to boost vitamin D levels; however, some foods that contain vitamin D include wild mushrooms, egg yolks, fatty fish, beef liver, cod liver oil, fortified dairy and fortified cereals.
  • Vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, mango and avocado.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish, oysters, cod liver oil, flaxseed, chia seed and walnuts.
  • Polyphenols: Berries, olives/extra-virgin olive oil, citrus fruit, cacao, coffee/tea, herbs/spices, vegetables, almonds, flaxseed and red rice/quinoa.
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts (just two per day meet your needs for the day), seafood, ocean fish and sunflower seeds.
  • Fermented foods: Kefir, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt.
  • Protein: Meat, eggs, fish, nuts/seeds, beans and lentils, dairy and soy products.

Aim to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily to aid the body’s defenses. Rubley recommends eating the rainbow, as all the different colors provide different nutrients. Fruits and vegetables — along with beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains — are all high in fiber, which helps support good gut bacteria.

Facing the inevitable

Eventually we all get sick. When that happens, Rubley says we need to eat to continue providing our body with the nutrients necessary to heal itself.

A lot of times we lose our appetite when sick or experience an upset stomach. Stews, soups and smoothies tend to be easier to consume and can be nutrient dense. Try the green smoothie and orange juice smoothie from our health library for a quick nutrient boost. Chicken noodle soup is still a tried-and-true meal for getting both protein and nutrients when you need them but don’t feel hungry.

If you feel queasy or have trouble keeping things down, simple carbohydrates like rice, noodles, bananas, applesauce, crackers and toast tend to be easiest on the stomach. Once you feel better, start reintroducing protein. Start with our health library’s high-calorie, high-protein smoothie to give your body the nutrient-dense boost it needs.

Whatever you do, avoid ultra-processed foods, fried food, fast food, refined carbohydrates and added sugar. These foods provided little to no nutrition and can increase blood sugar, which decreases the body’s ability to fight infection.

Stay hydrated

Fluids play an important role during illness. Avoid becoming dehydrated. Fluids help break up congestion, and dehydration can make congestion worse and increase your susceptibility to infection. Also, your body may have trouble regulating its temperature, so make sure you are drinking enough liquid. Staying hydrated keeps your skin and mucous membranes healthy, preventing bacteria from entering the body.

If you have vomiting or diarrhea, you may need a drink with electrolytes — sodium, potassium and chloride — to stay hydrated. These electrolytes help maintain fluid balance in the body. Pedialyte® has an optimal ratio of electrolytes to help with rehydration. You can also make your own electrolyte drink by mixing four ounces of orange juice, four ounces of coconut water and one-quarter to one-eighth teaspoon of salt.

Live well

Eating well is important to maintaining a healthy immune system, but so is living well. Getting on the road to good health starts with prioritizing you and what your body needs to thrive.

“Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night and exercise 30 minutes per day or 150 hours per week,” Rubley says. “Reduce stress — it reduces your immune system’s ability to fight illness — in ways that work for you. Take small breaks during the day, talk with a friend or family member, listen to music, meditate or take five to 10 minutes per day to do something for you.”

Next steps and resources

Download Rubley’s recipes for homemade chicken stock and chicken noodle soup:

Schedule an appointment with a dietitian.

Search for more recipes in our health library.

About R.J. Pales

R.J. Pales is a Media Relations Specialist for Beacon Health System. He enjoys reading literary classics, acoustic guitar music and all things Mediterranean cuisine.