Food as Medicine: Flu Fighters

Top foods to prevent the flu

This year’s flu season is making headlines for being one of the worst in recent years, and a recent headline suggested that Flu Fears might be boosting sales of Orange Juice – believed to prevent the flu because of it’s high vitamin C content.  It’s interesting how it often takes the fear of getting sick to motivate people to take nutrition seriously, and as a Nutrition Educator, I’m always ready to help support people who are ready to learn about food and nutrition.  So if flu fears are motivating you to learn more about nutrition, then I’m happy to tell you that there are indeed specific foods with anti-viral, Flu-Fighting properties.

The CDC’s “Preventing the Flu” page lists tips to prevent getting the flu: getting a flu shot, avoiding contact with sick people, and washing your hands frequently …..but they also acknowledge that to prevent getting the flu you should:

“Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.”

They don’t provide any specific details about what exactly they mean by “nutritious” food….but I’m sure that they mean to eat 5 cups of vegetables/fruits each day, stay  hydrated, and minimize added sugars and alcohol consumption.  In addition to those basic tips, here are some additional foods and nutrients to help prevent both colds and flus.

 

Green Tea

Tea is an especially rich source of antioxidants that have a number of beneficial properties to support our immune system. When green tea’s powerful antioxidant catechins are put in a petri-dish with the influenza virus, these polyphenolic compounds are “potent inhibitors of influenza virus” especially green tea’s powerful EpiGalloCatechin-3-Gallate (EGCG).

A 2016 review article found that gargling with green tea can reduce the flu risk up to 30%….that’s right, gargling with green tea for about 30-60 seconds, 2-3 times each day significantly reduces the chance that you will get the flu!

Of course you can also get these anti-viral benefits from drinking the green tea too, but it seems that gargling with tea (and then spitting it out) helps reduce your exposure to the flu virus, so it’s a great idea to gargle with tea, especially if you recently came in contact with someone who is sick.

According to BMC Public Health: “gargling with tea may provide a simple and useful addition to the non-pharmaceutical interventions that are currently employed for influenza control.” Bonus points for tea’s additional abilities preventing cancer, heart disease, and improving memory and endurance!

Tips: don’t use HOT tea! It’s painful (and dangerous) to gargle with hot tea, so brew your tea and then let it come to room temperature before gargling. Even better: make up a pot of tea – steeping 2-3 tea bags in about 16-20oz of water, and then use this premade tea for gargling (and drinking) each day.

 

Turmeric

Is there anything that this amazing spice doesn’t do when it comes to food as medicine?   Turmeric’s amazing phytonutrient curcumin has demonstrated beneficial effects in cancer, auto-immune disorders, ulcers, arthritis – and it even boasts pretty impressive anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects too.

Now when it comes to fighting the flu virus, researchers have shown that you need to consume a pretty hefty dose of turmeric – approximately 1 Tbls/day. This is more than you get from most recipes that use turmeric as a culinary spice, but you can easily get a much bigger dose with a warm cup of Golden Milk – which is kind of like a “Turmeric Latte”.

Another way to get a massive dose of this Golden Spice is to make homemade lozenges. Here is a recipe that I got from a Naturopathic Doctor colleague for Turmeric Lozenges:

  • 1 tbsp of turmeric
  • 4 tbps honey (local is best!) – can also use manuka honey for additional anti-viral effects
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger (optional) – can use more if you really enjoy the flavor
  • 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice – can use more if you enjoy lemon or omit it if you don’t.

To make: Melt turmeric and honey over low heat, mix.  Remove from heat.  Add in freshly grated ginger and lemon juice, mix thoroughly.  Place 1/2 tsp drops on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet.  Put in the freezer, once drops are frozen can store in an airtight container.  (Looking for approximately 1:4 ratio of turmeric to honey)

 

Garlic

Garlic has a long history and strong reputation for being a top food to fight off both flus and colds. One theory is that people who eat a lot of garlic will smell so bad that people stay away from them! But there is also research showing that garlic’s sulfurous phytonutrients have both anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, helping us fight off both colds and flus – just in case the garlic smell isn’t enough to keep those sick people from coughing on you!

Tip: when cooking with garlic, let it aerate for about 5 minutes after chopping it, and before cooking or eating it. This step allows an enzymatic reaction to occur, making the garlicy nutrients even more potent. This also results in a milder, mellower flavor as well.

 

Vitamin D

A 2017 report concluded that “taking vitamin D supplements can protect against colds, the flu, bronchitis and pneumonia” so it’s a good idea to supplement with Vitamin D (or Dig for Vitamin D rich foods like salmon, pasture-raised eggs, and mushrooms) especially during the Winter months.

Kind of an interesting coincidence that cold and flu season coincides with the same time of year that we can’t make adequate Vitamin D from sunshine, isn’t it? During my annual wellness exam, I always request (and have to pay a little extra) to have my Vitamin D levels checked.  I have been able to boost my levels into a normal range even in the Winter months by taking 2000 IUs of Vitamin D per day. People who have the lowest levels of Vitamin D in their blood have the highest rates of cold/flu/cough re-occurrence. So, don’t be D-ficient!

Wild salmon is an excellent source of Vitamin D, as well as Selenium and Zinc – key nutrients for supporting a healthy immune system during cold and flu season.

 

Raw Honey

Raw honey has been used as a food and medicine for thousands of years, and I use it every day in my morning coffee.   Raw honey contains a variety of unique nutrients with anti-viral, and anti-bacterial properties that are lost when honey is pasteurized – so you maximize the benefits when purchasing raw honey.  Propolis is a sticky substance made by honeybees and used in the hive as a “bee glue” utilizing its potent anti-viral / anti-bacterial properties to seal the hive and keep diseases away from the hive.  When we consume propolis (or raw honey), we benefit from these protective effects too.

Raw honey also has some prebiotic properties, so it supports the good bacteria that make up the microbiome, further supporting our immune function. Honey is still considered an Added Sugar, to be consumed in moderation, but spoonful for spoonful, honey contains 18% less sugar than common table sugar without tasting any less sweet. So swapping honey instead of white sugar in your morning brew leads to a number of health benefits.

A 2014 article concluded that “honey, in general, and particularly Manuka honey, has potent inhibitory activity against the influenza virus, demonstrating a potential medicinal value.” Manuka honey is a type of honey made by bees feeding on the Manuka (Tee tree) tree in New Zealand. It is quite pricey, but appears to have the most potent medicinal properties.

Honey also comes to your aid if you get the flu, as it coats your throat and soothes the painful sore throats that come during cold/flu season. Honey also helps reduce the severity of coughs. Honey has such potent anti-viral/anti-bacterial properties that you can even apply it topically, similar to Neosporin for topical wounds.

 

Honorable Mention: Probiotics

The good bacteria found in yogurt, sauerkraut, Kombucha and other cultured foods can prevent a variety of infections in both children and adults.   A double-blind study found evidence that probiotics even improved the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.

It’s a good idea to consume probiotic-rich foods every day, and consider a supplement during the peak of cold and flu season. Probiotics can also support your GI tract and lessen the severity of symptoms if you already have the flu.

Honorable Mention: Bone Broth

Bone broth appears to have immune boosting properties, that may support your grandma’s advice to eat Chicken Soup when you get sick. Bone broth is rich in minerals, vitamins, and immune boosting amino acids that keep your immune system primed, so it’s another great Flu Fighter.

 

Summary

Each of these foods have demonstrated abilities to fight off the viruses and bacteria that make us sick, and can boost our immune system during cold and flu season.  But none of these are “silver bullets” that will work better than a flu shot, and we shouldn’t think that if we simply drink a few cups of green tea that we don’t have to worry about the rest of our diet.  As the CDC states, the best way to prevent getting sick to…

“Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.”

It’s fine to drink a glass of orange juice a day, but we shouldn’t drink any more than 8-12 oz of juice each day, and even thought OJ is a great source of Vitamin C, there are much better Flu-Fighters you can incorporate into your diet.  If you really want to use Food as Medicine during Flu Season – then explore ways to get more green tea, turmeric, garlic, salmon, raw honey, sauerkraut and yogurt into your plant-based, vegetable-rich diet.

 

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