6 Best Foods to Fight a Cold or Flu

By Matthew Kadey, R.D. |

When the telltale sniffles, aches, and sneezing take you down, these are the foods that can help you bounce back faster.

best foods to fight a cold or flu

Sore throat. Runny nose. Throbbing headache. Constant sneezing.

A cold or flu is about as lovable as mosquitoes. But just like bug bites in the summertime, there’s a decent chance you’ll get one this season.

Along with following advice from your doctor, you may be able to ease your symptoms with the foods you eat. Research shows that certain foods and beverages have what it takes to help you feel better faster. They may even prevent you from getting sick in the first place.

Your gut microbiome and your immune system are closely intertwined. In fact, 70% to 80% of immune cells call the gut home, notes a report in Nutrients. With the right foods, microbes and immune cells interact within your gastrointestinal tract to boost the production of virus-fighting antibodies.

Read on to see which foods and drinks you should keep in your kitchen this cold and flu season.

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1. Salmon

Is a runny nose a regular part of your cold-weather routine? Then be sure to cast your line for fatty fish such as salmon more often.

Salmon are one of the few reliable food sources of vitamin D, which is linked with a lower risk for certain infections. A study involving nearly 19,000 subjects in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that those with the lowest average levels of vitamin D were 36% more likely to develop upper respiratory infections than those with higher levels of the sunshine vitamin.

Scientists believe vitamin D is involved in the production of a protein found in cells that plays a role in immunity. This vitamin may also help rev up T cells — the immune system’s virus-slaying cells.

People get most of their vitamin D from sun exposure. But during the colder months, sunlight is harder to come by. Older adults are especially susceptible to vitamin deficiencies, so it’s a good idea to load up on foods rich in vitamin D this season.

If you plan to stock your pantry with canned fish, consider picking canned sockeye salmon. It contains more vitamin D than canned pink salmon. Sardines, mackerel, and herring are other seafood that bring vitamin D to the table.

2. Kefir

Probiotics are digestive-friendly bacteria found in fermented foods and drinks, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir. Studies suggest that a probiotic-rich diet may reduce the risk of coming down with the sniffles. And if you do catch a cold, probiotics may help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.

Drinking kefir is a great way to get more probiotics into your diet. It’s a thin, yogurt-like drink made from fermented milk. In kefir, milk is fermented by yeasts and lactic-acid bacteria, and often contains a wider variety and larger total population of beneficial bugs than regular yogurt. Look for plain versions to sidestep added sugars.

You can drink kefir straight up or use it as a liquid base for your favorite smoothie. Or try kefir in place of buttermilk in recipes like pancakes.

Recommended reading: How to Exercise When You’re Sick

3. Chicken Noodle Soup

Your grandmother was right: Spooning up a steamy bowl of chicken noodle soup could help you nurse yourself back to health.

According to a preliminary study in the journal Chest, eating chicken noodle soup when you’re under the weather might mitigate some of the symptoms associated with upper respiratory tract infections.

Colds and flus can lead to coughing because they cause inflammation, which occurs when viruses trigger a cascade of immune cells to protect your airways. In the study, the chicken and veggies in the soup seemed to act as mild anti-inflammatory compounds. They also raised the temperature in the body and airways, loosening mucus secretions and encouraging the nose to run — a good thing, as since nasal secretions help rid the body of viruses.

The brothy soup will also work to keep you hydrated, which can soothe a sore throat and help tame that pounding head. Besides, there is something to be said for turning to comfort foods such as chicken soup when you’re not feeling so great.

It’s worth noting that in this chicken noodle soup study, the authors provided participants with what was called “Grandma’s soup.” It was beefed up with plenty of vegetables for added nutrition, so a homemade soup with an extra helping of veggies is ideal.

4. Green Tea

The many health benefits of drinking tea also include the potential to help tame the sniffles.

Researchers from a meta-analysis study in the European Journal of Nutrition looked at the effects of tea on influenza and acute upper respiratory tract infections. Their research suggests that a unique group of plant chemicals in tea called catechins may help in the fight against upper respiratory infections. It appears catechins inhibit the growth of viruses in the upper respiratory tract by forming a protective barrier in the pharynx, the cavity behind the mouth and nose.

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Drinking tea can also help keep you hydrated. Not only will it help replace any fluids lost through those fever sweats, but by keeping the lining of your upper respiratory tract moist, fluids can also help ease sore throat symptoms.

Green tea appears to have higher levels of the compounds shown to be beneficial against infections than black tea. Aim to drink 2 to 4 cups a day.

5. Pumpkin Seeds

Crunching your way through these squash seeds could help keep you on your feet. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of zinc, a mineral that plays a vital role in immunity by bolstering the functioning of immune cells.

Indeed, studies suggest that loading up on zinc when you’re under the weather can help slash the duration of cold symptoms. To keep your sodium intake in check, look for unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) in stores.

Sprinkle pumpkin seeds over pureed soups, roasted vegetables, bowls of chili, and salads. Or blend them into pestos and dips.

Recommended reading: 5 Home Remedies That Have Science on Their Side

6. Sweet Potato

This orange-fleshed tuber has strikingly high amounts of beta-carotene. In your body, beta-carotene can be converted into vitamin A, which promotes a healthy immune system by increasing production of white blood cells that seek out and destroy foreign bacteria and viruses. On its own, beta-carotene also acts as an antioxidant to help knock out free radicals. Those are the nefarious cell-attacking compounds that can weaken your immune system. Other excellent beta-carotene sources include kale, carrots, pumpkin, butternut squash, and dried apricots.

See our sources:
Connection between gut microbiome and immune system: Nutrients
Link between vitamin D levels and upper respiratory infections: Archives of Internal Medicine
Study on how probiotics affect duration of infection: European Journal of Nutrition
How chicken soup can ease cold and flu symptoms: Chest
Green tea for immunity: European Journal of Nutrition

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