Eat to Beat the Cold and Flu Season

By Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD

No one wants to miss out on holiday festivities – or any fun event for that matter – because of not feeling good. But the bustle of the holidays often means less sleep, more travel, and more time spent in closer-than-usual quarters with family and friends, all of which can increase the likelihood of getting sick.

Top Immune-Boosting Foods and Supplements

So here is a stay-well guide of immune-boosting foods and supplements that can enhance your body’s ability to fend off bacteria and viruses and help you beat the cold and flu season. Many of these cold-busting strategies have the added benefits of enhancing our mood, energy, and alertness as well.

Chicken soup
It really just might help. Chicken soup provides fluids that can help fight off colds, and it has been shown to reduce the inflammation that’s associated with viruses. Plus, the warm liquid can help loosen congestion. The good news for those not-so-handy in the kitchen: commercial varieties appear to be about as effective as chicken soup prepared from scratch.

Brazil nuts
Research has shown that consuming about 300 micrograms of selenium daily can help strengthen the immune system – a dosage easily obtained from just three Brazil nuts. Other selenium-rich food sources include lobster, oysters, crabs and tuna.

The beneficial bacteria naturally found in foods like Greek yogurt and kefir may reduce symptoms of the common cold and help prevent you from getting sick in the first place. Supplementing with lactobacillus plantarum and lactobacillus paracasei, for example, has been shown to reduce the incidence of the common cold by about 12 percent and reduce the number of sick days by about 25 percent.

Eat the rainbow
Boldly-colored fruits and vegetables like beta-carotene-rich pumpkin, sweet potatoes and carrots, along with anthocyanin-rich berries, red beans and red cabbage are linked to a stronger immune system and a lower risk of disease, including the flu and the common cold.

6 stay-well supplements
As always, check with your physician or healthcare professional before beginning any new supplement regime.

N-acetyl cysteine
Glutathione is a compound produced primarily by the liver that plays a role in immune system function. While exercising, it can boost glutathione levels. Diet doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. But supplementing with N-acetyl cysteine (600 mg twice daily) can increase glutathione levels and has been shown to reduce the frequency, severity and duration of the flu.

Andrographis is an herbal supplement that, combined with Siberian ginseng (as found in Kan Jang, a supplement by the Swedish Herbal Institute), can reduce symptoms when started within 72 hours of the onset of a cold. And supplementing with 200 milligrams of andrographis daily may cut your risk of catching a cold in half.

Supplementing with zinc may help reduce the severity of a cold and clear it up faster. The typical dosage is one capsule or lozenge (providing 9 to 24 mg of zinc per dose) every two hours throughout the day, starting within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Preliminary research shows that regular garlic consumption may reduce the frequency and number of colds, but many of the studies used a highly concentrated extract that provided the equivalent of 20 to 30 cloves of garlic. So while adding garlic (and onions and leeks) may have some adavantages, you’re more likely to reap the cold-fighting benefits by incorporating a supplemental garlic extract.

Research is mixed on whether echinacea can effectively prevent or treat the common cold. A few studies have shown that taking echinacea can reduce cold symptom severity and duration by about 10 percent to 30 percent, while others showed no benefit. Recommended doses of echinacea vary depending on the formulation.

Vitamin C
It’s a popular remedy that may make you feel better about being proactive during cold and flu season, but research hasn’t shown that vitamin C prevents most of us from getting sick. But supplementing with high doses of vitamin C (1,000 mg to as much as 8,000 mg) might shorten the duration of a cold by one to one and a half days. It’s nearly impossible to get that much vitamin C through food alone (an orange has just over 60 mg), so supplementation is needed for these high doses.

Don’t forget these four fundamental stay-healthy strategies:

Get your Zzz’s
Our immune system takes a hit when we skimp on sleep, leaving our bodies more susceptible to catching a cold. In fact, people who are sleep-deprived can be as much as three times more likely to get sick than those who get enough sleep. Most people need at least seven hours of sleep a night, but only an estimated one-third of us get this much.

To improve your sleep hygiene (as it’s referred to by the National Sleep Foundation), try going to bed and waking up around the same times each day. Incorporating exercise can help you sleep better, just as long as it’s not in the hours right before bedtime. Avoid large meals right before going to bed, and limit alcohol consumption. While it may help you fall asleep, alcohol interferes with the quality of sleep.

Wash up
The simple act of washing your hands is one of the most effective measures against getting sick or spreading your cold to others. Washing hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) is preferred, and an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is our next best bet.

Manage stress effectively
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your immune system, doubling the odds of catching a cold. People with higher stress levels tend to have more infections, more severe illnesses, and take longer to get better. So while it’s nearly impossible to eliminate stressful events from your life, you can modify how you react to stress, and incorporate natural stress-busters like regular exercise, meditation, reading, journaling, or getting together with friends (who have a positive influence).

It boosts the circulation of our body’s disease-fighting white blood cells, plus it works as an effective stress-buster. A brisk walk or jog, or dancing, or even just playing with kids outside can all count as exercise. Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to intense exercise on most days.

Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a sports and lifestyle Dietitian, board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She manages the nutrition program at Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, advising clients in weight loss, muscle building, endurance training, eating disorders and general health and wellness. As a columnist for The Times-Picayune newspaper, Molly covers the latest trends in the nutrition and the fitness industry. She is also the nutrition and fitness expert for New Orleans’ ABC affiliate WGNO with a weekly segment on “Good Morning New Orleans, Get the Skinny with Molly.” She is regularly featured as a nutritional expert on local and national news stories and has appeared in numerous media outlets, including Vogue, The New York Times, Newsweek, Shape, Health, Fitness, Runner’s World, Wine Enthusiast, Cosmopolitan, WebMD and For more information, please visit

Reprinted with permission from The Times-Picayune newspaper.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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