It happens every year. The December and January holidays bring large groups together and sometimes from different parts of the country. Inevitably, one person shows up to the gathering with a cold or flu and is kind enough to share their illness with the rest of the group.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports flu outbreaks are reaching epidemic levels this year and are encouraging all Americans to get the flu shot. But what do you do if you haven’t received your flu shot yet or you catch a cold or flu in the meantime?

We’ve all heard the old wives’ tale, “feed a cold, starve a fever,” but is that really the right way to treat the symptoms of a cold or flu? Actually, it’s not. To help protect against infection and to aid the body in its recovery when battling a cold or flu requires proper nutrition to enhance your immunity, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Positive health habits such as proper diet, adequate sleep and decreased stress are essential to a strong immune response.

Cortisol and adrenaline are stress hormones that can negatively impact the body’s ability to stay healthy. Incorporating positive coping techniques, including regular moderate exercise, has been shown to reduce these stress hormones and strengthen the immune system, enabling the body to fight viral and bacterial infections.  Findings state that daily moderate exercise helps white blood cells travel through your body at a quicker pace and can fight bacteria and viruses more efficiently. Moderate exercise includes aerobic activity such as walking, swimming, biking or running at least 30 minutes each day. Conversely, extreme workouts like prepping for the Los Angeles Marathon or exercising when your body is already sick and needs rest can further stress an already weakened immune system, making recovery time longer.

Nutrients are special compounds that are found in foods and essential to the body’s repair, growth and wellness. Essential nutrients must come from your diet and any deficiency of these can lead to illness if not corrected. Specific nutrients known for a healthy defense include protein, specific antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and the minerals selenium and zinc.

Antioxidants are thought to play a role in the body’s cell protection system by protecting your body against and neutralizing free radicals.  The antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamins C and E are thought to armor your body against stressors. Beta-carotene and vitamin A protect you from infections by keeping skin and tissues in your mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory tract healthy. Vitamin C protects you from infections by boosting your immunity through the formation of antibodies.

Vitamin C supplementation has been studied for years in the prevention and treatment of cold and flu symptoms but the findings have been inconsistent. Some studies show that taking vitamin C can shorten the duration of a cold, but no studies have shown that vitamin C can prevent you from acquiring a cold. And high doses of vitamin C, greater than 2,000 mgs per day for an adult, may cause kidney stones, nausea and diarrhea in some.

Zinc is a mineral that has also been extensively tested and studied for its effectiveness in reducing the duration of cold symptoms because it helps the immune system work properly. But as with vitamin C, data from years of scientific studies has been mixed and the results on using zinc as a cold remedy are inconclusive. There have been problems with mouth irritation, metallic taste and stomach upset with some zinc lozenges and permanent loss of smell from some zinc nasal sprays. The side effects from these zinc remedies may outweigh the potential benefits at this time, and have led to FDA warning labels on packaging.

Phytochemicals and bioflavonoids are other plant compounds being studied and are thought to work with antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals to boost your body’s defense system. Scientists have identified many vitamins and minerals, but are still learning about other biochemically active properties and their co-factors in plants, fruits and vegetables.

Not just for the soul.

Not just for the soul.

What about old home remedies like hot tea with honey or grandma’s chicken noodle soup? Do these even help? Surprisingly, a couple of research studies have shown that chicken soup might help with cold symptoms. The hot liquid in both the chicken soup and hot tea helps to thin mucus, clear nasal congestion, and keep you hydrated, which all can make you feel better.

 

The Better Option chicken & vegetable barley soup

Serves 8

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 medium carrots cut diagonally into half-inch-thick slices

2 celery ribs, halved lengthwise, and cut into half-inch-thick slices

4 fresh thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

2 quarts chicken stock (optional homemade stock)

3/4 cup barley, rinsed

1 1/2 cup shredded cooked chicken

Ground black pepper

Place a soup pot over medium heat and coat with the oil. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, celery, thyme and bay leaf. Cook and stir for about 6 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not browned.  Pour in the chicken stock and barley and bring liquid to a boil.  Simmer for 40 minutes. Add chicken and continue to simmer for ten more minutes to heat through. Season with pepper.

Calories: 160; Fat: 7g (11% of DV); Sat Fat: 1.5g (8% of DV); Chol: 15mg (5% of DV); Sod: 670mg (28% of DV); T Cho: 13g (4% of DV); Fiber 1g (4% of DV); Sugar: 6g; Pro: 11g

Lori Salerno, M.S., R.D., C.P.T. is a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer who provides medical nutrition therapy to groups and individuals in Santa Monica and recipe and menu analysis for restaurants nationwide. Learn more at www.eatwelldailynutrition.com