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Immune-Boosting Foods: What Works?

Q Which foods or nutrients can help strengthen my immune system this winter and make me more resistant to whatever bugs are going around?

A It’s as inevitable as the return of the pumpkin-spice latte. As the weather turns cooler, stories on “immune-boosting foods” start popping up in magazines and on the internet. Unfortunately, the evidence that specific foods can lower your susceptibility to infection and strengthen your immune system is a lot flimsier than these articles might lead you to believe.

If you’d like to hedge your bets, here’s my short list of foods (plus one supplement) that might help and can’t hurt:

1. Yogurt or Kefir

Some studies have suggested that regular consumption of probiotic foods may reduce the risk of infection in older adults and improve the response to flu vaccination. Probiotic foods include things like probiotic yogurt, kefir, fresh sauerkraut and pickles, Korean kimchi, or the fermented beverage called kombucha. Although some of these foods may be a little unfamiliar, you shouldn’t have to look further than your local grocery store to find them. Probiotic foods are enjoying a huge wave of popularity these days.

2. Colorful Fruits and Vegetables

Although you’ll frequently see certain fruits and vegetables singled out as flu-fighters, all fresh fruits and vegetables are great sources of nutrients that promote health. Older adults who eat more fruits and vegetables also show an improved antibody response to flu vaccine.

3. Nuts and Seeds

Both nuts and seeds are rich in Vitamin E and at least one study has found that older adults with higher Vitamin E intakes have lower rates of respiratory infections.

4. Garlic

This aromatic bulb contains natural compounds that can boost various aspects of immune function. Although it may not reduce your risk of getting sick, it can help you recover more quickly.

5. Vitamin D

Several studies have found that low Vitamin D levels are linked with increase rates of flu infection. Because Vitamin D can be hard to get from foods alone, ask your doctor about taking a Vitamin D supplement throughout the winter.

However, your best defense against colds and flu is not to be found in your refrigerator or in a bottle of supplements. Getting a flu vaccine is, in my opinion, the most effective way to protect yourself. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is a close second.

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