Nobody plans to get sick. On the contrary, your efforts to avoid it sometimes seem borderline OCD: Don't sneeze into your hands, always cook your chicken to exactly 170 degrees, and hose down every germ-carrying preschooler in sight with soap and water. And yet, no matter how many times you gargle with salt before bedtime or coat yourself in antibacterial hand cleanser, now and again the inevitable rumble in your tummy or tickle in your throat hits. Hard. Suddenly, you're down for the count and up to date on the daytime soaps. What are you doing wrong? Probably nothing. But you can do a few more things right. Certain foods and drinks have a natural immunity boost; to tap their benefits, just open up and say, "Ahh."
Tea Off Against Colds
Not just any hot tea, though. Chamomile, according to researchers from London's Imperial College, is the one that'll help prevent sickness. In a recent study, they found people who drank five cups of the brew a day for 2 weeks had increased blood levels of plant-based compounds called polyphenols, some of which have been associated with increased antibacterial activity. Levels remained high for 2 weeks after subjects stopped drinking the tea, says lead researcher Elaine Holmes, Ph.D. (Bonus: chamomile tea also raised levels of glycine, a mild nerve relaxant and sedative.)
There's a killer living in all of us. Known as a macrophage and produced deep in your bone marrow, it's a white blood cell that roams the body, picking fights with bacteria, viruses, or any other intruders. But it only works if you help it. These killer cells are activated by beta-glucans, a component of fiber foods. The best source? Oats, says David Grotto, R.D., director of nutrition education at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Illinois. So eat your oatmeal. The steel-cut oats, like McCann's Irish Oatmeal, have double the amount found in the rolled, quick-cooking kind.
Dressing for Success
Eating a salad for lunch is smart. Drowning it in fat-free dressing isn't. A recent study from Iowa State University found that without dietary fat, your body doesn't absorb some of the disease-fighting nutrients in vegetables. Researchers fed seven people salad for 12 weeks and tested their blood after each meal. Those who topped their salads with fat-free dressing consistently failed to absorb carotenoids, antioxidants that have been linked to improved immunity. Fat is necessary for the carotenoids to reach the absorptive intestinal cells, says lead researcher Wendy White, Ph.D. Choose dressings with healthy fats from olive or nut oils, such as Many Seeds of Change (available at Whole Foods or in the crunchy section of your neighborhood market) and many Annie's Naturals dressings. If you're feeling adventuresome, try making your own. For an Italianate, try 2 or 3 parts extra virgin olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar; for something with an Asian influence, go 3 parts sesame oil to 1 part rice wine vinegar.
Fight Bugs this Whey
A shot of whiskey might be one way to feel better, but whey protein is a much more effective immune-boosting cocktail. Whey is rich in an amino acid called cysteine, which converts to glutathione in the body. Glutathione is a potent antioxidant that fortifies cells against bacterial or viral infection. For the highest concentration of protein, try something called powdered whey protein isolate, which is more pure—and more expensive—than concentrate. Fortify your morning smoothie with whey protein powder or try another source: yogurt. The clear liquid that forms on top of most cartons of yogurt is pure whey protein—so don't drain it off, just stir it back into the yogurt.
Tomato Trumps Chicken
To beat back a cold, you slurp chicken noodle soup. To avoid getting sick in the first place, ladle out some tomato. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 10 subjects ate a tomato-rich diet for 3 weeks, followed by a tomato-free diet for 3 more weeks. While subjects were on the tomato diet, their infection-fighting white blood cells sustained 38 percent less damage from free radicals—atoms in the body that damage and destabilize cells—than when they ate no tomato products. Researchers speculate that the lycopene in tomatoes acts as an antioxidant, helping white blood cells resist the damaging effects of free radicals.
Butterbur may sound like something that makes you sneeze. But the herbal supplement actually helps you fight allergies. Scottish researchers found that patients with grass and pollen allergies who popped 50 mg of the plant extract twice daily had 13 percent better nasal airflow than those who took a placebo. Another study published in the British Medical Journal reported that butterbur treated seasonal allergies nearly as well as the prescription medication Zyrtec. It's effective against all symptoms of allergic rhinitis, including sneezing, itching, and conjunctivitis, says Andreas Schapowal, M.D., Ph.D., the author of the study. Butterbur is believed to block leukotriene, a chemical that causes allergic reactions, while at the same time controlling eosinophils, the white blood cells that accumulate when allergic reactions take place, says Dr. Schapowal. What's more, there's no drowsy effect with butterbur. You can buy the supplement ($25 for 60 capsules) at most health food stores or at iherb.com.
Down a Sports Drink
Not only will guzzling Gatorade help your body recover from a tough workout, but it may also protect you from the latest strain of the flu. According to a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition, when 10 triathletes drank more than 1 cup of sports drink every 15 minutes during intense exercise, they had significantly better immune response than they did when they drank a placebo.
Drinking wine with your meal, in addition to being good for your heart, may help ward off food poisoning before it happens. Scientists at Oregon State University recently found that wine can put the kibosh on three common food pathogens: E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. In lab studies, the wine's combination of ethanol, organic acids, and low pH appeared to scramble the bugs' genetic material. All wines have some effect, say researchers, but reds are the most potent.
Feel the Burn
Several animal and laboratory studies have shown that capsaicin—the compound that gives chili peppers their fire—can help stop sickness before it starts. Mice in one study were given a daily dose of capsaicin and had nearly three times more antibody-producing cells after 3 weeks than those given no capsaicin. More antibodies mean fewer colds and infections. Results of other studies suggest that eating food containing hot components such as capsaicin may improve immune status, says Rina Yu, Ph.D., of the University of Ulsan in South Korea, the lead researcher. The point is, it can't hurt. At the very least, a dash or two of hot sauce might help flush out some toxins.
Change Your Numbers Game
Losing a little extra baggage will not only reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but also will help shape up your immune system. Researchers at Tufts University asked a group of slightly overweight people to cut 100 to 200 calories from their daily food intake. The result, in addition to weight loss and a drop in cholesterol counts? Participants boosted their immune system response to disease-causing microorganisms. Researchers aren't exactly sure why, but speculate that the benefit comes from a combination of effects. One thing is certain: Cutting 200 calories out of your daily diet is easy. At your next restaurant meal, ditch the baked potato with sour cream and order steamed vegetables instead.