When you’re sick, especially with a cold or the flu, sometimes food can be a real turnoff. But the right foods and beverages can offer relief—either from the symptoms of a cold or to help strengthen your immune system—so you can get better faster. Here are 14 cold-fighting foods to focus on, and simple ways to incorporate them when you’re under the weather. Some may even help your immune system fend off a cold, or reduce its severity or length. So stock up!
Chamomile consumption has been tied to an increase in antibacterial activity in the body. But its real impact may be its ability to support sleep, which protects immunity. In one study, postpartum women who drank chamomile tea for a few weeks reported better sleep quality compared to those who didn’t consume chamomile. Sip hot or iced, or use the steeped tea as the liquid for smoothies or oatmeal.
Curcumin, the natural compound in turmeric responsible for its vibrant color, is a potent anti-inflammatory compound. It has also been shown to boost immune cell activity and enhance antibody responses. Just be sure to combine turmeric with black pepper, which significantly ups curcumin bioavailability. Sprinkle a turmeric black pepper combo onto a smoothie, soup, broth, or cooked veggies.
Dried tart cherries
The high antioxidant content in dried tart cherries is tied to a bolstered immune system, including a reduced risk of upper respiratory tract symptoms. These gems also support healthy sleep due to their natural melatonin content. That’s key, because research shows that people who don't get enough sleep or quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold. Pop them as is, or stir into nut butter and eat off a spoon.
In addition to being one of the top anti-inflammatory foods, walnuts contain several nutrients that play a role in supporting the immune system, including vitamins E and B6, copper, and folate. Walnuts have also been shown in research to reduce psychological stress. That’s vital because unchecked stress weakens immunity. Pair walnuts with dried tart cherries as a snack, or chop and use as a garnish for fresh fruit or cooked veggies.
Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, possesses antibacterial properties that can reduce your risk of becoming sick. Its antioxidants have also been shown to protect against immune-mediated inflammatory conditions, including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Saute your leafy greens in EVOO, or drizzle over a nutrient rich, easy to digest carb, like skin on potatoes.
Soup or broth
For decades, caretakers have been doling out chicken or other broth-based soups to cold sufferers, and there is some science to support its benefit. The effect is threefold. The steam from soup or broth speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose to relieve congestion. A healthy soup also helps reduce inflammation.
That’s important, because catching a cold triggers an inflammatory response in your upper respiratory tract, which contributes to symptoms like a stuffy nose. Also, the salt from soup or broth will cause your body to retain more water, and easing dehydration can help lessen symptoms like headache and dry mouth. If you don’t eat chicken, opt for vegetable broth, flavored with add-ins like garlic, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, and black pepper.
Spicy peppers, including cayenne powder, help thin mucus to relieve nasal congestion. Capsaicin, the compound that gives spicy peppers their heat, may also help suppress a cough. Add a pinch of ground cayenne to your tea, soup, or broth
Historically, garlic has been used to ward off illnesses, fight infections, and treat wounds—and research lends credibility to garlic’s immune-supporting capabilities. In one older study, 146 volunteers were assigned to receive either a placebo or a garlic supplement daily for 12 weeks throughout cold season. The garlic group experienced significantly fewer colds compared to the placebo group, and they recovered faster if they did get infected.Newer research confirms that aged garlic extract may enhance immune cell function.
In addition to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, raw honey has been shown to help ease coughs in children. Manuka honey, a variety native to New Zealand but available in the US, may specifically help bolster immunity. Take it off a spoon to soothe your throat and potentially relieve a cough, or stir it into to your chamomile tea.
Ginger eases nausea, and like raw honey, possesses antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. For the best benefits, opt for fresh ginger root. Slice or grate and add to tea, broth, smoothies, juice, or sprinkle over fresh fruit.
Bananas are one of the easiest foods on the digestive system and remain one of the few appealing foods when appetite is diminished due to illness. They also raise blood sugar and provide energy while delivering key nutrients that help support the immune system, including vitamins C and B6, copper, and folate. They’re also chock full of potassium, an electrolyte lost in sweat. Eat them as is, mash and drizzle with raw honey and fresh grated ginger, blend into a smoothie, or freeze and eat as an icy pop.
A quarter cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice provides 30% of the daily target for vitamin C, and the juice from one whole lemon supplies about 50%. In addition to supporting immunity, this nutrient, which also acts as an antioxidant, is needed for DNA repair and serotonin production. The latter helps promote happiness and sleep. Add fresh-squeezed lemon juice to hot or chilled water or hot tea.
Pure pomegranate juice is another food that supports immunity via its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity. The flavonoid antioxidants found in pomegranate juice have also been shown to combat viruses and decrease the length of a cold by as much as 40%. Sip on pomegranate juice, add splashes to water or chamomile tea, blend into smoothies, or freeze in BPA free molds, along with pureed banana and ginger root, to make popsicles.
Green veggies provide anti-inflammatory antioxidants, as well as key nutrients known to help the immune system function, including vitamins A and C and folate. They also provide bioactive compounds that provide a chemical signal that optimizes immunity in the gut, the location of 70-80% of immune cells. Saute veggies in EVOO along with garlic, turmeric, and black pepper, or add them to soup. You can also blend leafy greens, like kale or spinach, into a smoothie.
It’s also important to drink plenty of water to replace the fluid you’re losing through your lungs each time you cough, and from losses due to perspiration or sweat. As far as what to avoid when you’re sick, steer clear of foods that may fuel inflammation or stress your immune system. I advise my clients to avoid refined sugar, processed foods (especially those with artificial ingredients), conventional dairy and meat, caffeine, and alcohol.
Of course, get plenty of sleep and rest, and don’t feel guilty about taking the time you need to recover. Trying to maintain status quo while you have a cold can infect others and prolonging your own illness.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
To get more nutrition and diet tips delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Balanced Bites newsletter