Infection Protection: Eating and Lifestyle Strategies to Prevent the Flu



By Julie Upton, RD

On Christmas Eve morning, I awoke to a tsunami in my stomach. For the next 15 hours, I was either in a semicomatose state of sleep or violently expelling the contents of my 30-some feet of intestinal tract. My day was bed-bathroom-couch-bathroom-bed-bathroom-bed-bathroom, ad nauseam.

When I wasn't dry heaving or overcome with cold sweats, I went over everything I had eaten the day before to see if anything seemed suspect. Nothing did, so I felt that I had contracted gastroenteritis (aka stomach flu), but I certainly could not rule out food poisoning altogether. Regardless, I was sick and wanted only to feel better.

When I eventually recovered the next day, my bout with the flu made me think that it's that time of year when many of you may suffer from a cold or flu. And for those at high risk for complications—such as anyone 65 years or older, people with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children—the flu is much more than a nuisance; it's potentially life-threatening. While getting a flu shot is strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are a few diet strategies to add to your flu prevention arsenal this season.

A healthy diet and lifestyle is known to help keep the immune system on track. Several vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, and selenium, are essential for a healthy immune system. Flavonoids—found in tea, apples, and other plant-based foods—may also benefit the immune system.

Here are the steps I'm taking this cold and flu season to help protect myself:

  • Washing my hands several times a day. It's easy to spread the flu virus this way: Your hand touches something that has the influenza virus on it, and then your hand touches your face. If you are sick, stay away from others; coughing around others is a major way the virus spreads from person to person.
  • Getting more sleep. The immune system and body repair and recover during sleep, so strive to get as much as you can.
  • Drinking tea. Tea is among the richest sources of antioxidant flavonoids that have been shown to have positive immune response.
  • Having a probiotic daily in the form of a container of nonfat or low-fat yogurt.