When struck with a cold or the flu, turn to these symptom-soothers and immune-boosters to help get back on track.
When you’re sick, you’re sick … and while science has done some pretty impressive things, it has yet to invent an instant cure for cold and flu. While we all know that we’re supposed to drink lots of fluids and get rest, I like these nutritionists’ recommendations that Time.com recommends for battling the bugs (and to which I’ve added). “Staying hydrated and eating nutrient-rich foods can help ensure you don’t feel any worse than you already do,” writes Amanda Macmillan, “and may help ease your discomfort and get you back on your feet faster.”
1. Electrolyte drinks
Denver-based nutritionist Jessica Crandall, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, “Staying hydrated is the most important thing when you have the flu, especially if you’re running a fever and sweating, or you’re having trouble keeping food down."
Water is the most basic way to hydrate, but adding an electrolyte-rich sports drink can help replenish sodium and potassium as well. I would personally opt for coconut water, which comes without the artificial ingredients and added sugar.
2. Green tea
Think of green tea as another route to hydration; with an added soothing factor and a boost of antioxidants. “The flu usually involves upper respiratory symptoms, and drinking warm or hot liquids can help open airways,” says Rena Zelig, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University. “It may also feel better to drink than room-temperature water.”
Adding honey can help too: Aside from folk wisdom, there is plenty of research showing that honey is efficacious for treating cough and sore throat. Bonus points for a bit of caffeine as well, to quell withdrawal headache if you can't stomach your morning coffee.
3. Chicken noodle soup
Zelig says that the granny go-to, chicken noodle soup, is more than just clever marketing:
Its salty broth can help hydrate and replace lost sodium while the vegetables provide vitamins and minerals. The chicken itself provides protein, “which is important for healing and for getting your strength back when you’ve been sick.”
And while chicken noodle soup in particular may have some special tricks up its sleeve, opting for vegetarian soups can do a load of good as well. I find that a ginger-rich broth with vegetables and citrus soothes on many levels – make it udon-style for the noodle part, no birds required. And on that note, Chinese hot and sour soup or Thai tom yum gai soup have a host of their own curative miracles as well.
4. Beans or peas
Crandall echoes my hesitation about chicken, which I never want to “choke down,” saying: “Sometimes when you’re sick, you don’t want to choke down a chicken breast. In that case, getting protein in an alternative form—a protein drink, or a more palatable food source—may be a better option.” Adding plant-based proteins may be easier to stomach, and are great in a steaming bowl of soup. My raid-the-pantry staple "soup" consists of little more that a can of tomatoes simmered with a can of chickpeas (both BPA free) with whatever produce odds and ends are in the refrigerator. Nobody needs to be fancy when they're sick.
5. The ol’ rainbow of plants
Eating a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables is important all the time, to ensure a nice array of antioxidants, says Zelig (and most everyone else). But when you’re sick with a compromised immune system, it’s especially prudent.
“It’s not like if you stock up on fruits and vegetables you’ll get better a day sooner,” says Zelig. “But we do know that antioxidants have a role in keeping you healthy and boosting the immune system, so it’s certainly a good idea.” Eating a bunch of vibrant raw produce may not seem that appetizing when sick; consider making smoothies, or, sounding like a broken record here, make soup.
6. Orange juice
This one surprised me because the general nutrition advice of late generally steers us away from juice, and points to whole fruits and vegetables instead. But if you’re sick, drinkable antioxidants and a boost of vitamin C, may help lessen the duration of colds and flu, says Crandall. But that C comes with a caveat. “Your body can only absorb so much vitamin C at once, and if you have too much it can cause gastrointestinal issues,” she adds. One way to get some of orange juice’s benefits and extra hydration without the GI distress and calories is to dilute it with one part juice to four or five parts water.
7. Zinc-rich foods
Zinc has been shown to help regulate the immune system and taking zinc supplements is my sure-fire way to reduce the symptoms and duration of a cold. Crandall says that getting zinc from food sources may be helpful as well. Here, she recommends beef – but for those of us who shun the thought, other good sources of zinc include cashews, fortified breakfast cereal, chickpeas, oatmeal, kidney beans, and almonds.
8. BRAT foods
Because who doesn’t feel a bit bratty when they don’t feel well? Ok, actually this one gets the thumbs-up because the BRAT foods – bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast – are good for tummies that are feeling peevish. “Sometimes when people have the flu, they have a lot of nausea or GI upset,” says Zelig. “If that’s the case, you want to stick to simple, bland foods that your stomach can easily tolerate.”
9. Fortified grains
Zelig recommends foods to boost energy levels, specifically foods that contain B vitamins. While things like vitamin B12 are found in eggs, meat, shellfish and dairy, those might not be appealing to vegetarians or someone suffering from the flu. Plus, cooking. In which case, opting for fortified (and low in added sugar) cereal or bread can be a good option. Both seem especially practical if you don’t have someone playing nurse, as they require little preparation.
Ginger is my best friend in times of sickness; research shows that it is anti-inflammatory and effective against nausea – and its spicy aroma is wonderfully soothing when the nose, throat and lungs are complaining. Zelig reminds us not to rely on ginger ale because of its lack of actual ginger and preponderance of sugar; but you can make your own, or make a beautiful spicy hot ginger tea. Here’s how to make a ginger-honey syrup that can be used for both. Ginger is also great in, yes, soup – seriously, it can be as simple as simmering ginger slices in water, adding some miso paste and scallions, and that's it.