Rock-Star Flu Fighters
published in the Chicago Sun-Times
The person in front of you at the ATM just managed to sneeze all over her hands and every button on the machine. The man behind you on the train has coughed since he got on at Grand. You can almost feel the vicious little molecules creeping into your head and throat. It’s beginning to look a lot like cold and flu season.
But a 10-day relationship with a box of tissues is not inevitable. Instead, arm your immune system with a red pepper.
That’s right, red is the new orange. With three times the vitamin C of an orange, plus a healthy dose of antioxidants, the red pepper is “huge, huge, huge in terms of good nutrients,” says Mike McClain, a registered nurse who also has a degree in exercise physiology and directs Adventure Boot Camp in northeast Indiana. He and co-director Jennifer Branning, a certified personal trainer, regularly coach clients both healthy and not on how to maintain or achieve good health through nutrition.
McClain likes red peppers for a lot of reasons. They pack a lot of fiber, which is helpful in clearing out bad bacteria, he says. They’re readily available, too. “They’re so universal, and you can do so much with them,” he says—chop them into a salad or stuff them with other good nutrients.
Garlic would be tasty in those red peppers, and it keeps more than just your loved ones away. “I know some people are scared off by the aroma or taste, but this member of the onion family is a great immune system booster because it increases the efficiency of antibody production and stimulates white blood cells, the ones that fight infection,” says Bob Seebohar, one of the nation’s foremost experts in sports nutrition and a sport dietitian and triathlon coach for Fuel4mance in Denver.
Garlic contains allicin and sulfides, both of which have powerful antibacterial properties. Garlic also can decrease the number of free radicals in your body—those scavenger molecules that attack your healthy cells—by acting as an antioxidant. Minced garlic in pasta sauce, stir fry, salads, beans and rice, or on pizza is less intimidating for those who may not be so fond of the fragrant bulb, Seebohar says. Start with a little at first.
Beyond red and orange, you can go green. Broccoli, asparagus and spinach turn your immune system into a green machine. “You want to eat from the ground,” McClain says, and he’s not talking about the potato chips that guy left on the floor of the train. Rather, seek out these vegetables in a fresh, natural, raw state as much as possible.
Colorful fruits and vegetables also offer flavonoids, another positive immune system booster. Flavonoids are phytonutrients (plant compounds) that act as pigments to give plants and fruit their color. “They protect the body’s cells against environmental pollutants by essentially preventing these toxic substances from binding to the cells and attacking the internal workings of the body,” says Seebohar. “Flavonoids have a vitamin C and E enhancing affect to help boost the immune system.”
You can enjoy a virtual rainbow in strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. They’re sweet little bundles of enzymes, the chemical agents that help your body do its normal processes, says McClain. Even beyond doing battle with what lurks on ATM buttons, they help moderate blood sugar levels, boost metabolism and aid fat loss. Yes, fresh berries are pricey and rare this time of year, but McClain says frozen can be just as good.
Have we mentioned yellow yet? The grapefruit is a “really, really great superfood,” McClain says. Yeah, yeah, it has vitamin C; but did you see the research in which subjects eating half a day tended to lose 3.5 pounds a month? For the average individual with no allergies, no medications, no family history or special conditions that would contraindicate it, regular grapefruit intake can wage war on several fronts.
Sometimes things really are black and white…like tea. These along with green tea are swimming with polyphenols. “They’re pretty much in their natural state,” McClain says of teas. They boost your water intake, too, and they’re simply soothing and warm after a nasty train ride.
Zinc is another great nutrient for the immune system, Seebohar says. This mineral helps increase white blood cells and allows them to release more antibodies to fight infection. “As much as this nutrient can help,” Seebohar says, “it can also weaken the immune system through overconsumption. Supplementing with excess zinc is usually not needed for most individuals.” He recommends foods containing zinc such as oysters, beef, beans, crab and zinc-fortified cereals.
While you’re looking for the crab and oysters, grab some salmon or mackerel. “Omega-3 fats are also a great immune enhancer because they increase the activity of phagocytes, the white blood cells that consume bacteria,” Seebohar says. “These fats can also help to reduce inflammation in the body.” Not a fish fan? You can get omega-3 in flax oil or ground flaxseed, too.
Chicken, lean beef and tuna have their good qualities as well, McClain says, among them glutamine, which supports the body’s immune system and repairs it after a workout.
Finally, there’s that wunderkind of sweet protein and calcium creaminess, yogurt. Studies show one cup daily can reduce susceptibility to colds as much as 25 percent, McClain says. He recommends choosing one low in sugar, with no artificial sweeteners or colors.
Speaking of sugar, that’s one to avoid if you want to avoid the flu, Branning says. Yes, it is the most wonderful time of the year, and yes, Mom and Aunt Sally only make the caramel-fudge bars during the holidays, but a little willpower will go a long way. Just 8 tablespoons of sugar, the amount in two cans of soda, can weaken your immune system by as much as 40 percent, Branning says.
And no, booze is not rubbing alcohol—it will not kill germs. In fact, they thrive on someone a little hung over, a little dehydrated and a little run down. Excess alcohol can lead to an overall nutrition deficiency and impair your white blood cells as much as your ability to keep your mouth shut about Larry-from-accounting’s fling with Donna-from-marketing. Plus, alcohol contains sugar. One drink is OK; three or more and you sauce your immune system, Branning says.
Besides, who needs alcohol or sugar when you’ve got those rock-star flu fighters ready to rev your system? Take advantage of the variety, too. “Eating just one food by itself will likely not have the immune-system-boosting characteristics as combining many different foods,” Seebohar says. “A food is not a drug. Oftentimes, it is the interaction of different substances within food that make it immune-enhancing.”
So instead of worrying about whether you feed a cold and starve a fever or vice versa, eat up in advance. A colorful plate when skies are gray might cheer your immune system enough to withstand the blasts of cold and cold viruses.
A great idea to incorporate some of the other immune system boosters is through a simple smoothie with the following ingredients:
1 cup blueberries
1 cup vanilla soymilk or regular milk
2 tbsp. flax oil
Have it with a good piece of salmon and a side of broccoli and black beans, and you have a great immune-enhancing meal!
McClain and Branning’s Recipe
1/2 cup soymilk or organic milk
1 scoop whey protein powder
1/2 cup kefir or yogurt
1/2 cup frozen berries
1 tbsp. ground flaxseed meal
1 scoop glutamine powder
1 scoop supergreens in powder form