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Boosting Immunities During the Winter: A How-To from a Trusted RDN

Ask the RDN

By: Pam Smith, RDN

We daily hear tips for prevention and protection in these COVID times: Wash your hands often and well, sneeze into your elbow, stay home so you don’t spread illness when you’re sick, social distance and wear a mask. And as an RDN, I’d like to add some ways to protect yourself from the inside-out with an extra dose of stay-well defense strategies!

Use delicious wellness to keep your immune system in optimal working order so that you’re more able to fight off infection:

Line up Fatty Fish and Shellfish

Of all fats, long chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) – found in fish such as Pacific and Atlantic salmon – created the highest blood levels of flu and virus-fighting T cells and interferon-gamma cytokines in a British study of 150 people. Cytokines are thought to help clear viruses out of your body. And, getting adequate selenium (plentiful in oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs, and clams – and brazil nuts!) also increases immune cell production of cytokines in a British study of 22 adults.

Boost T-Cells with Tea

Ten Harvard subjects who drank 5 daily cups of black tea for 2 weeks had T cells that secreted 10 times more virus-fighting interferon, compared with nine people who drank the same amount of a tea substitute. Although this study was about black tea, green tea has been shown to have many immune boosting benefits as well.

Get Milk

Dairy products provide conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which raised immune system response to the flu in an animal study. Early research suggests that CLA may have a similar effect in humans.

Go for Garlic

It could be a virus’s worst enemy! One of our oldest cultivated plants, garlic has been used for centuries to treat everything from the plague and leprosy to toothaches. In the 1800s, American doctors prescribed garlic for colds and coughs. Today, scientists are busy uncovering the many ways that garlic keeps us healthy, and the list just keeps getting longer.

Garlic cloves contain hundreds of active ingredients, including sulfur-containing compounds (such as allicin) that give it its distinct and pungent aroma. Garlic is antibacterial and antiviral. It’s also an expectorant that helps you cough up phlegm.

To get its full virus-fighting benefits, stick with fresh garlic cloves; when it comes to antibacterial activity, nothing is better than raw garlic - capsules don’t cut it. Believe it not, most infectious disease researchers recommend 4 to 8 garlic cloves a day. If you cook it, do so very lightly, and before heating it, chop it, and let it sit for 10 minutes to give the disease-fighting compounds a chance to develop.

Try dried garlic, too! Dried garlic concentrates not only the flavor, but also the nutrients. But, as with other spices, it lose potency the longer it sits, so go for fresh spice blends!

Stock Up on Basics

An overall healthy diet builds resistance to viruses, but focus on these nutrients especially:


5 to 6.5 ounces of chicken, fish, or meat for women; 6 to 8 ounces for men. Protein foods are also rich sources of iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12 Vitamins A, B6

At least daily servings of red or orange fruits and green leafy veggies Vitamin E

Olive oil or canola oil; walnuts; almonds; sunflower seeds; and hazelnuts. Magnesium

Peanuts and peanut butter

And optimize your vitamin D levels

As I often discuss, getting more than adequate Vitamin D is one of the best strategies for avoiding infections of ALL kinds, and Vitamin D deficiency is likely to be one of the culprits behind the seasonality we see with the flu. Some of the most delicious sources of Vitamin D come straight from that salmon that is giving you your omega-3 boost, and mushrooms (such as portabellas) that are exposed to ultraviolet light.

Beyond food, there are several things you can do to stay your best this Winter:

  • Get enough rest. Just like it becomes harder for you to get your daily tasks done if you’re tired, if your body is overly fatigued it will be harder for it to fight infection.

  • Have effective tools to defuse stress. We all face some stress every day, but if stress becomes overwhelming then your body will be less able to fight off illness.

  • Exercise. When you exercise, you increase your circulation and your blood flow throughout your body. The components of your immune system are also better circulated, which means your immune system has a better chance of finding an illness before it spreads.

May you eat well, live well -- and stay well!

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