How To Combat A Cold With Food

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a nasty head cold. On Wednesday night I began to feel achy and fatigued and by Friday, the rapturous claw of a head cold had me in its grip. I got the usual potpourri of less-than-pleasant cold symptoms -- runny nose, sinus pain, malaise -- and spent the rest of the week clinging to a tissue box like it was some sort of psychological crutch. 

I am an impatient patient, so naturally the full artillery of immune-boosting foods was deployed within hours of the first sniffle. I've gotten tons of questions about this of late, so I thought I would share my tricks for kicking the common cold FAST: 

1. LOTS of fruit and veggies. 


Why? Studies show that consuming vitamin C rich foods reduces the duration and severity of cold symptoms, and fruit and veggies such as citrus, red peppers, kale, berries, and broccoli are loaded with this vitamin-antioxidant [1]. Fruit and veggies are also rich in vitamin A, and phytonutrients which also support immunity.

Making it happen: Since I wasn’t particularly hungry or interested in forking through a salad three times a day, I added extra fruit and veg to smoothies to make sure that I was getting enough of the good stuff! 

2. Protein-rich foods at every meal. 


Why? This is a less obvious one, but there are a couple of good reasons for getting enough protein when you're under the weather. Protein contributes to tissue repair, and helps maintain muscle mass and strength during illness. Furthermore, many sources of protein such as beef, poultry, seafood, soy, and legumes, are good sources of zinc which, like vitamin C, has been shown to help reduce the duration of cold symptoms [2].

Finally, many protein-rich foods are also a source of iron; another mineral involved in immune function. Poor immune function is a symptom of iron-deficiency and adding a few iron-rich foods can help ward off infections if you've struggled with anemia before. 

Making it happen: I purchased an all-natural rotisserie chicken from Wholefoods and added it to roasted veggies, salads, and stir-fries. 

3. Probiotics. 


Why? While many of the symptoms of a common cold are seen above the shoulders, getting sick is an inflammatory state that affects your entire body. The gut microbiome is an important defense against pathogens, and affected by illness, as well as psychological stress, antibiotics, nutrition and more. Several studies have shown that supplemental probiotics (aka 'good bacteria') may reduce the incidence, severity and duration of cold symptoms [3].

Making it happen: I filled my fridge with yogurt, kefir, and kombucha, as well as a backup multi-strain probiotic supplement (50 billion CFUs).

4. Plenty of fluids. 


Why? Heat production and water loss increase during illness, making dehydration more likely. Water helps regulate temperature, carry away wastes, transport nutrients, and cushion tissues, all of which are particularly important when you're feeling flu-y. Dehydration during illness can lead to serious and permanent damage. 

Making it happen: With my usual exercise routine on hold, this is something that I could have been better about. Several times I found myself feeling extra awful because I was dehydrated. I ended up putting a liter of coconut water next to my water bottle and switching between the two. I have a sweet tooth so the sweetness of the coconut water helped me get more fluid down while I was battling a cold. 

5. Vitamin D. 

Why? It’s not clear if vitamin D offers protection against colds specifically however, Vitamin D is involved in several immune pathways and low vitamin D is associated with poor immunity [4].  If you live in a warm climate, about 20 minutes of unprotected time in the sun is probably all you need to synthesize adequate vitamin D endogenously. If you live in a cooler climate or spend most of your time indoors, consider taking 1000-2000IU of vitamin D3 a day in the form of a supplement during the colder months to get your daily fix. 

Making it happen: I spent a short amount of time sitting in the sun each day I was sick. I keep supplemental vitamin D as a backup.

Eating well was a critical part of my 'get well sooner' plan however it wasn't the only strategy I used to combat my cold. I took a couple of days off exercise, napped often, and got well-acquainted with Netflix. I also leaned on ibuprofen and nasal spray when I needed it. After a hectic couple of weeks, my body needed a break. Getting a head cold forced me to do just that. 

[1] Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Hemilä H, Chalker E. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 31;1:CD000980. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4. Review.

[2] Zinc for the common cold. Singh M, Das RR. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Feb 16;(2):CD001364. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub3. Review. Update in: Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;6:CD001364.

[3] Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. Hao Q, Dong BR, Wu T. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Feb 3;2:CD006895. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006895.pub3. Review.

[4]  Vitamin D, innate immunity and upper respiratory tract infection. Bartley J. J Laryngol Otol. 2010 May;124(5):465-9. doi: 10.1017/S0022215109992684. Epub 2010 Jan 13. Review.

Science-backed nutrition tips for fighting cold symptoms.

Science-backed nutrition tips for fighting cold symptoms.