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As flu season approaches, maintaining a strong immune system is crucial for warding off illness. April Wilson, MD, MPH, FACPM, chair of preventive medicine, says food plays a significant role in influencing our immune system. Wilson emphasizes that every bite we take either promotes or worsens our health outcomes, making food a powerful component of our daily exposures.

The Impact of Food on the Immune System

“Certain foods can be highly inflammatory, causing the immune system to ramp up, while others may stunt the immune system's ability to respond effectively to infections,” Wilson says. “When it comes to fortifying the body and aiding in recovery, antioxidants and phytochemicals play a crucial role.”

These vital components are abundant in colorful whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and complex carbohydrates. During the holiday season, it's essential to prioritize these nutrient-rich foods, even when faced with tempting but less nutritious options.

Wilson stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy diet as a preventative measure. By consistently providing the body with essential nutrients, white blood cells are better prepared to respond to illnesses. Research indicates that excessive consumption of sweets with white sugar can temporarily impair the activity of white blood cells, leaving the body more vulnerable.

Foods to Embrace and Avoid During Illness

While sick, Wilson advises against certain choices, particularly for upper respiratory infections. Dairy products, especially, can exacerbate phlegm production. Surprisingly, even seemingly healthy options like orange juice might not be the best choice. Wilson suggested opting for whole fruits like oranges or mandarins to ensure you benefit from the fiber that aids in slowing down sugar absorption.

For those who find themselves under the weather, hydration becomes crucial. While electrolyte beverages and ginger ale can be acceptable choices if nothing else can be tolerated, Wilson recommended exploring other options without the high sugar content to better support the immune system.

Incorporating Immune-Boosting Foods

To bolster your immune system, consider incorporating immune-boosting foods into your meals. Wilson recommends berries, rich in antioxidants, are an excellent choice, even during the colder months. Frozen berries are a convenient alternative to fresh ones. Additionally, fall and winter offer an abundance of colorful squash and gourds, providing a variety of nutrients to support your health.

Wilson suggests trying alternatives like spaghetti squash in place of processed carbohydrates, offering both flavor and nutritional benefits. Soups rich in vegetables and legumes are also recommended, especially with cooler weather approaching.

Incorporating foods like garlic, onions, and berries can especially benefit children, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems.

The Role of Sleep in Immune Health

In addition to a healthy diet, Wilson emphasized the importance of adequate sleep in maintaining optimal immune function. Research suggests that individuals consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night are three times more likely to catch a common cold. Ensuring you get a solid 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night can significantly reduce your risk of falling ill.

“The choices we make in our diet play a pivotal role in determining our overall health and resilience against illnesses,” Wilson says. “By prioritizing nutrient-rich foods, getting adequate sleep, and adopting other healthy habits, we can fortify our immune systems and enjoy a healthier season ahead.”

Our medical providers deliver a high level of outpatient care for both common and uncommon health problems at the Preventive Medicine Clinic. Learn more here.

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