Fight off the flu with immune-boosting nutrients

Published 6:26 pm Friday, December 9, 2022

It’s flu season again, so most people get a flu shot and strive to stay healthy. But can certain foods or supplements boost the immune system and help with that “staying healthy” goal?

“Keeping the immune system strong is key during the cold and flu season,” says Kristi Wempen, dietitian, Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. “There are several things to consider in keeping your immune system strong throughout the year.”

Most importantly, Wempen says to focus on a balanced eating plan.

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“Don’t skip meals, so your body stays well fueled,” Wempen adds. “Aim for five to nine servings of vegetables and fruits daily to provide those immune-boosting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A serving of fruit is one medium piece of fresh fruit, 1 cup of berries or melon, or 1/2 cup of canned fruit packed in its own juice. Getting these nutrients from foods versus vitamin or mineral supplements is always best.”

Wempen states many herbal remedies could be marketed to help fight colds or shorten their duration, but check with a health care professional before taking any supplements or medications. She also says don’t forget fluids. Remember to drink adequate fluids throughout the day with plain water being best.

“Good hygiene and hand-washing also help prevent the spread of germs. Remember to wash produce before eating or using it in recipes. Clean glasses, forks, spoons and other utensils to reduce the spread and growth of bacteria,” says Wempen.

Getting adequate sleep and managing stress can be just as important as healthy eating to prevent the flu. Research demonstrates that lack of sleep and increased stress contribute to illness and overall poor health, so:

Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each day, while children need eight to 14 hours, depending on age.

Healthy ways to cope with stress include meditating, listening to music or journaling.

Physical activity is another strategy to manage stress and may reduce the risk of some chronic diseases that can weaken your immune system.

Wempen does say that even by eating healthy, getting plenty of rest, drinking adequate fluids and managing stress; you may still catch the flu.

Wempen suggests these immune-boosting nutrients can play a role in your fighting off the flu. They include:

Beta carotene

Beta carotene is found in plant foods, such as sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, mangoes, broccoli and tomatoes.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, bell peppers and broccoli.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is found in fatty fish and eggs. Milk and 100% juices fortified with vitamin D also are good sources.


Zinc tends to be better absorbed from foods such as beef and seafood, but it’s also found in plant-based sources, including wheat germ, beans, nuts and tofu.


Probiotics are good bacteria that promote health. You’ll find them in cultured dairy products, such as yogurt, and in fermented foods, such as kefir and kimchi.


Protein comes from animal and plant sources, including milk, yogurt, eggs, beef, chicken, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils.

Unfortunately, there are a few myths and facts that need to be cleared up about immune-boosting nutrients that many still carry with them today, suggests Wempen. One involving the old-fashioned remedy of chicken soup.

“It’s true that chicken soup can help you feel better,” says Wempen. “According to the National Institutes of Health, there are many healing benefits of chicken soup. Your favorite recipe likely has properties that fight inflammation, promote hydration and get mucus flowing. Drink plenty of liquids, such as water, broth or sports drinks with electrolytes.”

The biggest myths continue to surround vitamin C and dairy products.

“When taken before cold symptoms start, vitamin C may shorten the duration, but it doesn’t keep you from getting sick,” advises Wempen. “You also may have heard that milk and other dairy products worsen congestion during an illness. Research has not proven this to be true.”