No matter how hard I try, I can’t help feeling panicky when I see someone sniffling and sneezing on the train. Just the other morning, an uncovered cough prompted me to jerk my head and flare my nostrils in disgust. This gesture would probably be considered rude, I know, but I really couldn’t help it. Public transportation is a breeding ground for bacteria, and try as we might, we city folks who rely on buses and trains find it virtually impossible to distance ourselves from potential hot zones. The easiest, most surefire way to defend yourself against daily germ exposure is to have a hearty immune system; it will ensure that you’re ready to fight off whatever may come your way (or, in the case of public transit, whatever it is you may put yourself in the way of). Fortunately, there are a variety of foods you can incorporate into your diet that will help strengthen your immune system and effectively guard against colds and disease.
One Man’s Meat Is Another Man’s ... Immunity Builder
Zinc, a crucial mineral for proper cell function in the human body, can be found in abundance in beef and dark turkey meat, as well as in oysters, pork, eggs, and pumpkin seeds. It works to develop and stimulate T-lymphocytes (better known as T-cells), which are of the utmost importance to our immune systems’ integrity. T-cells can be likened to soldiers who search for and destroy potentially harmful invaders in our systems. Be careful, though—too much zinc can actually inhibit immune function and lead to toxicity. For this reason, it’s best to just stick to attaining appropriate zinc levels through your diet, rather than through a supplement.
Age-Old Miracle Broth
My fiancé has long poked fun at me for eating too much chicken noodle soup, insisting, “It’s not something you’re supposed to eat every day.” Well, I beg to differ. Partly to save money and partly trying to stay healthy, I started making large pots of it to take to work for lunch each week. Instead of spending five bucks at the taco truck here and ten bucks at the deli there, $10 to $15 makes me plenty of soup for lunch all five workdays. And recently, after a full night of hacking, my fiancé woke up and, much to his chagrin, asked me to make a pot.
The soup’s immunity-boosting properties lie in the broth, which is full of an amino acid called cysteine. By helping to thin mucus that settles in the lungs, cysteine alleviates bronchial and respiratory symptoms. According to the study “Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro,” published in the scientific journal Chest in 2000, “chicken soup might have an anti-inflammatory activity, namely the inhibition of neutrophil migration.” Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cells in our bodies and are an essential part of the innate immune system; chicken soup works to energize these cells.
Chicken soup is also rich in selenium, which is one of the most potent antioxidants. Selenium aids in combating bacteria and viruses by triggering the body’s T-cells. In addition, the carrots in chicken noodle soup provide a great source of vitamin A, which enhances several immune-system activities, such as increasing the function of white blood cells and increasing antibodies’ response to non-self (foreign to the body) antigens. In addition, vitamin A assists in preserving the structure of the mucosal tissues, which are vital to the immune system, as they act as the first line of defense. Yet another standard chicken soup component is onions, which contain the powerful plant-derived flavonoid quercetin, which has natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties.
The Fungus Among Us
White button and crimini mushrooms have recently popped up as unsung heroes of a healthy defense system. After experimenting with a variety of mushrooms’ effects on mice, Arizona State University assistant professor in nutrition Keith R. Martin published his findings in the online journal BMC Immunology in February 2009. He concluded, “The white button mushroom seemed to be the most effective in boosting the immune system, which is good because they are the most affordable.” These mushrooms contain beta-glucans, which increase white blood cells and boost immune-system function. They also happen to be another rich source of selenium and zinc. Other mushroom varieties well known for their immunity-building properties include maitake, shiitake, and reishi.
The “Nice” Bacteria
Foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, soy sauce, Yakult, yogurt, kefir, and Kombucha contain live probiotic cultures, safe microorganisms believed to have a vast array of health benefits—including providing a superboost to the immune system. They protect against pathogens (i.e., germs) by means of competitive inhibition. In other words, the good bacteria compete against the growth of the bad bacteria and strengthen the body’s natural defenses. Be sure to inspect the ingredients on most yogurt products, though, because many are filled with high-fructose corn syrup, which you should avoid when trying to maximize your immunity.
Sunny Side of the Street
A diet rich in fresh, colorful, raw fruits and vegetables is a diet rich in vitamin C, the mother of all cold-busters. It stimulates the body’s production of white blood cells and antibodies, which fight infection, and is known as the ultimate protector in that it increases one particular antibody, natural interferon, that coats cells and stops viruses from getting in. Some of the foods highest in vitamin C are bell peppers, kale, brussels sprouts, spinach, grapefruit, raspberries, and, of course, oranges.
Besides Eating ...
Practice regular nasal cleansing with a Neti pot; it’s a very effective way to keep your sinuses flushed. Just a little warm water and salt packet for two minutes in the shower a few times each week will help keep your mucus levels in check.
You should also monitor your coffee and alcohol intake closely, especially if you wake up with a sore throat or feel the dreaded body ache coming on during the workday. Skip that morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine—it could be the one tactic that stops your cold from going from bad to worse.
Get plenty of rest and drink lots of water—nothing is more detrimental to the body’s natural defenses than exhaustion or dehydration. A night of tossing and turning will surely kick your symptoms into overdrive.
Finally, be mindful of your stress levels. Both psychological and physical stress will break down your immunity barrier and make you more susceptible to catching something.
Maintaining a healthy immune system may save you not only from the discomfort of being sick, but also time and money. Think of the hours you’ll avoid being on hold while you try to make a doctor’s appointment or sitting in a waiting room, and the cash you’ll save on co-payments, prescriptions, and over-the-counter medicines. Knowing that your immune system is up to speed also just might make your day-to-day commute a little more carefree.