Spring is the season of hope and possibility…and often a new round of sniffles and colds. As the seasons change, our immune systems can become weakened, leaving us open targets for colds and other bugs we’d prefer to avoid. The right foods, experts say, can nourish your body in ways that help strengthen your immune system, ease symptoms, and protect against illness. Some are probably sitting in your kitchen right now!
Here are four foods with healing properties that rival many medicines. So go ahead, grab your spoon and fork to do battle with those bugs. Hopefully, you won’t waste one moment of a beautiful spring day sick in bed.
1. Honey: The Natural Antibiotic
What doesn’t honey do? That may be the better question, as health experts acknowledge the many medicinal benefits of this golden sweetener, which has been used for centuries in cultures all over the world. Honey’s antibacterial and antimicrobial properties make it a great natural remedy for everything from soothing a sore throat or cough to keeping the flu at bay. Especially if it’s raw and organic, honey is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that boost the body’s immune system. Studies show it protects against salmonella, E. coli, and other sources of food poisoning, and it even replaces the good bacteria lost from your system when you’re on antibiotics. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, honey has also been used since ancient times to treat all sorts of digestive ailments, from ulcers to gastritis. Research shows it can help repair damage to the lining of the intestines and stimulate the growth of new, healthy tissue.
Topically, honey is an effective antibiotic on cuts and scrapes, fighting off bacteria, preventing infection, and speeding wound healing. (Note: Children under 12 months shouldn’t eat honey as it contains bacteria that, in rare cases, could cause infant botulism.)
2. Kefir and Yogurt: The Immune Boosters
Yogurt and its lesser-known cousin kefir are fermented dairy products that contain probiotics — live microorganisms that increase the digestive system’s population of healthy bacteria, which have the important function of fending off invading germs. (The word probiotic literally means “for life.”)
One study found that some probiotic cultures boost the production of immune-protective T-cells, while another found that probiotics cut short the duration of colds by two days while relieving symptoms. And of particular note for flu season, research has shown that one specific probiotic, Lactobacillus reuteri, may block the ability of viruses to replicate and make you sick. To get the full benefits of kefir and yogurt, look for the words “live and active cultures” on the label, which guarantees 100 million cultures per gram, or about 17 billion cultures in a 6-ounce cup.
Although yogurt might be more familiar, kefir is worth checking out (it’s usually found alongside the yogurt in most supermarkets, or available at your local health food store), because it contains different strains of gut-friendly bacteria. The fermenting process used to make kefir also involves yeast, known to have its own immune-boosting effect on digestive health.
3. Spinach: The Mood Lifter
Make yourself a dinner salad with this vibrant leafy green, now that the weather is warming up and we’re moving away from comfort food to lighter fare. Spinach is rich in folic acid, also called folate, a B-vitamin known to protect against depression (and give a little boost to your sagging spirits if you find yourself sick in bed on a gorgeous spring day!). Scientists have found that the brain needs folate in order to synthesize the key mood-lifting brain chemicals norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Researchers from Harvard University found that increasing folate levels in people with depression helped relieve their symptoms; other studies have shown that folic acid can help antidepressants work better.
Clearly, Popeye was on to something. As far as staying healthy goes, spinach, scientists say, is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. There’s the iron in spinach, which helps ward off iron-deficiency anemia, and recent research has identified specific plant chemicals in spinach that are powerful cancer fighters. In fact, spinach is a top source of more than 20 nutrients, including protein, calcium, and magnesium.
4. Green Tea: The Superhero Health Protector
Whether sipped hot or cold, green tea has been touted for its medicinal properties in China for more than 4,000 years. Recent research has linked green tea with a wide range of health benefits, from improving digestion to cancer prevention. Drinking several cups a day has been found to lower levels of cholesterol and other artery-clogging fats in the blood, as well as help prevent heart disease.
Studies have also shown that drinking tea can aid in the prevention of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, and kidney stones. The ingredient in green tea responsible for all that heavy lifting is a plant chemical called epigallocatechin gallatte (EGCG).
As an added beauty bonus: Tea bags do wonders for puffy eyes if you’ve had a few too many sleepless nights. When you’re done steeping, let the tea bags cool. Lie down and apply them on top of each eye for 5 to 10 minutes. The caffeine will temporarily tighten skin while the tannins fight inflammation.