Even the healthiest of people succumb to a viral infection on occasion.
This is especially true during the cold, stressful winter months when it seems like everywhere you go the background music is a display of well-timed coughs, sneezes, and sniffles that come together to form a sound rivaling the Tran Siberian Orchestra.
And with this sickness comes a decline in energy, appetite, and well-being that may last for several days and even more than a week if you don’t eat well.
So, how do you counteract the lack of appetite and cravings for nutrient poor, comfort food when you feel your worse to expedite the recovery process? By following the seven nutrition strategies below!
The Relationship Between Your Digestive System And Immune System
What you eat and when you eat has a large impact on your body’s ability to mount a strong defense against formidable foes such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses. That’s because your digestive system comprises 70 percent of your immune system.
The saliva that surrounds each bite of food in your mouth, the hydrochloric acid in your stomach, and the billions of good bacteria that comprise your gut collectively make up the frontline and some of the main defenses to foreign invaders.
Your immune system has a high demand for nutrient dense foods and when you are consuming a nutrient-poor diet your immune system provides sub-optimal defense. This is further compounded when we consider that when you’re sick you eat less and absorb nutrients less efficiently as your body dedicates most of its energy and resources to fight off the foreign invaders that caused you to feel sick in the first place.
Fortunately, being mindful of your food choices in the heat of the battle can help you say bye-bye to bacterial infections and other germs holding you down!
- Eat Every 4 – 5 Hours
Depending on whether you’re battling a common cold or this year’s flu strain, you may or may not feel hungry. For most, it’s the latter: they feel as if they could survive the entire day on a bowl of chicken noodle soup and few crackers. Unfortunately, this only slows the recovery process down.
Although you may not have your usual appetite and are certainly not in the mood for another meal of chicken, brown rice, and broccoli, it’s important that you provide your body (and immune system) the fuel and nourishment it needs to mount the appropriate defense against this foreign invader. If your appetite is non-existent, I recommend that nutrient-rich smoothies become a focal point at meal times – you’ll find it much easier (and more appealing) to drink your calories rather than eat them when your appetite isn’t present. And, of course, if you are hungry, eat per your usual plan as best you can.
- Prioritize Protein At Every Meal
I’ve discussed the many benefits of a higher-protein diet at length here and here – and especially here – but one area I’ve not discussed is how essential protein is to a healthy immune system. The antibodies, lymphocytes, phagocytes, and host of other various cells that comprise your immune system are proteins. When you fail to take in adequate protein the supply and effective action of each is compromised.
Furthermore, three amino acids in particular (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins) have been shown to have a significant impact on immune function: glutamine, arginine, and cysteine.
- Glutamine: Glutamine is used at a high rate by various cells of the immune system. It’s used to help with cell production to build a strong defense against foreign invaders.
- Arginine: Arginine levels are related to T-cell production. T cells are lymphocytes that play an active an effective role in immune system function. When arginine levels are low T cell function and number are impaired.
- Cysteine: Cysteine levels are also related to T cell production and low cysteine levels can negatively impact T cell function. Furthermore, cysteine serves as a precursor to glutathione, which has antioxidant-like properties in the body and plays an integral role in immune defense.
Psssst….if you want to learn more about the myriad of health, fat-loss, and muscle-building benefits of protein, then you’ll want to check-out my online video course “Everything You Need To Know About Protein.”
- Focus on Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that play a major role in immune function. It should be no surprise that I strongly advocate you focus on eating multiple servings of each during the day when you’re feeling under the weather.
To enhance the ease of eating both fruits and vegetables, I recommend making multiple smoothies into the day so that you can sneak them in. Here’s a handy collection of dozens of tasty fruit and vegetable smoothie options!
- Drink Plenty of Fluids
Adequate hydration helps to enhance waste removal and elimination of toxins while also ensuring that your immune system is firing on all cylinders. Dehydration, however, negatively impacts immune function, energy levels, and your ability to sleep – all of which will extend the duration of your cold.
I recognize that drinking 100+ ounces of water during the day when you’re not feeling well may be the last thing you want to do, but the role adequate hydration plays in your recovery is crucial. I recommend a combination of soup, broth, low-calorie, electrolyte-rich sports drinks, smoothies, tea, and water throughout the day – whatever appears more appealing to you. Your goal should be at least 125 ounces of fluids each day while you’re sick (not water; TOTAL fluids).
- Exercise…At Least A Little
It’s hard to fathom knocking out a squat session when you’re blowing your nose every other minute and feel like complete crap. But it turns out that exercising while you’re sick may expedite the recovery process. That’s because exercise stimulates production of various immune system cells, specifically white blood cells, and works to remove toxins and waste products from the lungs and rest of your body.
However, the type, intensity, and duration of your workout matters.
I recommend backing off any grueling workout and opting for a 30-minute, low-intensity exercise session similar to an “active recovery” workout. This may include a combination of light resistance training – think 1 – 3 sets working at 50 – 60 percent of your usual intensity – and low-moderate cardiovascular activity. My favorite combination is a 10 – 15-minute cardiovascular warm-up followed by a 20-minute full-body circuit.
Move. Break a sweat. Get out.
If your exercise session is too intense, you may further tax your body and prolong this sickness because your body will continue to feel overwhelmed and will be unable to recover.
- Prioritize Prebiotics and Probiotics
Your gut bacteria play an important role in protecting your body from fungi, bacteria, and viruses. That’s why probiotics and prebiotics are so important to maintain a healthy gut, which has an intricate relationship with your immune system.
Probiotics are tiny, living organisms, like some bacteria and yeast that reside in our gut. Not all bacteria are probiotics, though. The “pro-” prefix marks the ones that are thought to provide a health benefit. Foods rich in probiotics include:
- Premium Carbohydrates: barley, beans, oats, quinoa, rye, wheat, potatoes, and yams
- Vegetables: asparagus, garlic, leeks, and onions
- Fruit: apples, bananas, berries, citrus fruits, kiwi
- Premium Fats: flax and chia seeds
Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients that act as a food source for probiotics. You can’t digest them, but your gut bacteria can. Foods rich in prebiotics include:
- Dairy: yogurt, cheese, and kefir (with live and active cultures)
- Fermented Vegetables: pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi
- Fermented Soy: miso, tempeh
- Miscellaneous: soy sauce
Prioritizing prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods should be part of your foundation of healthy eating but when you’re sick, it may be best to turn to supplementation of each. Furthermore, mega-dosing a few other key nutrients may help to combat that cold sooner than you thought.
- Prebiotics: 2 – 4 grams per day (with meals)
- Probiotics: 5 – 10 billion live cultures per day
- Supplement To Speed Recovery
In addition to supplementing with prebiotics and probiotics when you’re feeling under the weather, you may benefit from mega-dosing a few other key nutrients to combat that cold sooner:
- Vitamin C: 1,000 – 1,500 mg
- Ginseng: 200 – 400 mg
- Selenium: 300 – 500 mg
- Quercetin: 1,000 mg per day
I recommend that you have a small sick-day stash stowed away in your bathroom cabinet for these rare occasions. These supplements do not need to be part of your daily regimen.