How to Fend Off the Flu

And what to do if you do get sick

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

With flu season upon us, we all need to be vigilant about taking good care of ourselves to boost our immunity and avoid getting sick. An ounce of prevention could be worth a week's time in the sickbed!

So what should you be doing to stay flu-free? All are things you should be doing anyway for the good of your health:

  • Taking a daily multivitamin
  • Getting enough rest and regular physical activity
  • Drinking plenty of liquids
  • Following a healthy eating plan that includes a variety of vitamin- and mineral-rich foods

In particular, vitamins B6 and B12 contribute to a healthy immune system. Vitamin B6 is widely available in foods, including potatoes, spinach, turkey, beans, and enriched cereal grains. B12, on the other hand, is only available from animal sources such as meat, milk, and fish.

Minerals such as selenium and zinc also work to keep the immune system strong. These minerals are found in protein-rich foods such as beans, nuts, meat, and poultry.

Keeping up with your physical activity program can help, too. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends regular, moderate exercise to boost the immune system. According to ACE, people who exercise four to five times per week are less likely to come down with colds and flu.

And don't forget to take simple "respiratory hygiene" precautions that can help reduce the spread of disease, including:

  • Washing your hands frequently, using soap, for at least 15 seconds
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Cleaning the headsets of your telephones, and washing doorknobs, railings, and other frequently handled objects to keep them free of germs
  • Keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze

What to Do When You've Got the Flu

If you do catch the flu, see your doctor, and ask about antiviral medications that can reduce your sick time by a day or two and make you less contagious. While you stay home and try to recover, follow this advice from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Rest
  • Avoid tobacco and alcohol

Don't worry about following your eating plan or keeping up with your journal when you're not feeling well. Most people don't feel much like eating when they are sick, especially if they have flu-like symptoms. You can catch up your journal when you're back to enjoying solid food, or simply skip the period during which you were ill.

The single most important nutrition therapy for a speedy recovery is to drink plenty of nourishing liquids, such as hot tea, broth-based or chicken soup, and 100% fruit juice. All of these beverages contain easily-to-digest fluids and nutrients that will help you get well.

You might want to make your tea the chamomile variety. Chamomile tea, long regarded as a calming bedtime tea and as a way to quell an upset stomach, is now thought to be an immunity-booster as well. A study recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that five daily cups of chamomile tea helped fight infections.

Stack the Deck in Your Favor

Choosing a multivitamin with extra vitamin E and C may help reduce flu symptoms. A 2002 study showed that seniors who took 200 IU of vitamin E daily for a year had 20% fewer colds. Typical multivitamins contain just 30 IU of vitamin E, and this is one vitamin that is easier to supplement in pill form than in food. Food sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils, wheat germ, nuts, asparagus, spinach, and other green, leafy vegetables.

Linus Pauling became famous for advocating extra vitamin C for cold and flu symptoms a decade ago, but the validity of his advice has been called into question in the last few years. Some researchers maintain that extra vitamin C is effective only for elite athletes. Others suggest that high doses of vitamin C can reduce symptoms and/or reduce your sick time by a day or two.

Whatever the case, drinking orange and grapefruit juice and eating vitamin C-rich tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, and cabbage are unlikely to do any harm -- and are excellent choices when you're feeling under the weather. Since vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, it's hard to get too much from food sources.

The Road to Recovery

As you start to feel better, slowly add more foods back to your diet. Oatmeal, scrambled eggs, yogurt, bananas, turkey, and toast are examples of foods that are usually well-tolerated after a bout with the flu.

You may have your own homemade food remedies that you prefer as you transition back into your eating plan. Just take your time, and get back into your eating and exercise routine when you fully recover.

SOURCES: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Jan. 26, 2005. Journal of the American Medical Association, August 2002.

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