12 Foods and Drinks That Boost Your Immune System

They may not cure an existing bout of sneezing, coughing, and fatigue, but these foods and drinks can reduce the symptoms of your next cold.

When you're sick with a common cold, the idea of eating or drinking anything may be the opposite of appetizing. However, there are foods and drinks that can offer some relief from the dreadful symptoms of a cold—including a runny nose, incessant cough, and fatigue, among others. They can even help strengthen your immune system, helping you feel better sooner rather than later.

Although, per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, most foods and drinks that have immune-boosting qualities will not cure an existing cold. So, how can some ingredients help reduce the severity and length of your next cold?

Here are simple ways to incorporate 12 cold-fighting foods and drinks into your diet to prevent severe symptoms during your next bout of the common cold.

Woman blowing her nose while having a cold.
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Chamomile Tea

Primarily, a hot cup of chamomile tea may have some positive impacts on sleeplessness, per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which can help you feel better quickly.

Also, according to a study published in 2020 in the journal Antioxidants, researchers found that chamomile is a useful antioxidant. That is due to chemicals found in the herb, called flavonoids. Flavonoids—also found in apples, kale, and onion—have anti-inflammatory properties that help you feel better when you're sick.

Sip the drink hot or iced, or use steeped chamomile tea as a liquid base for smoothies or oatmeal.

Turmeric

Curcumin, the natural compound found in turmeric that is responsible for its vibrant color, is a potent anti-inflammatory compound. Per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, curcumin has several health benefits, like reducing inflammation.

However, according to a study published in 2017 in the journal Foods, on its own, turmeric is a weak antioxidant. The researchers suggest that, combined with black pepper, the potency of curcumin and the effects of turmeric amplify.

Sprinkle a combination of turmeric and black paper into a smoothie, soup, broth, or a plate of cooked vegetables.

Cherries

The high antioxidant properties in tart and sweet cherries are due to their high content of vitamin C, per a study published in 2018 in the journal Nutrients. And according to the National Library of Medicine, although foods containing vitamin C do not prevent you from catching a cold, they can help ease your symptoms if you become sick.

Additionally, cherries support healthy sleep due to their natural melatonin content. Restful sleep is key to fighting off viruses and bacteria that make us sick. Earning less than seven hours of sleep per night can weaken your immune system—per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

Try dried tart cherries—or stir some into nut butter—to enjoy as a snack.

Walnuts

In addition to being one of the most common anti-inflammatory foods, walnuts contain several nutrients that play a key role in supporting the immune system. Those include vitamins E and B6, copper, and folate.

In 2018, researchers published an article in the journal Nutrients, which stated that walnuts also help reduce symptoms of depression. It turns out that some of the components of walnuts can increase your ability to concentrate and improve your energy. And that's particularly important because unchecked stress can weaken your immune system.

Pair walnuts with dried tart cherries as a snack, or chop and use them as a garnish for fresh fruit or cooked vegetables.

Soup and Broth

For decades, caretakers have been doling out soups and broths to people under the weather. What's more is that there is some evidence to support their benefits. According to the National Library of Medicine, while a steaming hot bowl of chicken noodle soup is not necessarily a cure for a common cold, it can provide you some relief from the agonizing symptoms.

First, the steam from soups and broths speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose, relieving congestion. Second, a healthy soup also alleviates inflammation. Catching a cold triggers an inflammatory response in your upper respiratory tract. That is what causes those hallmark symptoms of a common cold—like a stuffy nose. And third, the salt from soup or broth will cause your body to retain more water. Staying hydrated gets rid of headaches and dry mouthes.

If you don't eat chicken, opt for vegetable broth, flavored with add-ins like garlic, ginger, cayenne powder, turmeric, and black pepper.

Pepper

Peppers, including cayenne powder, help thin mucus to relieve nasal congestion. In one study published in 2016 in the journal Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, researchers found that capsaicin—the compound that gives spicy peppers their heat—may also help suppress coughing fits.

Add a pinch of ground cayenne powder to your tea, soup, or broth.

Garlic

Historically, people have used garlic to ward off illnesses, fight infections, and treat wounds. And some research lends credibility to garlic's immune-supporting capabilities.

In a study published in 2014 in the journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers recruited 146 volunteers who received either a placebo or a garlic supplement daily for 12 weeks. The researchers determined that the volunteers who received garlic supplements experienced significantly fewer colds—and less severe symptoms if they became ill—than those who received a placebo.

Include a clove of garlic in your next meal, or add a garlic supplement to your daily vitamins.

Raw Honey

In addition to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, some research shows that raw honey eases coughs among children. Researchers reported, in a study published in 2018 in the journal AIMS Microbiology, that manuka honey specifically helps bolster immunity, protecting people from a plethora of viruses and bacteria.

Take it off a spoon before bedtime to soothe your throat and potentially relieve a cough, or stir it into your chamomile tea.

Ginger

Per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, ginger mostly helps ease nausea and vomiting. However, it also possesses numerous anti-inflammatory nutrients that may get rid of infections in your upper respiratory tract. Although, there are limited studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of ginger's anti-inflammatory impacts.

To reap its benefits, opt for fresh ginger root. Slice or grate and add it to tea, broth, smoothies, and juice. Or sprinkle some over fresh fruit.

Bananas

Bananas are one of the easiest foods on the digestive system and remain one of the few appealing foods when your appetite diminishes due to illness.

Per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, bananas also raise blood sugar and provide energy while delivering key nutrients that help support the immune system. Those nutrients include vitamins C and B6, copper, and folate. Bananas are also full of potassium, which is an electrolyte that you lose when sweating.

You can eat bananas as they are or mix them into other tasty treats. Mash and drizzle them with raw honey and freshly grated ginger, blend them into a smoothie, or freeze and eat them as a popsicle.

Pomegranate Juice

Pure pomegranate juice is another drink that supports immunity via its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity. Polyphenols are antioxidants found in pomegranate juice that combat viruses and minimize symptoms, per a study published in 2017 in the journal Nutrients.

Sip on pomegranate juice, add splashes of it to water or chamomile tea, blend it into smoothies, or freeze it in BPA-free molds—along with pureed banana and ginger root—to make popsicles.

Green Vegetables

Green vegetables—including kale, spinach, and chard—provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as key nutrients that aid in the function of your immune system. They also provide compounds that optimize immunity in your gut, which is the location of a large number of your immune cells, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

Sauté green vegetables in extra virgin olive oil with garlic, turmeric, and black pepper, or add them to soups and broths. You can also blend leafy greens into a smoothie.

What To Do if You Catch a Cold

In addition to foods and drinks that improve your immune system before you become sick, it's important to drink plenty of fluids when you catch a cold. Water replenishes the fluid you're losing through your lungs every time you cough, as well as from losses due to sweating.

As far as what to avoid when you're sick, steer clear of foods that may fuel inflammation or stress your immune system. Those foods include refined sugar, processed foods (especially those with artificial ingredients), conventional dairy and meat, caffeine, and alcohol.

Of course, get plenty of sleep and rest, and don't feel guilty about taking the time you need to recover. Trying to maintain the status quo while you have a cold can infect others and prolong your own illness.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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