"An apple a day keeps the doctor away."
You’ve all heard it. You’ve probably said it. But is it true? And an apple is, well, sooooo boring. What about the latest and greatest foods, ingredients and wellness “hacks” that are purported to stave off everything from the common cold to the flu?
Well, first and foremost, while eating healthier, exercising, sleeping well, washing hands regularly and generally taking care of your health is important and may lessen the likelihood of sickness, nothing is a cure-all.
That said, let’s look at some data around some of those oh-so-trendy ingredients to see if they may help, even just a smidgen, when we’re thinking about optimizing our health and staying just a bit healthier during flu season and, well, year-round.
Black elderberries have long been used in traditional cultures to support immune function and have been reported to have antiviral properties to fight against the flu and other viral infections. Herbal remedies like this have been passed down for generations and are often simply a part of life without any question. In fact it’s one of the most-used medicinal plants worldwide and in some cultures and parts of the world.
Currently, you can buy elderberry extract in the form of syrup, teas, soft gels and cough drops, among others.
What’s the data suggest?
Well, first, there are many different kinds of elderberry plants but the flowers and berries of Sambucus nigra are the most studied. And if you do choose to take this product, that species name – Sambucus nigra - should be listed on the label. Very simply, elderberries have a high level of antioxidants and they’re thought to work by boosting the body’s natural immune response. Most of the studies have been small, but typically show taking elderberry syrup can clear up systems a little more quickly than not taking it. Again, not prevention, but possibly help you rebound a bit faster. Looking for a reputable product? Try Gaia Herbs.
Most often thought about for nausea, ginger may also have some ability to improve immunity thanks to compounds in ginger such as gingerols, which may help decrease chronic inflammation. And, no, don’t take this information to convince yourself that regularly slugging down Ginger Ale is a smart idea. That’s not really a quality source of ginger. At. All.
Instead, consider ginger tea – simply add boiling water to sliced, fresh ginger with a squeeze of lemon for a refreshing afternoon drink. If ginger root is foreign to you, The Ginger People make all sorts of jarred, fresh ginger products making it easy to make this an afternoon tradition. Otherwise look for the root in the produce section of your grocery store and give it a whirl.
Not only does garlic keep vampires away, compounds in garlic – namely one called allicin -- can help fight bad bacteria and viruses lurking around and trying to put you down and out.
In whole garlic the compound is actually called aliin (similar, but not the same as above). Garlic then has to be crushed, chewed or sliced to turn this compound into the more functional allicin (notice the added ‘c’).
That’s the main functional ingredient within garlic and is also the one that gives it its stank (and amazing flavor). It also is the ingredient that has been shown to have some immunomodulatory effects. That’s a long way to say it’s uber healthy and can boost immunity.
Here’s what you need to do before using. Cut, slice or crush and ideally let it sit for a bit – about 10 minutes. This essentially “opens” the cells within the garlic cloves to ultimately turn aliin into allicin. After it sits, add extra to soups, greens, pasta – you name it – add it! Heck, it also adds an amazing flavor to boot even if it didn’t do a thing for your immunity.
Mushrooms are definitely the “it” food of the year. And for a good reason. Mushrooms – any and all types of mushrooms – are loaded with nutrition. Above and beyond the basics, though, there’s some very impressive data around specific types of mushrooms that can provide an abundance of benefits and immune support to your entire body. Chaga mushrooms are one of those and have been used for centuries throughout the world to improve immunity and overall health.
You aren’t going to comb your supermarket aisles and find chaga mushrooms mixed in with the white button or portobellos to sauté and add to a burger; instead, it’s ground and available as tea or within supplements. While human data is scarce, animal data shows promise. One study published in the journal Mycobiology found that supplementing mice with chaga mushroom extract was an immune enhancer.
Again, not a cure-all, but what’s important to know is that as part of the immune boosting puzzle, chaga mushrooms certainly can’t hurt (said as I sip on a Four Sigmatic Mushroom Elixir Mix (made with Chaga mushrooms) as a nice, warm winter beverage that’s not coffee (though I like that too).
I’m not talking about the potent, fragrant herb that’s best known as an ingredient in Italian food (though it’s great there, too). When it’s concentrated as an essential oil it’s pretty high in antioxidant compounds that may have some benefit to improving immunity. While it’s full of various compounds, one named carvacrol is the most abundant phenol in oregano oil that has been shown in a handful of studies to have some antimicrobial activity. Of note, oregano oil does have to be diluted according to the directions on the oregano oil bottle you are considering, but understand it’s a very, very strong flavor and shouldn’t be used internally unless diluted. While eating fresh or dried oregano isn’t quite the same, they certainly have some of these same antioxidants as well.
You know what’s not on this list?
First, the most important one - washing your hands – or fruits, veggies, exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight and adequate sleep. There’s not a magical fruit or veggie that’s better than others. All are great and variety is key. Consistent exercise is important and aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep has been shown to improve immune function. I did not leave any of those out because they’re not each amazing, but because they’re sadly not quite sexy enough to make the list but are each much more important. Those I listed aren’t also the only “hot” ones right now, but they’re currently leading the pack. Consider any or all of them, but in addition, not instead of, all those other important ones.
Also, the combination of all of them will do way more for you then any individual ingredient. Again, nothing can prevent sickness but all of the wellness “hacks” listed can do a ton to keep your immune system cranking, making it harder for sickness to makes it way through your shield of armor. Just wash your hands before enjoying any of them. And after.