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Focusing on infection protection? Your body has different needs during all three stages of sickness—before, during, and after. Here’s how to prevent, treat, and recover from illness: what to eat, how to live, and science-backed supplements for each stage.
Reduce your chances of getting sick with proven preventive measures that boost resilience, reinforce immunity, and protect against pathogens.
What to eat. Avoid sugar, processed foods, and fried foods—studies suggest they impact immune response, spur inflammation, and decrease resistance. Instead, focus on whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in nutrients that support immunity, dampen inflammation, inhibit viral replication, protect against respiratory illness, and reduce the risk of infection. Some of the best:
- Carotenoids—winter squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens
- Omega-3 fats—salmon, sardines, tuna, herring
- Selenium—Brazil nuts, beef, eggs, turkey, cottage cheese
- Quercetin—apples, onions, green tea, grapes, broccoli
- Vitamin C—red peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi fruit
- Beta-glucans—shiitake mushrooms, oats, barley, nutritional yeast
What to do. Start by moving more. Research shows that regular exercise improves immune function, lowers inflammation, and enhances the body’s ability to ward off illness. Just don’t overdo it—excessive or prolonged exercise negatively impacts immunity. Shoot for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every day. Regular movement also stabilizes sleep, which is critical for immunity. Studies link sleep deprivation with greater susceptibility to viral infections. And chill out. Chronic stress increases inflammation, suppresses immune response, and makes you more susceptible to illness.
What to take. Add an extra layer of prevention with science-backed supplements that have been shown to support a healthy immune response, inhibit viral replication, and lessen the risk of infection. Seven of the best:
- Vitamin D
- N-acetylcysteine (NAC)
- Pelargonium (umckaloabo)
Despite your best efforts, you find yourself sneezing, coughing, and aching all over. That’s when you need to support your body, soothe symptoms, and speed healing.
What to eat. Hydration is critical, especially if you have a fever. Emphasize water-rich foods with healing compounds to stay super-hydrated. Warm liquids such as tea and soup also break up mucus and open nasal passageways. But avoid coffee and caffeinated beverages—they’re dehydrating and sap your strength. Instead, try these:
- Ginger tea is rich in antiviral compounds that reduce inflammation and support respiratory health. Add a sprinkle of cayenne pepper for extra decongestion.
- Peppermint tea contains menthol to calm coughs and break up mucus. Stir in a spoonful of honey, proven to ease coughing.
- Chicken soup contains ingredients (onions, garlic, carrots) that reduce inflammation, support immunity, and speed healing. Studies show that it improves the function of cilia—tiny hairlike projections in the nose that block pathogens—and soothes upper respiratory symptoms.
- For vegans, lentil or chickpea soup is high in zinc to support immune response, inhibit viral replication, and reduce the length and severity of infection. Add shiitake mushrooms—rich in antiviral and antibacterial compounds that lower inflammation and enhance recovery—and extra garlic, which has been shown to lessen length and severity of colds and flu.
What to do. Focus on rest: studies link adequate sleep with better immunity and faster recovery. If you struggle with slumber, try melatonin. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties promote healing and can protect against viral infections. And sleep with a humidifier—warm, moist air soothes scratchy throats, eases congestion, and breaks up mucus. For immediate relief, add a few drops of tea tree, peppermint, or eucalyptus oil to a pot of warm water, drape a towel over your head, and inhale deeply.
What to take. Look for safe, natural herbs that have been proven to soothe your symptoms:
- For sore throat, look for cough drops or cough syrup made with slippery elm, licorice, and fenugreek.
- For congestion, an osha tincture or syrup can help break up mucus in the lungs and nasal passages. Or try teas, syrups, or tinctures made with eucalyptus, hyssop, angelica, elecampane, coltsfoot, mullein, or thyme.
- For a cough, raw, unfiltered honey is rich in antiviral and antibacterial compounds, and some research suggests that it’s better (and safer) than over-the-counter cough syrups.
- For a fever, don’t overdo it. A mild fever means that your immune system is working to fight infection. Stay hydrated and rest, and instead of acetaminophen, use natural remedies to gently ease fever. Try catnip, white willow bark, lemon balm, yarrow, and echinacea.
Don’t rush the healing process. Take it slow, ease back into daily life, nourish your body, and gently enhance your energy.
What to eat. After a serious bout of the flu, your body needs extra nourishment—especially if you’ve had a fever that sapped your appetite. Focus on clean protein to rebuild, plus lots of fruits and vegetables. Emphasize nutrient-dense soups and cooked vegetables, and smoothies made with yogurt for probiotic protection, and berries, chia, and hemp seeds for fiber and antioxidants. Avoid heavy, fried, spicy, or acidic foods, especially if you’ve had a stomach bug.
What to do. After a serious infection, it can take days—even weeks—to completely recover, so don’t just jump back into your busy routine. Keep hydrating and prioritize sleep. Wait until your symptoms have resolved, then incorporate gentle physical movement, such as yoga, walks, and stretches, into your routine to help ramp your energy up. Work up slowly, and avoid the temptation to push your limits. And don’t forget illness (and isolation) impact mood. Practice deep breathing to regulate emotions and promote positive attitude, and re-engage with your social support system as soon as you’re completely symptom-free.
What to take. Being sick saps energy, so restore your vitality naturally with adaptogens that enhance strength, mitigate stress, reignite your spark, and support your whole body. Some of the best are ashwagandha, rhodiola, ginseng, cordyceps, and maca. And make sure to replenish nutrients you may have missed, especially if illness sapped your appetite. Take a food-based multivitamin with added antioxidants to keep your system strong and prevent a repeat infection.
This Butternut, Broccoli and Turkey Sausage Bake is the ultimate immune-boosting meal.