This simple habit reduces risk of flu and viral infections

Protecting the body from viral infections and strengthening the immune system can come from a colorful diet, especially this year with coronavirus and flu.

 Woman sneezes (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Woman sneezes
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

The current winter isn’t easy, and this year with coronavirus there’s also an ugly wave of the flu. Besides masks and vaccines, it’s clear to everyone that it’s impossible to completely prevent infection with the flu or coronavirus, but there is one simple way to reduce the risk and it’s through your plate and cup.

Protecting the body from viral infections is perhaps more important today than ever before. When talking about viral infections, we can refer to the flu and coronavirus that are present all year but are particularly dominant in the winter. In both cases, the nutritional status of the person is very important because it has a direct effect on the immune system's ability to deal with complications like disease intensity, shortening the duration of disease, and the number of infections.

Coping and Prevention: Viral Infections

Acute respiratory infections are a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, as seen by seasonal flu and the number of deaths since the pandemic erupted. Maintaining public health practices, including hand washing and vaccinations, help reduce the spread and impact of these infections. However, the spread of viruses and the global infection state is particularly high, and these procedures are insufficient.

Acute respiratory infections, for example, were responsible for about 2 million deaths worldwide in 2016 and this is even before the coronavirus era. The importance of nutrition in supporting immune system function has been clearly demonstrated in many studies in recent years. Data from clinical and other studies have shown that nutrition is of great importance in strengthening the immune system and helps the body fight infection. Studies have also shown that if malnutrition occurs, it can interfere with the body's ability to cope with infections and increase the risk of disease.

Fresh vegetables are sold at the shuk (market) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Fresh vegetables are sold at the shuk (market) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The importance of nutrition in maintaining health

In April 2020, an article published in the scientific journal Nutrients focused on the importance of maintaining an optimal nutritional status and its impact on the functioning of the immune system in protecting against viral infections. The food components that have been found in long-term studies to be essential for maintaining a proper nutritional status and supporting the functioning of the immune system are:

  • Vitamins: A, B6, B12, C, D, E and folic acid
  • Minerals: Zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium and copper
  • Essential fatty acids: Omega 3, Eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid

Research has also proven that the most important vitamins for maintaining the proper functioning of the immune system and which people are usually deficient in are Vitamin C and Vitamin D. Copious amounts of Vitamin C can be found in bell peppers, oranges, clementine, lemons, pomelos, guavas, tomatoes, strawberries, kiwis, pineapples, papayas and more. Vitamin D is found in the liver and internal organs of meat; eggs, salmon, fish oil, butter, etc.

And what about supplements? 

According to the study, there is room to consider a recommendation for supplements and strengthen some of the food components above the daily recommendations of the RDA, but of course to keep from crossing the upper limit defined as safe for consumption (UL) in Israel.

Green tea lowers the risk of flu

Before we resort to taking supplements, be aware of what you can consume naturally to strengthen the immune system. A study published in June 2021 in the journal European Academy of Nutritional Sciences found that drinking green tea significantly strengthens the body and protects against the flu.

The study was conducted in Japan during the winter months (November-April) and involved 4,302 people. The researchers collected data from the participants on the amount of green tea they drank and how often they experienced flu-like illness. Results showed that drinking green tea really prevented people from getting the flu. The best protection by green tea was found when participants drank five or more cups a week. 

Of course, more research is needed to examine the effect of green tea on the flu and how it builds up the immune system, but even now it can be said that regularly drinking green tea has many health benefits, especially in the winter when the risk of flu increases.

Yael Dror M. Sc.is a clinical dietician and physiologist.