In most years, the cold and flu season comes and goes without too much fuss. Not this one. "The swine flu is dangerous and spreads much faster than the usual seasonal flu," says William Schaffner, MD, chair of the Vanderbilt University department of preventive medicine and president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "It's not being overhyped, and everyone should take it seriously." (You can stay on top of the latest flu news by checking the CDC Web site at cdc.gov/flu
More: Winter and Nutrition
But even as the flu season unfolds, there's much you can do to substantially lower your own risk of getting sick. First, assess your vulnerability by familiarizing yourself with the signs of impaired immunity. Then adopt the strategies on the following pages, where you'll find all the tools you need to boost your immunity, fight off the flu (as well as the plain old cold), and keep you and your family healthy this winter and beyond.
1. Fight Back With Food
Research shows that adding certain foods to an already healthful diet can increase your ability to fend off colds and flu this season. Here's what to start eating now:
Yogurt: Shift workers who consumed a drink containing Lactobacillus reuteri, a probiotic that appears to stimulate infection-fighting white blood cells, were 33 percent less likely to take sick days than those who took a placebo, according to an 80-day Swedish study published in Environmental Health. But beware, says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of 10 books on nutrition: "Some companies make up probiotic names to put on their label." She suggests looking for yogurt that contains Lactobacillus acidophilusas well as Bifidus and L. rhamnosus. "They're even more effective when combined," she says.
Garlic: According to a study published in Advances in Therapy, subjects who swallowed a garlic capsule for 12 winter weeks were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold; those who did suffered for 3 1/2 days less. Garlic contains allicin, a potent bacteria fighter, and other infection-fighting compounds, and Somer believes it's even more effective in food form. She suggests adding one to three cooked cloves to your food each day.
More: Eat Your Illness Away
Black tea: Drinking five cups a day for two weeks can turn your immune system's T cells into "Hulk cells" that produce 10 times more interferon, a protein that battles cold and flu infections, according to a Harvard study. Don't like black tea? The green variety will also do the trick. If you can't stomach drinking that much, you can still get added protection with fewer cups.
Mushrooms: They contain more than 300 compounds that rev up immunity, in part by escalating the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and making them more aggressive. Shiitake, maitake, and reishi varieties contain the most immune-boosting chemicals, but plain old button mushrooms will also do the job.
Fatty Fish: Salmon, mackerel, herring, and other fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which increase activity of phagocytes—cells that fight flu by eating up bacteria—according to a study by Britain's Institute of Human Nutrition and School of Medicine. They also contain selenium, which helps white blood cells produce cytokines, proteins that help clear viruses. Other research shows that omega-3s increase airflow and protect lungs from colds and respiratory infections. In fact, says Somer, DHA and EPA (the two main forms of omega-3s) benefit the immune system at the most basic level, enabling cell membranes to efficiently absorb nutrients and remove toxins.
Enhance your diet with these other powerfoods to help boost your immune system.
More: How to Keep Your Immune System Strong