Sick Food: Eat Your Illness Away

Nobody plans to get sick. On the contrary, your efforts to avoid it sometimes seem borderline OCD: Don't sneeze into your hands, always cook your chicken to exactly 170 degrees, and hose down every germ-carrying preschooler in sight with soap and water.

And yet, no matter how many times you gargle with salt before bedtime or coat yourself in antibacterial hand cleanser, now and again the inevitable rumble in your tummy or tickle in your throat hits. Hard. Suddenly, you're down for the count and up to date on the daytime soaps. What are you doing wrong? Probably nothing. But you can do a few more things right.

Certain foods and drinks have a natural immunity boost; to tap their benefits, just open up and say, "Ahh."

Tea Off Against Colds

Not just any hot tea, though. Chamomile, according to researchers from London's Imperial College, is the one that'll help prevent sickness. In a recent study, they found people who drank five cups of the brew a day for 2 weeks had increased blood levels of plant-based compounds called polyphenols, some of which have been associated with increased antibacterial activity. Levels remained high for 2 weeks after subjects stopped drinking the tea, says lead researcher Elaine Holmes, Ph.D. (Bonus: chamomile tea also raised levels of glycine, a mild nerve relaxant and sedative.)

Knock 'em Dead

There's a killer living in all of us. Known as a macrophage and produced deep in your bone marrow, it's a white blood cell that roams the body, picking fights with bacteria, viruses, or any other intruders. But it only works if you help it. These killer cells are activated by beta-glucans, a component of fiber foods.

The best source? Oats, says David Grotto, R.D., director of nutrition education at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Illinois. So eat your oatmeal oatmeal. The steel-cut oats, like McCann's Irish Oatmeal, have double the amount found in the rolled, quick-cooking kind.

Dressing for Success

Eating a salad for lunch is smart. Drowning it in fat-free dressing isn't. A recent study from Iowa State University found that without dietary fat, your body doesn't absorb some of the disease-fighting nutrients in vegetables. Researchers fed seven people salad for 12 weeks and tested their blood after each meal. Those who topped their salads with fat-free dressing consistently failed to absorb carotenoids, antioxidants that have been linked to improved immunity.

Fat is necessary for the carotenoids to reach the absorptive intestinal cells, says lead researcher Wendy White, Ph.D. Choose dressings with healthy fats from olive or nut oils, such as Many Seeds of Change (available at Whole Foods or in the crunchy section of your neighborhood market) and many Annie's Naturals dressings. If you're feeling adventuresome, try making your own. For an Italianate, try 2 or 3 parts extra virgin olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar; for something with an Asian influence, go 3 parts sesame oil to 1 part rice wine vinegar.

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