Frequent hand-washing and getting vaccinated are two important things you can do to keep yourself safe from the flu. If you do become ill, you’ll want to stay home and rest to support recovery and prevent spreading the virus to others.
Should you get sick, here’s another tool to add to your flu-fighting arsenal: whole, nutritious foods and drinks. That’s because research suggests food and drink choices may help or hinder flu symptoms.
“The studies that we have are small and somewhat limited in quality,” says Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, “but even still, we can make some general assumptions as to what is good to eat and drink when you’re sick.”
Flu symptoms include fever, sore throat, cough, congestion or runny nose, and body aches, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some cases, flu may cause diarrhea and vomiting, too.
Read on to learn which foods and drinks to consider including in your diet to help ease the effects of the flu and potentially get back to feeling like your normal self sooner.
Warm, Plain Broth
You’ve likely heard the advice to get plenty of fluids when you’re sick, and this common belief indeed holds true, Dr. Vyas says. Symptoms of the flu, including fever, diarrhea, and vomiting, can lead to rapid loss of water and electrolytes in a short amount of time, leading to dehydration, according to Mayo Clinic.
“When you’re dehydrated, you need to drink lots and lots of fluids to compensate for that,” Vyas says.
It’s generally believed that warm liquids work better than cold liquids to ease symptoms of the flu, and some scientific evidence backs up that conventional wisdom. In one study, researchers compared the effects of both hot and room-temperature drinks in 30 people facing the cold or flu. “The hot drink provided immediate and sustained relief from symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness, and tiredness, whereas the same drink at room temperature only provided relief from symptoms of runny nose, cough, and sneezing,” the researchers state. The benefits may be a result of the hot liquids promoting salivation and airway mucus secretions to lubricate and soothe the upper airways, they concluded.
Broth is a great option when you’re sick with the flu, as it’s rich in nutrients and the heat can soothe a sore throat, Vayas notes.
Whether it’s chicken, vegetable, or bone broth, the benefits likely remain the same, says Lori Dror, RD, with Northwell Health in Long Island, New York. But she recommends opting for a low-sodium variety. “When we are already feeling run-down, we want to avoid high-sodium foods, which can lead to swelling and increased fatigue,” she says.
Depending on your symptoms, liquid broth may be all you can handle, but for more sustenance, add some healthy ingredients to make a soup.
Chicken soup is a classic homemade remedy for illnesses like the flu, and you likely have memories of eating a heaping bowl as a child when you weren’t feeling well. And it turns out mom knows best. One study found that the ingredients in chicken soup together can reduce inflammation and support the immune system as it fights the influenza infection.
When it comes to preparing a soup, Dror recommends aiming for a balanced bowl for optimal nutrition — something your body needs now more than ever as it recovers.
“Opt for soups that contain protein, nonstarchy vegetables, and carbohydrates,” she says. “For a quick, balanced option, toss some frozen veggies and shredded rotisserie chicken into a low-sodium broth. Bean soups contain protein and fiber, so they’re also an excellent option.”
Sugar-Free Ice Pops
If you’re feeling up to it, you can avoid added sugar and artificial ingredients by making your own ice pops at home. “Blend then freeze fresh fruit for a delicious, healthy alternative,” Dror recommends. “Berries are a great option because they are low in sugar, high in fiber, and contain antioxidants.”
If you don’t have the energy (or can’t convince a loved one to whip these up for you), a store-bought brand without added sugar can work, too, Vyas says.
Garlic has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes in cultures around the world. In ancient China and India, for example, garlic was used to treat respiratory and digestive issues, while in the Middle Ages, some people viewed it as a remedy for arthritis, toothaches, chronic cough, and insect bites, according to a research paper on the topic.
Today, some research suggests garlic may be useful in helping fight off the flu. While data is limited, one study concluded that taking garlic supplements may enhance immune cell function and reduce the severity of flu symptoms. If you don’t want to take garlic supplements, you can try to get the same benefits from raw or cooked garlic, Vyas suggests, though no robust scientific evidence supports this yet.
Fruits and Veggies With Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that plays an important role in fighting infections, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Some research suggests vitamin C can help decrease the severity and length of the common cold, which shares some symptoms with the flu.
As Harvard notes, many fruits and vegetable offer vitamin C, including:
- Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits
- Brussels sprouts
Another type of veggie that offers immune-bolstering, inflammation-fighting vitamin C: leafy greens. Examples include spinach, cabbage, and kale, which also offer iron, Vyas notes.
Research shows iron is essential for the production of immune cells, particularly white blood cells, which help the body fight infections.
But don’t worry if you’re not in the mood for a salad. Dror recommends adding these veggies to soup to add bulk and a nutritional boost, or enjoying them in other ways. “If raw vegetables are not appealing, try roasting, steaming, or sautéing them,” she says. “When our energy is low, frozen vegetables are a great way to increase our intake with minimal effort.”
Honey is a common at-home remedy for soothing a sore throat. Research suggests that’s a smart move if you’re facing the flu in particular, as the natural sweetener may help play a role in fighting off respiratory infections. A review published in August 2020 in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine suggests that honey may be more effective in treating symptoms of cold and flu-like illnesses than over-the-counter medicines.
The review included 14 studies that analyzed nearly 1,800 people with upper respiratory infections being treated with either honey or conventional remedies like antihistamines and cough suppressants. The authors concluded that honey appeared to be superior in treating symptoms of these infections. While researchers don’t know exactly why honey helps with cold and flu symptoms, studies show it has antimicrobial properties. Honey also coats the throat and can soothe irritation, per Cleveland Clinic.
One of the best ways to enjoy honey is to add a teaspoon to hot tea. This warm beverage is itself soothing to a sore throat and the steam can help clear a stuffy throat, Vyas notes.
Tea contains a group of antioxidants called polyphenols, which research shows are protective against chronic illnesses. Chamomile has been found to have antibacterial properties in studies, while research has shown peppermint tea can help soothe digestive symptoms. Green tea contains a type of polyphenol called catechins, which studies suggest can increase the number of regulatory T cells, which help control the immune system.
While there are many types of tea to choose from, Vyas suggests staying away from any that contain caffeine, such as black tea, which can contribute to dehydration.
Spices Like Ginger and Turmeric
While research is limited, some data suggests certain spices and herbs may be beneficial when you’re sick with the flu. In studies, researchers have found that ginger extract offers antimicrobial properties, while curcumin, a naturally occurring compound in turmeric, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, research suggests.
Vyas doesn’t recommend counting on these spices as a cure for the flu, but they may be helpful to add to teas, soups, or other dishes when you’re sick.
Ginger and curcumin are also available in supplement form. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), ginger supplementation is considered safe but may cause side effects, including abdominal discomfort, heartburn, diarrhea, and mouth and throat irritation, if taken in large doses. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult with their doctor before taking ginger supplements, the organization states.
Due to its anticoagulant activity, curcumin supplements may cause excessive bleeding if taken with blood thinners like aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), or warfarin, according to a research paper on its safety and health effects. Little is known about the safety of curcumin supplementation during pregnancy or breastfeeding, NCCIH reports.
Even when we’re not sick, protein is essential for keeping our bodies strong. That strength is important for fighting off infections like the flu, Dror says.
“Protein helps us to maintain our lean body mass, which includes muscle,” she says.
“We want to ensure we are getting adequate protein when we are ill, to prevent muscle wasting, keep us feeling full, promote healing, and promote blood sugar control.”
Eating foods that are high in fat can slow gastric emptying time, so there is more of a chance the foods can cause GI distress, she notes. “The flu can already cause an upset stomach, so we want to aim for low fat or lean options when it comes to protein,” Dror says.
Good sources of lean protein, which are low in fat, include skinless poultry, fish, beans, and tofu, Dror says.
To add probiotics to your diet when you’re not feeling well, Dror says Greek yogurt is an excellent option.
“Greek yogurt has double the protein of regular yogurt and less lactose, so it’s easier on the digestive system,” she says. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a typical 150-gram (g) container of plain Greek yogurt contains 15 g of protein, while the same amount of plain whole milk yogurt contains about 6 g of protein.
Dror recommends sticking to yogurts that are light or low-fat and low in total sugar, ideally 10 g or less per package or serving.
What to Avoid When Recovering From the Flu
While a number of foods and beverages can help with the flu, others may exacerbate symptoms. When you’re not feeling well, try to stay away from the following:
- Caffeinated Drinks A diuretic, caffeine can exacerbate dehydration, so you’ll want to limit or avoid beverages like coffee, black tea, and soda while you’re sick with the flu, Vyas says.
- Alcoholic Beverages Research suggests alcohol weakens the immune system, which can make it more difficult to fight off an influenza infection. Additionally, like caffeine, alcohol can further dehydrate you, Vyas notes.
- Dairy Products Foods containing dairy like milk, cheese, and ice cream are known to thicken mucus, per the Cleveland Clinic. “If you’re congested and have a lot of respiratory symptoms, dairy might be something you want to stay away from,” Vyas says. Thanks to its probiotics, Greek yogurt is one exception to this rule. If you want to completely steer clear of dairy, consider trying healthy, nondairy probiotic sources such as low-sugar kombucha.
- Processed Foods These eats tend to be high in sodium and saturated fat, which studies show can lead to inflammation in the body, Dror notes. “Sticking to whole foods, which contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals is optimal for our health,” she says.
Ultimately, there is no one food or drink that will make you feel better when you have the flu, but certain choices may help or hinder your recovery.
Once you’re feeling better, try to stick to a healthy diet for optimal health. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (PDF) recommends focusing on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and fat-free or low-fat dairy, while limiting added sugars, saturated fat, and alcohol.
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