What to eat when you have a cold
Our new magazine columnist Dale Pinnock reveals which foods help boost immunity against winter colds and coughs – and it’s not what you’d expect!
Colder weather, darker days, more time indoors with the heating on – there are many scenarios that make us more susceptible to picking up respiratory tract infections right now. But, there can be an armoury in your fridge that will help you to stave off infections or fight them faster – and some of these ingredients may surprise you.
Top up on zinc
At the first signs of a cold, what is the one nutrient that most of the world reaches for? Vitamin C, of course! It’s the one that has the reputation for stopping a cold in its tracks. However, in clinical trials the picture is very different indeed. The results from many trials surrounding vitamin C have been mixed, to say the least, and it seems that while the nutrient does support certain functions of the immune system, its capacity to fight infection is poor. However, there is one nutrient that clinical trials have shown to be a true powerhouse: zinc. That’s because zinc is used by our white blood cells to code genes that actually control the way in which these cells tackle pathogens, ensuring the right responses are delivered in the right way, with efficiency.
Magic of mushrooms
One ingredient that can have a profound influence on immune function is certain types of mushroom. And top of the crop is the shiitake mushroom. This is because they contain a special type of highly complex sugar called a polysaccharide, that can directly influence the immune system.
There is one nutrient that clinical trials have shown to be a true powerhouse: zinc
These sugars are unusual in that they don’t actually get absorbed through the digestive tract, but still influence the immune system. They interact with specialised tissues in the gut called Peyer’s patches. These contain a high number of white blood cells that are constantly monitoring gut contents and relaying this information to the rest of the immune system.
When the mushroom polysaccharides come into contact with these patches of tissue and their white blood cell population, the white blood cells that dwell there appear to mistake them for sugars displayed on the outer surface of bacteria, and send alarm signals, via chemical messages, to the rest of the immune system. This causes an increase in the production of key white blood cell types, such as natural killer cells and phagocytic cells. In turn, this leads to a notable increase in the number of white blood cells on hand to fight infection faster and more aggressively.
Other ingredients to support you through a cold
Goji berries: These contain polysaccharides similar to those found in shiitake mushrooms.
Ginger: This helps to ease inflammation of the mucous membranes, which can ease breathing and that ‘bunged up’ feeling.
Garlic: This contains volatile oils (responsible for the smell) that can kill some bugs in the respiratory tract.
Chilli: This contains capsaicin that has a decongestant effect. Have you ever eaten something spicy and your nose started to run?