When you’re feeling run-down or under the weather, how you nourish yourself makes a massive difference in how you bounce back. In addition to avoiding certain foods and drinks (think anything highly-processed or made with added sugar), you’ll also do well to prioritize specific nutrients that support your immune system and the slew of body functions involved in the healing process. Here are the six nutrients experts recommend focusing on as you recoup.
1. Vitamin C
You probably saw this one coming, right? Vitamin C is the first nutrient many of us turn to when we’re feeling less than stellar—and this vitamin has certainly earned its go-to status.
What it does: “Foods rich in vitamin C help support your immune system, because vitamin C is involved in the production of white blood cells, which are important for fighting pathogens,” explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D. “As an antioxidant, vitamin C can help boost the immune system and protect cells from damage.” As a result, it may help the body bolster its defenses more effectively.
Where to get it: Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, as well as strawberries, mango, pineapple, kiwi, leafy greens, and peppers, add lots of vitamin C to your diet. Other good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
How much you need: The recommended dietary intake (RDA) of vitamin C for adults is 90 milligrams per day for men and 75 milligrams per day for women. Many of the foods mentioned above—including kale, broccoli, orange, kiwi, and strawberries—contain almost an entire day’s worth of vitamin C or even more.
According to the National Institutes of Health, supplementing with vitamin C can be helpful when you’re under the weather—and taking up to 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams per day is generally a-okay. Taking larger doses all at once can mess with your stomach, though, so experts often recommend splitting your C up throughout the day and sticking close to the RDA with each dose.
Zinc is an essential mineral that impacts immune system function in several ways. You can obtain zinc from a variety of foods, especially those rich in protein, such as meat and whole grains.
What it does: “Zinc acts like an antioxidant and supports hundreds of different cellular reactions, including regulating immune cells,” says nutritionist Rebecca Falihee, M.S., C.N.S. As such, zinc works to help the body respond to bacteria and viruses—and research suggests that it has a notable impact on the body’s ability to fend off and recover from coughs and colds, adds Taub-Dix.
Where to get it: You’ll find zinc in meat, shellfish, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. “Some of the best sources of zinc are oatmeal, quinoa, garbanzo beans, lentils, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and tahini—and, for those that eat meat, beef, lamb, oysters, and shellfish,” says Fallihee. Luckily, many foods high in zinc are shelf-stable (think seeds, nuts, and grains) and can be stored in your pantry for long periods, so it’s a good idea to keep some on hand.
How much you need: The recommended dietary intake of zinc for adults is 11 milligrams a day for men and eight milligrams for women. For reference, one quarter-cup serving of pumpkin seeds contains about 6.6 milligrams of zinc, which is more than half that recommended daily intake. While obtaining zinc is important when you’re under the weather, you don’t need to overdo it. “Many people like to mega-dose zinc when they’re sick, but that can interact negatively with other nutrients,” Fallihee says. “Generally, if taking a zinc supplement, I recommend taking 30 milligrams or less per day, and separating it from other mineral supplements to help with absorption.”
Made up of amino acids, ample protein is a must-have building block for the body that helps produce cells needed for immune defenses.
What it does: Protein is used to make white blood cells (specifically macrophages), antibodies, as well as enzymes, hormones, and other important molecules that support the immune system. It also supplies the body with the materials needed to repair damaged tissues, as well as the calories we need for energy.
Where to get it: The greatest concentrations of protein are found in meat, fish, eggs, yogurt, nuts, seeds, and legumes. (Protein supplements are also convenient options for boosting your intake.) Taub-Dix’s favorite way to get that protein in when sick is to make chicken soup, which “is high in protein and can also help clear up congestion and soothe a sore throat by helping to loosen mucus.” Soup can also help ward off dehydration (especially if someone has diarrhea, vomiting, or fever) and help warm someone who has chills.
How much you need: Experts recommend eating between 1.0 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which comes out to between 68 and 109 grams per day for someone that weighs 150 pounds. Just note that the more calories you require overall, the more servings and grams of protein you’ll also need. To get your fill, strive for 15 to 30 grams of protein per meal if possible. Keep in mind that if you eat a plant-based diet, it’s wise to purposefully add protein to your meals in the form of beans, legumes, grains, nuts, or protein powders.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body use minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus, and also impacts inflammatory pathways and the immune system.
What it does: “Vitamin D has a variety of positive effects on the immune system, including enhancing innate immunity, which means it helps white blood cells do their jobs when a cold or virus is on the scene,” says Faillihee. Interestingly, some studies suggest that people with low levels of vitamin D (which is very common) may be at increased risk for certain infections and viruses, adds Taub-Dix. This vitamin has also been shown to play a role in helping the body fight off infections.
Where to get it: Vitamin D isn’t found in many foods, so you don’t have too many options here. You can find small amounts in egg yolks, fish, some mushrooms, and higher amounts in fortified milks and cereals, according to Taub-Dix. Don’t lean too heavily on dairy here, though. “The lactose in dairy can be hard to digest and cause gastrointestinal upset and diarrhea when you’re sick, so it might be best to hold off on consuming dairy until symptoms subside,” Taub-Dix says. In that case, a fortified almond or another plant-based milk alternative might be a good option.
Vitamin D is typically obtained from sunlight, but if you get little sun exposure or live in certain parts of the world, you’ll likely need a supplement in order to meet your needs, particularly during colder parts of the year.
How much you need: The general recommendation for adults under 70 is to consume at least 600 IU of vitamin D per day. However, some experts believe most people can benefit from increasing D intake beyond the RDA—especially during the winter. “Like vitamin C, research suggests that vitamin D may be helpful in the face of illness,” Taub-Dix notes.
To determine your individual needs, Fallihee suggests having your vitamin D level checked (your doctor can do this with a simple blood test). If you fall below the normal level (between 30 and 40 ng/ml), supplementing with higher amounts of vitamin D3—anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 IU—may be warranted.
5. Antioxidants and Phytonutrients
Antioxidants and phytonutrients are compounds found mostly in colorful plant foods that can help prevent or delay some types of cellular damage and promote homeostasis throughout the body, according to Fallihee. “Fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and teas are your best source of antioxidants,” she says.
Where to get them: Adding berries, leafy greens, cinnamon, citrus fruits, almonds, wheat germ, and a variety of dark leafy greens to your meals, is a great way to up your intake of a variety of antioxidants and phytonutrients (plus vitamins A, C, and E), notes Fallihee.
A few specific powerhouses to consider:
- Garlic: Contains a sulfur-containing compound with antioxidant effects called allicin that has immune-supporting, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties, according to Taub-Dix.
- Onions: Contain antioxidants such as quercetin, which Taub-Dix says helps fight bacteria and decrease inflammation.
- Ginger: Contains gingerol, a bioactive compound that can help soothe nausea, gas, and other gastrointestinal symptoms, says Taub-Dix.
- Turmeric: Has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to enhance immunity. “Turmeric contains important antioxidants that support the immune system, including the active compound called curcumin,” Fallihee notes.
Taub-Dix is also in favor of drinking antioxidant-rich teas—including green, oolong, white, and black teas—to open the upper airways and soothe a sore throat. You’ll even find some of the antioxidant all-stars listed above (specifically turmeric and ginger) in a variety of herbal teas.
How much you need: There isn’t necessarily one standard recommended intake of antioxidants. However, meeting the general recommendation five to 10 servings of fruits and veggies per day is a good way to ensure you’re consuming enough. When incorporating healthful herbs and spices, Fallihee suggests sticking with a quarter teaspoon per meal. And, of course, you can sip on teas as your heart desires.
Probiotics are healthy microbes that live in the gastrointestinal tract and play a role in everything from immune health and digestion to mood and cognition.
What they do: Probiotics form an important ecosystem within the body that supports the larger immune system. “Probiotic supplements and probiotic-containing foods can help tame a troubled tummy by supporting the growth of live and active cultures in the gut microbiome,” explains Taub-Dix. “Probiotics are also particularly important if you’re taking antibiotics, as they help crowd out harmful bacteria and replace good bacteria in the gut.”
Where to get them: You’ll find probiotics in fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, and other cultured vegetables. As long as you can tolerate dairy well, Taub-Dix is a big fan of eating yogurt when you’re ill or otherwise because it also provides vitamin D, as well as protein, if you opt for a Greek variety.
If you don’t digest dairy well, stick with probiotic foods like sauerkraut or kombucha instead. You can also take probiotics in supplement form.
How much you need: While there aren’t established general guidelines around probiotic intake, American Family Physician suggests that adults consume upwards of 10 billion CFUs (or colony forming units, a measure of the strength of probiotic supplements) per day, depending on the strain of beneficial bacteria. According to Harvard Health, one serving of yogurt, which can offer anywhere between 90 and 500 Billion CFUs, is a great way to get your daily dose.