Ask a nutrition student: Feed a fever, starve a cold?

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Photo Credit: Jacky Tovar | Daily Texan Staff

I’ve sanitized my apartment every day this week to save myself from cold and flu germs, but I guess I didn’t clean well enough, because my roommate has come down with a stomach bug. Do you have any nutrition tips for preventing and treating sickness? Should I chug orange juice? Buy a multi-vitamin? 
— Fleeing the Flu 

While students eagerly await the football and holiday seasons, cold and flu season also lurks just around the corner, along with another set of grueling midterms.

But don’t worry too much, Fleeing: Here are some tips to help you enjoy sweater weather without feeling under the weather. 

Nutrition and the immune system are closely related, but extremely complex. There is not just one type of “immune cell,” so keeping your body healthy is a balancing act of a variety of different cells, tissues and organs.

There’s not one magic cure-all that I can share to limit your sick days this semester — however, one way to boost your immune system is to evaluate your diet for nutrient deficiencies. Vitamins C, B6 and E sound like alphabet soup, but they also play a part in boosting immune function. You may know that vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, but the lesser known B6 and E vitamins are equally important.

Beef, poultry and whole grains contain B6, which helps create lymphocytes — cells that attack invading bacteria. In the U.S., many food companies add B6 to cereals and breads. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend a daily intake of 1.3 milligrams for adults. Just for reference, a three-ounce roasted chicken breast provides 0.5 milligrams of B6.

For vitamin E, pull out the PB! Nuts, seeds and vegetable oils all contain vitamin E, which is also important for immune function. Aim for 15 milligrams a day per the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. An ounce of almonds — 23 to be precise — will serve you almost seven milligrams.  

And vitamin C?  Be wary of the quick-fix powder-packets that boast 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C — 1,667 percent of the recommended daily value. These supplements may claim to be an easy remedy for the common cold, but the science backs that a larger dose isn’t always better.

Regardless of how much vitamin C you consume, your body can only absorb so much, and any excess is excreted, according to the National Institutes of Health. You can get more than the daily value of vitamin C by drinking two cups of orange juice. And if you need more food for thought: because of their dietary supplement status, these powder packet claims aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

So what happens when your immune system has failed, and you do wind up in bed with the flu? To fight moderate fever, drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. If you’ve experienced excessive fluid loss, liquids with electrolytes (such as sports drinks) will help you recover.  

True to your mom’s advice, a little chicken soup goes a long way. Although it won’t cure your illness, the comfort classic can replenish your fluids and electrolytes (from the sodium in the broth) while the steam can help clear a stuffy nose, according to Medline Plus.

Besides nutrition, adequate sleep, good hand-washing and regular exercise keep your body ready to fight whatever bug is thrown your way. No need to over-supplement with pills, potions or powders to stay healthy this semester. 

Eating healthy can also help stave off the sniffles. Now you have more reasons to trade out French fries for fruit and white bread for wheat — not only will you be keeping your waistline happy, but your immune system (along with your roommates, classmates and significant other) will appreciate it as well.