Put down your expensive tinctures and potions. Some foods and nutrients can help, but it's about more than just your diet when it comes to staying healthy.

Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
January 28, 2020
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We're smack dab in the middle of cold and flu season. I'm literally typing this with a tickle in the back of my throat. And I've heard about a lot of "natural remedies" from people—everything from raw garlic to hot toddies, white grape juice to honey, chicken soup to elderberry. But do any of these foods actually work? There's no magic pill or food to keep you well, but certain things you do can help. Here's what you need to know about what's actually effective when it comes to preventing sickness and helping reduce the duration of your illness.

How to help prevent getting sick

These three things can actually help keep your immune system in tip-top shape. They're not groundbreaking, but they're basically free and proven to help.

1. Wash your hands

I don't mean a quick rinse either. You're supposed to wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap. 20 seconds is a long time (I'm guessing much longer than you currently wash for). Sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice, while you're washing. You should wash your hands often but especially after you use the bathroom (please, please tell me you're already doing that), before you prepare food or eat food and after you blow your nose or sneeze. The CDC has more good information on proper hand washing hygiene. This is the number one thing you can do to stay healthy and it's so undervalued by most people.

2. Sleep

I know this may sound easier said than done for some of you, but getting a good night's sleep is crucial for a healthy immune system. When you don't get enough sleep, your body can't fight off infections as well. Try these tips to help you get a better night sleep.

3. Eat a well-balanced diet

In general, your body needs nutrients to keep things running smoothly. Vitamins A, C, E & D all play a role in immunity and so do minerals, like zinc, along with antioxidants. Probiotics and prebiotics may help too. Before you go buying up the supplement aisle, try eating a well-varied diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats and proteins. The one exception here is vitamin D, which can be very hard to get through diet alone. Many experts recommend supplementing, but here are some vitamin D-rich foods to add to your diet. Like I said, not groundbreaking stuff, but fueling your body with nutrients can help keep your immune system in tip-top shape.

How to feel better once you're sick

Let me just say, I'm a big believer in Western medicine and if you're not feeling well you may want to call your doctor and have them take a look. Sometimes, you need medication to help your body. I'm not a doctor but to help yourself feel better make sure you're getting lots of rest and hydrating. That may mean drinking water, hot tea, smoothies or soup. Get your fluids in however you can. Vitamin C and zinc can help reduce the duration of a cold. Elderberry can help too. Your body may also need time to fight off the infection.

Bottom Line

Help yourself stay healthy by washing your hands, sleeping and eating a nutrient-rich diet. And remember, while certain nutrients may help you feel better, there's no cure for the common cold or flu. Other things you can do to try and stay healthy—avoid sick people as best as you can, don't touch your face and carry hand sanitizer for when you can't wash your hands. Good luck out there!

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.