Y.E.S. News

Eating When You’re Sick?

Eating healthy meals is not easy when you do not feel well. You may be too tired to prepare food for yourself. Medicines may make food taste strange or unpleasant.  A sore throat makes eating difficult and nausea may make food the last thing you want to think about.

In this article, we will offer some guidelines for the next time you get sick, you will know what to eat for a faster, smoother recovery and you will learn how to reduce your chances of getting sick again.

The human immune system protects us from the hordes of germs, fungi, and viruses that threaten us.

When we eat, our immune  system gets into the act from the very first moment we pop the food into our mouth.

Our saliva contains powerful antimicrobials. These anti-microbials are only the front line defense. Any germs that sneak past will confront our stomachs’ hydrochloric acid.

Corrosive enough to remove the rust from steel, hydrochloric acid will pulverize most invaders in our stomachs before they can reach our intestines.

If our stomach acids lose the battle, we also have proteins and chemical compounds further down the digestive chain that can sense and fight any harmful bacteria that may have made it past.

Finally, our own probiotics help prevent harmful bacteria from entering our bloodstream or taking root in our small intestine and colon.

The foods we eat affect these bacteria and the complex compounds they release.

Nutrient-dense, fiber-rich whole foods tend to promote a healthy bacterial balance, whereas a diet rich in processed foods, fats and sugars can lead to a microbial imbalance. Our GI tract comprises over 70% of our immune system so what we eat affects immunity on many levels.

If your diet is lousy, you will get sick more often than someone who eats a healthier diet. Good nutrition allows our bodies to respond to germy invaders quickly and efficiently. In order to function well, the cells of our immune system need plenty of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids. Yet nutrient deficiencies are far more common than one thinks.

Prebiotics and probiotics are essential for gut health which is essential to immunity. Prebiotics help nourish our good microbial friends. This is a form of semi-digestible fiber that our bacteria can absorb and helps move food through the GI tract. Probiotics have been shown to help us recover faster, once we get sick. To ensure that our systems are well colonized by these friendly critters  here are a list of the best food sources. Get 1-2 servings of prebiotics-rich foods from vegetables: asparagus, garlic, onions, artichokes; carbs: barley, beans, oats, yams; fruit: apples, bananas, berries, citrus fruits; Fats: flax seeds and chia seeds. Get 2-3 servings of probiotics from dairy: yogurt, cheese with live active cultures; fermented vegetables: pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi; fermented soy: miso, tempeh; miscellaneous: soy sauce, wine.

While a whole foods diet rich in pre-and-probiotics will go a long way towards protecting you from viruses and bacterial infections, even the healthiest diet cannot protect you from every invader. If you do get sick, you will want to recover faster.

There is no definitive answer to the old saying feed a cold and starve a fever. One small study did find that eating helps combat a cold virus. And fasting allows the body to fight fever-related infections. One study is far from conclusive. Moderate calorie restriction can improve cell-mediated immunity and offset chemotherapy-induced and aging-related changes in immune function by helping to replenish stem cells. During periods of very low food intake our defenses against specific pathogens are lower, and the immune system is suppressed.

Our own appetite cues probably give us the clearest picture of what we should eat (or avoid eating) when we get sick. For example, few of us want to eat when we are hit by influenza or by gastroenteritis. That is because flu-like bugs and bacterial infections lead to higher levels of circulating TNF-alpha (an inflammatory cytokine), which promote appetite suppressant.

Digestion takes a fair amount of energy so maybe this is the body’s way of guarding its resources to use that energy to fight off invaders when we’re sick.

It is known that behavioral and metabolic factors can influence immunity. Signaling mechanisms that control energy metabolism and immune function seem to be intertwined. For example, our hunger hormone, ghrelin, may inhibit the creation of pro-inflammatory compounds.

Inflammation helps us fight off invading pathogens. However, too much inflammation will make our symptoms worse. For example, a fever will increase metabolism as well as body temperature. This in turn improves the body’s chances of fighting off a bug, speeding it through the system.

At the same time, a fever can also dehydrate us, which makes it harder to move a pathogen through the body and out. Meanwhile, infection itself can increase our body’s nutrient needs, especially for fluid and protein.

Moreover, specific nutrients can affect immune function. A particular nutrient might be a source of fuel for an immune system cell, or it might influence other tissues that regulate overall immune function.

Considering that colds often result from viral infections, and fevers often result from bacterial infections, the advice to eat when you have a cold and fast when you have a fever does rest on some plausible biological arguments, especially if your own appetite agrees.

Say you do get sick despite your precautions and your appetite does not entirely disappear, a few examples of some particular foods that could accelerate recovery:

  • Garlic. Acts as an antibiotic, and has consistently been found to lesion the severity of colds and other infections.
  • Chicken soup. It provides fluids and electrolytes, is warm and soothing, and may also contain anti-inflammatory properties that decrease cold symptoms. Unfortunately, the can or packaged soup does not provide the same benefits as real chicken soup from simmering a chicken carcass.
  • Green tea. Boosts the production of B cell antibodies, helping us rid ourselves of invading pathogens.
  • Honey. Has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, and is an effective cough suppressant. A few teaspoons in a cup of green tea is all you need.
  • Elderberries. These have anti-viral properties and are loaded with phytonutrients. Elderberry extract has been shown to reduce the duration of colds and other upper respiratory tract infections.

Things to do to prevent getting sick are to have a balanced exercise program, wash your hands, get enough sleep consistently, manage stress, maintain a healthy body weight and eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods. Consider supplementing vitamin D, probiotics, and a wide-spectrum food-based vitamin/mineral supplement. However, recognize that if you are not eating a balanced, whole food diet, supplementing with probiotics will not do a lot of good. An isolated supplement cannot fix a broken diet. Address your diet first.

If you are already feeling sick: rest, drink fluids (especially water and green tea), balance your fat intake, but above all, listen to your body cues. If you are hungry then eat. If not, then don’t. Consider protein shakes that might be easier to take and will provide you with some beneficial nutrients.

In the end, no matter how well you manage your nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress, you will get sick sometimes. We all do.

Do not be a hero and pretend you are not. Instead, take the steps outlined here to get back on your feet as quickly as possible.

Resources: Precision Nutrition 


Michelle’s ability to wear many hats has made her a valuable asset to the Y.E.S. Fitness team.