Flu season is here again. And this year's vaccine is designed to protect against four different flu viruses, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So when I went for my yearly poke in the arm, I was informed — by reason of my age — that I would receive the "high dose" flu vaccine — four times as potent as the regular flu shot.
Guess that's good. Our ability to fight off infections and viruses weakens as we age. So an extra boost of immunity can help fend off serious complications.
Besides yearly flu shots, our nutritional status is key to a strong immune system, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (www.eatright.org). These nutrients (in the right balance) are vital immunity enhancers:
• Protein is the backbone of our body's defense mechanism since antibodies and other immune cells are made of protein. We don't need to eat like cavemen to get adequate amounts, however. Many experts recommend we eat a protein-containing food with each meal including eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, soy foods, fish, poultry and meat. High-quality protein also can be found in combinations of vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts.
• Vitamin A strengthens and regulates one of the most important immune organs of the body — the skin. And that includes our digestive tract and lungs. Think bright orange, reds and greens when you're looking for vitamin A-containing foods: sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red peppers, apricots and eggs (yolk). Also look for foods "fortified with vitamin A" such as cereal or milk, says the AND.
• Vitamin C is a major player on our immunity team. It stimulates the formation of antibodies that bind up dangerous toxins before they wreak havoc in our bodies. Since our bodies don't store much vitamin C, we need foods rich in this vitamin daily. Good sources include oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, strawberries, papayas, red peppers and tomatoes.
• Vitamin E works with vitamin C to maintain healthy cells so they can resist unwelcome guests. Vitamin E generally resides in whole grains or fortified cereals, seeds (such as sunflower seeds), nuts and vegetable oils.
• Zinc plays a powerful role in wound healing and a strong immune system. Its most potent sources include lean meats, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts. One caution with taking zinc supplements, however: While adequate amounts of this mineral are essential for strong immunity, higher-than-recommended doses can actually weaken the body's ability to fight off viruses and infections.
• Probiotics — the good bacteria we find in cultured foods such as yogurt and kefir and also in supplements — are making a name for themselves as immune enhancers. Although researchers still haven't identified all the specific strains of healthful bacteria that work together to enhance our immune system, we do know that various types of dietary fiber are needed to "feed" these beneficial bacteria in our guts. That means, during this flu season and year-round, we can add an extra boost of immunity with high-fiber foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and nuts.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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