Diet can influence immunity.
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about ways to boost immunity through the foods and drinks we eat. “While diet is not the only lifestyle factor that impacts our immune system, it plays a very powerful role,” says Siera Holley, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “The foods and beverages we consume on a regular basis can either aid in strengthening the immune system or contribute to a weakened one.”
In discussions of using food and drink to boost immunity, smoothies are often recommended. But if you’re looking for a delicious, immune-system boosting drink that’s not a smoothie, check out the following nine options.
Holley notes that if you want to boost immunity, sticking with the basics is a great place to start. “Of all the fluids that support a healthy immune system, water is the most important and should be our primary beverage of choice. Water is essential for absorbing certain nutrients, such as vitamin C, transporting nutrients throughout the body, maintaining body temperature and eliminating toxins.
Jennifer Hanway, a board-certified holistic nutritionist, certified personal trainer and health coach based in Boston, New York and London agrees, noting that “adequate hydration is key for immunity as it helps the lymphatic system move immune-boosting white blood cells throughout the body. However, the majority of people worldwide are not even reaching the lower ranges for adequate hydration.”
Whether you prefer sparkling water, seltzer or good old municipal tap, getting enough water each day is important to staying healthy. To determine your individual water needs, Holley recommends dividing your body weight in pounds by two. “The resulting number is the minimum amount of water in ounces to aim to drink each day.” So if you weigh 150 pounds, divide that by two and you’ll get 75 ounces of water daily as your goal.
If you want to jazz up your water, Holley recommends selecting sparkling or seltzer waters that have no added sugar. “Or, try experimenting with infusing water for more flavor by adding different combinations of sliced fruits, vegetables and/or herbs.”
Kailey Proctor, a clinical oncology dietitian at the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California, recommends drinking kefir, a creamy, yogurt-like beverage made from fermented cow or goat milk.
“Kefir is an excellent source of probiotics, like most fermented foods,” she says, but what distinguishes it is a specific type of bacteria called Lactobacillus kefiri that has been shown to protect us from infections.
Kefir might also have the potential to fight cancer, she adds. “In cell studies, kefir appears to boost the immune system, which means tumor cell growth is reduced.” She underscores that these studies were conducted in cells in a lab, not in humans, but some of the effects could transfer.
Keeping your gut healthy is all part of boosting immunity, says Mary Cochran, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. The gut “is a site of major immune system activity,” and as such, drinking beverages that are rich in probiotics such as kefir can be a good step in that direction.
But it’s not just the bacteria that makes kefir a good choice. “An added benefit of drinking kefir over other fermented drinks such as kombucha is that kefir products are often fortified with vitamin D, which has been found to play an essential role in healthy immune system functioning,” Cochran says.
If you’re going to add kefir, Cochran recommends “sticking with plain kefir for less added sugar, or at least avoiding kefir products with more than 12 grams of added sugar per serving.”
If you’re not feeling the whole dairy product thing, why not reach for a refreshing glass of aqua fresca? “Popular in Mexico and Central America, agua fresca is a delicious blend of water, whole fruit and lime juice,” Cochran says. Agua fresca is high in vitamin C, a key antioxidant that can support a healthy immune system.
She offers the following simple recipe:
— Add 1 cup of fruit (pineapples, oranges and strawberries are all rich in vitamin C), juice of half a lime and 1 cup of water to a standard blender.
— Blend on high, pour and enjoy.
If you’d like a little spritz of bubbles, you can also try using unsweetened sparkling water.
Fruity chia refresher
Cochran notes that zinc is another “important mineral needed for healthy immune function, and chia seeds are chock full of it. Just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contain 12% of your daily value of zinc.”
Though you can certainly add a handful of chia seeds to any smoothie for an instant boost of zinc, Cochran also recommends trying this delicious and refreshing nonsmoothie drink:
— Combine 1 cup water with 3 tablespoons of chia seeds in a tall glass, cover and let soak for 15 to 20 minutes in your fridge. The chia seeds will swell and create a gel-like substance.
— Thin the mixture with 1 cup of your favorite, no-sugar-added juice. Cochran recommends 100% pomegranate or cherry juice, as “both are very rich in antioxidants for more immune system support.”
— Stir to combine and enjoy.
Fortified cow’s milk
Kids are often given milk as their primary drink, and there’s a reason for that, Holley says. Fortified cow’s milk provides multiple nutrients that support the immune system, including:
— Protein, which is beneficial for repair and recovery.
— Vitamin A, which supports the immune system, internal organs and the eyes.
— Vitamin D, which helps bones absorb calcium and can support mood.
— Zinc, which is especially helpful for wound healing.
“Studies show that vitamin D helps to decrease inflammation, as well as modulate immune response,” Holley says. “However, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, the majority of Americans do not consume adequate levels of vitamin D.” One cup of milk that’s been fortified with vitamin D contains 25% of the daily value for vitamin D.
Milk contains calories, fat and natural sugars from its lactose content, so be mindful of portion sizes if you’re trying to manage your weight. Holley recommends choosing fat-free skim or low-fat (1%) milk “to reap the benefits of milk without the higher saturated fat content.”
If you can’t tolerate or don’t like dairy milk, Holley recommends opting for fortified plant-based options instead. ” Soy and almond beverages can also be good options for getting vitamin D through food. The unsweetened or unflavored variety of these beverages would be recommended to eliminate the intake of any added sugar.” She also recommends checking the label on both dairy and plant-based milks to be sure you know which nutrients have been added.
Hemp or cashew milk
Cashews and hemp hearts, which are hulled hemp seeds that look a bit like wild rice and can be found at specialty and health food stores, are both excellent sources of zinc. You can buy pre-made versions of hemp and cashew milk. Cochran recommends choosing an unsweetened variety because “eating a diet high in added sugars can increase inflammation and wear down your immune system over time.”
She also recommends making a “cool and creamy summer beverage with them” with this simple recipe:
— Measure 3 tablespoons of hemp hearts or 1/4 cup cashews into a small bowl. Cover with hot water and let soak for 1 hour or cover with room temperature water and soak overnight until soft.
— Once the hemp hearts or cashews have softened, drain and discard the water.
— Add the seeds or nuts to a blender and combine with 1 cup of water, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon of maple syrup if you want more sweetness.
— Blend on high.
“You can drink it straight from the blender or strain it through a fine mesh sieve for a smoother texture,” she says.
Lemon ginger tea
The sharp and earthy flavors of lemon and ginger have always tasted great together, “but this pairing can also go a long way in supporting your immune system,” Cochran says. “Lemon juice is very high in immunity-strengthening vitamin C and fresh ginger root is rich in antioxidants that fight inflammation. There have even been studies to show that ginger is particularly effective at fighting off respiratory illness.”
Cochran offers an easy recipe for a delicious tea:
— Add 1 cup of water to a saucepan and one to two nickel-sized slices of fresh ginger root. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes (or longer for a more intense flavor). Let cool slightly.
— To a mug, add juice of 1/2 a small lemon, and then add the ginger water. You can keep the ginger slices in your mug if you like.
— Drink as is, or add 1/2 tsp honey or maple syrup for a hint of sweetness.
“If you can’t bear drinking hot things in the summer, you can double the amount of ginger and lemon, cool the ginger water to room temperature and serve over ice,” she adds.
Cochran recommends opting for whole, unprocessed foods, and that’s where some of these fun and tasty drinks can help. “They taste good, they add novelty, but they also include many of the major foods groups that have the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that support healthy immune function.”
And if you don’t want to go all in for the lemon ginger tea, try a simple cup of green tea, Hanway says. ” Green tea is also high in antioxidants that can help immune function.” Just beware that green tea also contains caffeine, and keep track of how much you’re consuming.
Holley notes that vegetable-based drinks provide lots of nutrients that can support the immune system. For example, “one cup of tomato juice is rich in vitamin C and is also a great source of vitamin A, a nutrient necessary for the health of protective barriers, like the respiratory system.”
In addition, tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene, which is an anti-inflammatory that can protect cells from damage.
When choosing a tomato juice, pick a brand that contains no added sugar and that’s lower in sodium.
Traditionally, orange juice has been thought of as a health food that’s particularly good for immunity because of its vitamin C content. And this reputation holds water, Holley says. “Citrus juices, like orange juice and grapefruit juice, are commonly associated with preventing illness. Both orange and grapefruit juices contain 100% of the daily value for vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps support the immune system through antibody formation, in one cup.”
Getting adequate vitamin C can be a helpful preventive measure to stop a cold before you catch it, she adds. “Research varies on whether vitamin C can improve the symptoms and duration of the common cold when taken after onset.”
If you’re drinking juice, just be mindful of portion size and sugar content. Holley recommends selecting 100% juices that are not from concentrate and contain no added sugars.
Think about supporting your immune system holistically.
Lastly, Holley notes that boosting immunity may be as much about what you are eating as what you’re avoiding. “Diets high in processed and fast foods, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol, can result in consuming large amounts of harmful fats, added sugars and sodium. These foods and beverages contribute to inflammation and a weakened immune system over time.”
To support the immune system and over health, Holley recommends:
— Limiting added sugar and alcohol intake.
— Maintaining a healthy weight.
— Incorporating regular physical activity.
— Avoiding tobacco products.
— Reducing stress.
— Getting adequate sleep.
Hanway adds that supporting a healthy immune system “doesn’t have to be super complicated. Reducing your intake of processed foods, eating more fruits and vegetables, staying hydrated and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep can really boost the immune system and a person’s general health and well-being.”
9 drinks that can boost the immune system:
3. Aqua fresca.
4. Fruity chia refresher.
5. Fortified cow’s milk.
6. Hemp or cashew milk.
7. Lemon ginger tea.
8. Tomato juice.
9. Citrus juices.
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Update 10/22/21: This story was previously published and has been updated with new information.