Elderberry syrup can help to prevent colds, flu and allergies.

Cold and flu season is upon us. However, you can help prevent and treat colds and flu naturally by supporting your immune system with a healthy diet and exercise.

Be proactive this year with your diet and increasing certain key vitamins and nutrients that may help prevent or shorten illness. Check out these tips to keeping sickness at bay in your home this season.

» Limit sugar intake. Studies have shown that eating a sugary snack or meal can suppress the immune system for several hours, which makes you more likely to catch a cold.

Avoiding excessive sugar can keep the immune system working at its best to help fend off viral infections.

If you have a cold or flu, be sure to reduce your sugar and refined-carbohydrate intake especially during illness to help your immune system fight the illness more quickly.

» Increase your vitamin D. Most Americans do not get the recommended amount of vitamin D they need from diet alone, and in the winter months it is difficult to obtain enough vitamin D from sunlight.

It is estimated that over 80 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. It also has been shown to help protect against sickness.

Recent research shows that low vitamin D levels are linked to higher rates of cold, flu and respiratory infections.

Few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D, so the biggest dietary sources of vitamin D are fortified foods and vitamin supplements.

Foods such as co- liver oil, oily fish such as wild-caught salmon and tuna, portobello mushrooms, tofu and eggs are examples of those that contain vitamin D. A vitamin D supplement also may be beneficial during this season. Additionally, aim to get outside for at least a 15-minute daily walk in the sun.

» Garlic. Garlic contains properties that fight infection and bacteria. Add it to your foods daily for cold and flu prevention. You also can buy garlic in supplement form during illness.

» Probiotics: Over 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut. Therefore, it is important to help maintain a healthy gut. One of the best ways to help your gut stay healthy is from probiotics. They provide beneficial bacteria for your gut, helping to support the immune system.

According to an article published in Today’s Dietitian, children in day care centers didn’t get sick as often when they consumed probiotics.

» Exercise. A study conducted by David Nieman at Appalachian State University found that people who walked regularly for 12 weeks had fewer colds than people who were less active. Nieman says a brisk walk for 30 to 45 minutes a day increases the number of immune-system cells that circulate in the body.

» Extra water. Make sure you drink plenty of water during sickness. It helps flush out toxins and helps prevent dehydration if fever is present.

» Vitamin C and zinc. Research shows that these two can help prevent colds and can help reduce the duration of a cold.

Incorporate foods high in vitamin C and zinc such as winter squashes, broccoli, kale, collard greens, mushrooms and Brussels sprouts into your diet during this season. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the foundation for a healthy immune system.

» Elderberry. Evidence shows that elderberry can help prevent and reduce the duration of colds and flu. It has been used medicinally for centuries and is an excellent immune booster.

Elderberry contains vitamins C, A and B, antioxidants and bioflavonoids to help fight colds. You can make your own elderberry syrup or purchase it at a health-food store. I use a syrup-and-gummy elderberry recipe found at wellnessmama.com that is kid-friendly. Warning: Do not eat elderberries raw because they can be toxic.

» Fasting during illness. Ever notice that we often lose the urge to eat when we don’t feel well? This may be because fasting is the body’s way of healing. A study at the University of Southern California showed that fasting for three days can regenerate the immune system.

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Mandy Nix is a registered dietitian who writes a nutrition column for The News Herald.

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