STAYING FIT AND eating healthy—along with getting plenty of shuteye and washing your hands with surgeon-like precision—are some of the most effective ways to avoid a miserable cold or flu. But if you really want to bolster your chances of keeping illness at bay, a little immune system adjustment is in order.
Arm yourself with these tried-and-true options—proven cold busters effective in clobbering germs that might otherwise turn you into a sniveling, sneezing mess—and check out some newly emerging star players that have been drawing attention lately for their potential cold- and flu-fighting cred.
These are the supplements you need.
Rising star: Elderberry
This flavonoid-packed fruit appears to have some serious congestion-fighting potential. A study in theAlternative Medicine Review found its extract reduced the length of flu symptoms by almost three days. “Elderberry has been shown to help kill a number of different viruses,” says Kamal Patel, M.P.H., director of examine.com, an independent nutrition resource. “It also contains anthocyanins—plant compounds known to help support the immune system.”
How to get it: Elderberry is available in capsules or liquid form; look for Sambucol and Sinupret brands, which have been the most intensively studied.
Rising star: Probiotics
Already known to help promote proper gut health, probiotics also pack some lesser-known benefits, such as the ability to strengthen your immune system. Around 70% of our immune system cells are in our gut. Probiotics can help make them significantly stronger and better at fighting off infection, says Patel.
How to get it: The most common probiotic, L. acidophilus, occurs naturally in foods like yogurt, kefir, and kimchi, but you can also get it in capsule form. Most experts recommend a dose of 1 to 10 billion colony-forming units a day for up to two weeks.
Rising star: Spirulina
A blue-green algae that often pops up in questionable-looking Day-Glo-colored “health food” drinks, spirulina can’t be counted out on appearance alone. There is serious evidence that it has a variety of potentially helpful uses, including strengthening immunity, says Patel. Animal research on spirulina is strong; and though there hasn’t been much testing done on humans, one 2008 study did find that taking 2g of spirulina a day for several months helped some men and women to overcome nasal allergies. “Spirulina is very safe, and may help to lower inflammation in the body, improving overall health as well,” Patel adds.
How to get it: Spirulina comes in powder, pill, and liquid form—and studies show they’re all basically the same. Whichever form you select, aim for up to 8g daily.
Rising star: Tinospora cordifolia
Used primarily in India, this up-and-coming herb has a variety of potential benefits, from regulating blood sugar to enhancing the immune system. “Tinospora cordifolia can help a type of immune cell called a macrophage more easily consume errant germs that we don’t want in our bodies,” says Patel.
How to get it: Add it to water or mix it with ghee and ginger; aim for 300mg three times a day, or 10 to 15g daily.
Classic immune aid: Garlic
Numerous studies have shown that garlic has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties that can help stimulate the immune system. In fact, a study in the journal Advances in Therapy reported that subjects taking a daily garlic supplement had fewer colds and experienced significantly less sick time than those who didn’t.
How to get it: Add fresh garlic to meals. When sliced or chopped, the cloves release a compound called allicin into your food. For the biggest dose possible, allow the garlic to sit for about 15 minutes after dicing, so maximum amounts of the compound have time to form. Or take 600 to 1,200mg garlic extract twice daily.
Classic immune aid: Vitamin C
This classic cold fighter can help boost immune function—but only if you take it before getting sick. Vitamin C is critical for a properly functioning immune system, and not getting enough regularly may put you at higher risk for a cold, says Patel. One 2013 meta analysis of 30 studies on more than 11,000 people showed that men and women living with high physical stress—like marathon runners—were 50% less likely to catch a cold if they took 200mg of vitamin C daily.
How to get it: Foods like sweet peppers and oranges are high in C; or take 250mg in supplements a day. (The RDA is 60mg for men over 19.)
Classic immune aid: Zinc
This essential mineral, which acts like an antioxidant in the body, keeps the immune system working at its peak, says Patel. Studies have also shown that zinc can help to reduce the duration of colds. A 2016 meta analysis in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that men who had colds saw their symptoms clear up in three days if they took zinc lozenges, compared with seven days for those who took a placebo.
How to get it: Use lozenges (avoid sprays, which can affect the sense of smell); aim for 4 to 25mg every three hours for three to 14 days.