5 Cold-Fighting Foods

Guys love quick cures and the hopeful promise of scientific wonder potions. When we get sick, we reach for over-the-counter chemical concoctions.

The modern miracle juice comes in a dazzling rainbow of colors — one for every cold or flu symptom imaginable. And sure, they’ll knock you out until the cold gives up, but they’re not true remedies. If you really want to fend off the flu or kill a cold, you don’t have to look any further than your fridge.

That’s right: Many foods harbor antiviral and antibacterial agents that can help your immune system slaughter nearly any nasty bug. The following ingredients can prevent infection or boost your body’s natural defenses.

1. Cayenne Pepper and Hot Chilies

If your head feels like it’s packed with Elmer’s glue, skip the pills and pop a chili pepper instead. Capsaicin, the chemical that gives chilies their bite, acts as a decongestant, expectorant and pain reliever all at once. Remember how your nose, mouth and eyes ran after your friend dared you to munch on a jalapeno?

Imagine the same effect when your head is clogged by a cold. Capsaicin encourages your body to thin down all that mucus so you can hack it up and get rid of it.It may seem counterintuitive, but capsaicin does deaden nerves when it’s applied. The chemical depletes the neurotransmitter "substance P," which relays pain signals to the brain.

It also cranks up the body’s production of collagenase and prostaglandin, which reduce pain and swelling. Got a sore throat? Gulp down some Tabasco sauce. Chilies are also packed with vitamin C. In fact, one chili can contain up to four times as much vitamin C as an orange. And vitamin C, as we’ll see, has been proven to shorten the duration of colds.

2. Chicken Soup

Science has confirmed grandma’s wisdom: Chicken soup is undoubtedly good for a cold. But grandma knew it without holding clinical trials or applying for research grants, so what gives? Doctors at the University of Nebraska Medical Center actually tested the cold-healing powers of chicken soup.

In fact, they used grandma’s recipe, which included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, and parsley. After conducting a number of laborious tests, researchers were able to pinpoint one of the soup’s active, cold-fighting ingredients: chicken stock. The base for all chicken soups actually slows down mucus production, helping you breathe easier during a cold. The researchers went on to test 13 different brands of store-bought chicken soup. Nearly all of them suppressed mucus production to some degree. Vegetarian versions, however, were missing the crucial ingredient.

So even if grandma isn’t around to make you the family chicken soup, grab a can of Campbell’s. The steamy broth will definitely help you get over your cold more quickly.

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3. Orange Juice

When you got sick as a kid, your mom poured orange juice down your gullet. As with most things, your mom knew what she was doing. Orange juice is great medicine for a cold. It contains tons of vitamin C, which has been more or less proven to shorten the duration of colds.

In the ‘70s, Dr. Terence Anderson and colleagues at the University of Toronto published a number of studies that suggested that taking the FDA-recommended daily dose of vitamin C (about 90 milligrams) could shorten the duration of a cold by a day.

Other researchers and doctors, including the legendary biochemist Linus Pauling, suggested that taking up to four times the daily recommended dose of vitamin C could do wonders. More recent studies, however, have shown that mega-dosing vitamin C has no real benefits over taking the recommended dose.

So how much vitamin C is in orange juice? Depending on the brand, there are about 120 mg in one cup — that’s more than the recommended daily dose. So the next time you come down with a cold, reach for the OJ. And remember: The fresher, the better, so go for the freshly squeezed stuff if you can.

4. Ginger Tea

If you catch the sniffles in China, you’ll likely be served ginger tea. Herbalists in the ancient country have been prescribing the stuff for centuries. They claim that ginger tea can miraculously cure colds, relieve headaches, negate nausea, and even improve circulation. There’s evidence that ginger, taken as a tea or by itself, does have mild analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. Other studies have shown that ginger fights certain types of viruses. So a cup of ginger tea or some freshly crushed ginger mixed in hot water can ease cold symptoms and help you recover more quickly.

5. Garlic

The ancient Egyptians loved garlic so much that they used it as currency. Today, you might not be able to trade a clove or two for an Xbox game, but you can use the pungent plant to fight off an invading virus. Garlic contains allicin, a chemical compound that destroys bacteria and makes it seriously hard for viruses to stay alive.

A 2001 study by the Garlic Center in East Sussex, England, found that people who took an allicin supplement were half as likely to catch a cold than those who did not. Of course, eating raw garlic or garlicky foods would have a similar effect. Garlic is so good at fighting the flu that chemists are studying ways to refine its potent punch. Ajoene, a derivitive of allicin, slaughters bacteria and inhibits the growth and reproduction of many viruses.

How do you know you’re getting enough garlic? Try eating a clove a day, either raw or cooked in your food. But remember: Cooking does diminish garlic’s potency, so you may want to add more than one clove to your pasta sauce to get the full benefits.

Food Fight

Don’t give into the temptation of buying a bottle of brightly colored cold syrup at the drugstore. Instead, dive into your fridge or your pantry and fight your cold with natural ingredients. Mother Nature has provided you with an extensive array of edible treatments that will work just as well as — or even better than — their man-made counterparts.