The medicine cabinet can provide quick relief when you're suddenly slammed with a nasty cold or a pounding headache, but healing and long-term health don't start at the pharmacy. A hearty immune system begins in the kitchen—which is good news, really, because vitamin-rich foods like pineapple go down a whole lot easier than cough syrup.
"What you put in your mouth can have an enormous influence on the digestive tract and the balance of healthy gut flora, which has been scientifically proven to affect all kinds of conditions from mental health to immune response," says Sophie Manolas, clinical nutritionist and author of The Essential Edible Pharmacy, a cookbook focused on cultivating good health.
What exactly is a clinical nutritionist, you ask? The certified professionals work with doctors to help patients optimize their health through diet and lifestyle changes.
"I look at a patient's specific condition and determine what deficiencies might be causing it," Manolas explains. "Then I look at what they are eating in a week and figure out what I can introduce to get them the nutrients they need." From hormonal disorders to cancer, a clinical nutritionist can identify foods that can help fuel your body in its efforts to heal.
While there will be times your body needs antibiotics and other physician-prescribed treatments, produce-aisle staples can be powerhouses, too. Even a simple, everyday vegetable like cabbage is loaded with vitamin C, Manolas points out: "The beauty of these nutrients occurring abundantly in our commonly available foods is that often, nutrients are packaged together and work synergistically to have positive effects on the body."
Keep reading for Manolas' (food) guide to good health—no pills required:
Foods to eat when you're sick
Foods to eat when you're sick
Your daily multivitamin: leafy greens
If you’re looking to sustain long-term health, think about loading up on green smoothies, kale salads, and collard chips. “Leafy greens are incredibly nutrient-dense,” explains Manolas, explaining that deep green leaves offer maximum nourishment—they’re full of fiber, vitamins A and C, and B vitamins. And if they’re bitter, even better. “[Bitter greens] are invaluable to your health,” she says, adding that they reputedly aid in digestion by increasing hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach, reducing heartburn, and supporting the second phase of liver detoxification.
Your Emergen-C replacement: red pepper
“In my humble opinion, red [peppers] are one of the finest raw foods to eat,” Manolas notes. Snacking on red peppers with hummus or adding them to salads provides your body an immunity boost via a mega dose of vitamin C (not to mention carotenoids, fiber, and vitamin E). You’ll still get benefits if you eat your peppers cooked, but too much time over heat can cause nutrient loss, so it’s best to stick to a quick stir fry or char on the grill. Fill your fridge with extra peppers during cold and flu season—the vitamin C will help boost your immune system and ward off unwanted illness.
Your stress aid: parsnips
“Parsnips are the new carrot; spread the word!” raves Manolas. The complex carbohydrate aids in brain function and serotonin production, which may help you to reach a state of calm more quickly. Do you usually reach for a plate of fries in times of stress? You’re in luck. Roasted parsnip wedges taste just as good as the spud version—with added health benefits. (And they cook quickly.) The mineral-rich veg also supports healthy bones, blood cells, and (bonus!) clear skin.
Your flu remedy: coconut oil
No one wants to be hit by the flu (and miss boxing class, giving “down for the count” an entirely different and meaning), so stopping it in its tracks is crucial. And while a doc may prescribe antibiotics, the flu is a virus, so you’ll want to load up on antivirals, too. That’s where coconut oil comes in. The healthy fat is incredibly heat-stable, so it maintains its antiviral properties whether you are roasting veggies in it or adding a teaspoon to a cup of tea. (Don’t knock it til you try it.) “A teaspoon of coconut oil in a cup of herbal tea is wonderfully soothing while beneficial for whatever ails you,” assures Manolas. Have a sore throat or nasty cough? Coconut oil can help to soothe and lubricate your throat, too. “All hail our hairy little friend of the plant kingdom!” she says. Amen.
Your nausea relief: ginger
If you have an upset stomach, ginger just might come to your rescue faster than you can get your hands on over-the-counter relief. “Ginger is powerful,” Manolas emphasizes. “Studies have shown ginger to be a strong remedy for nausea, including sea sickness and morning sickness.” But there’s no need to limit your ginger relief to a stomach ache. The zingy root contains a powerful compound called gingerol, which reportedly helps with quelling period cramps, bloating, and indigestion, and keeping bacterial infections at bay. Whether you’re adding it to stir fries and salad dressings, or pureeing it into juices and smoothies, a little bit of ginger can go a long way when it comes to your health.
Your headache cure: lemon water
There are many causes of headaches, but dehydration is most often the culprit, Manolas says. She recommends adding lemon juice to a bottle of water for effective relief. Not only does the added flavor encourage you to drink more, but the bitter citrus is said to help detoxify the liver and aid digestion.
Your cold medicine: pineapple
Who needs a spoonful of sugar when you can replace less-than-tasty cold medicine with fresh pineapple? Manolas loves the fruit’s candy-esque flavor, but can’t get over its vitamin profile, either—it’s packed with vitamin C. Another feather in pineapple’s cap? “[It is] the only naturally occurring source of bromelain, an antioxidant, super anti-inflammatory enzyme,” explains Manolas. The combo of vitamin C and bromelain may make pineapple a knockout when it comes to sinus and respiratory inflammation. And Manolas has a brilliant serving suggestion: top raw pineapple slices with finely grated ginger for a snack that your body will love just as much as your tastebuds d