When your sniffles and scratchy throat turn into a full-blown bodily fluid extravaganza, one thing’s for sure: Feeling sick sucks.
But you know the drill. Drink plenty of fluids. Add ginger to the menu when nausea strikes. Get as many nutrients into your body as you can, even if they’re only in liquid form at first. And once you finally work your way back to solid foods again, make sure they’re not processed or sugary. Easy peasy, right?
Well, not so much. There are some otherwise healthy foods that have a reputation for making an already sick person feel worse because they exacerbate or prolong symptoms in some way.
Which healthy foods are the biggest offenders, and what should you eat instead? Read on to find out, but keep one caveat in mind: Everyone reacts to foods differently, even when sick.
If there’s a food (or several) that made this list, yet don’t bother you when you’re sick, then listen to your body and keep enjoying them.
When You Have A Cold, Flu Or Fever
Histamine is a chemical produced in the body whose release triggers allergy symptoms, but it’s also found in many foods — and some foods, even though they’re not high in histamine themselves, are considered histamine liberators.
“They trigger cells, called mast cells, to release histamine and activate an inflammatory response,” said Renee Wellenstein, a board-certified physician specializing in functional medicine. “This response may further worsen congestion, fatigue and other symptoms often associated with a cold or flu.”
It’s thought that spinach might be a histamine liberator, along with strawberries, tomatoes and citrus fruits (among others).
Nuts contain important nutrients to help the body fight off infection, such as zinc and vitamin E. But you may want to refrain from eating them during the beginning stages of an illness, especially if your stomach’s flip-floppy or you have a fever.
Because nuts are high in (healthy) fats, your body will have to work harder to digest them. This could cause an upset stomach and sap your body of energy it needs to fight off the infection instead.
Nuts are thought to be a histamine liberator too, which could amp up your congestion.
“While broccoli is quite beneficial, as it contains immune-boosting nutrients like vitamins A and C, it’s also high in fiber, which can be difficult to digest when you’re ill,” said Mahmoud Ghannoum, gut health expert and author of “Total Gut Balance.”
To avoid irritating your gastrointestinal tract, go with foods that are lower in fiber and easier to digest so that your body can focus its attention on evicting the infection from your system.
Red peppers contain a compound called quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that’s also anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. “Quercetin can help with preventing the virus from duplicating itself, repairing oxidative tissue damage as a result of the infection and calming the inflammation associated with the illness,” Wellenstein said.
They’re also rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that’s thought to shorten the duration of cold symptoms, yet aren’t as acidic as citrus fruits — a bonus if a scratchy throat has got you down.
Cytokines are small proteins that head up the immune system department of the body. They regulate the immune response by sounding the alarm when you’re sick and initiating sleep mode when you’re well.
Research suggests that mushrooms, such as shiitake, reishi and cordyceps, can increase cytokines and help the immune system fight infection, Wellenstein said.
Eat This: Chicken Soup Or Broth
Studies hint that chicken soup contains compounds that have an anti-inflammatory effect, making it an ideal food to eat in the fight against cold and flu symptoms.
One of these compounds, carnosine, is found in chicken and could be helpful when combatting the early stages of a cold or flu, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics.
But if the thought of eating a chunky soup gives you a case of the queasies, chicken broth can help you out in the meantime. Broth contains electrolyte minerals, such as potassium and sodium, Ghannoum said, which are important to keeping your body hydrated.
When You Have A Headache
The longer foods age, the more histamine they produce, with cheeses like Gouda, Swiss and Parmesan topping the list of offenders. The histamine consumed in those cheeses may cause the blood vessels in the brain to dilate, triggering a headache (or worsening one).
Tyramine, an amino acid found in fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, can be a headache trigger, too.
“Some people have a hard time breaking down tyramine, causing them to be more prone to headaches associated with foods containing high levels [of tyramine],” Wellenstein said.
Eating those foods can cause a chain reaction that results in the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in the brain, cueing up a throbbing headache.
Beef, chicken and other lean meats contain riboflavin and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), two important vitamins that keep the body’s energy supply flowing.
“The exact mechanism is unknown, but research is coming out supporting that migraine sufferers may have a problem with energy metabolism in the brain,” Wellenstein said, so this could explain why these vitamins help with migraines ― and headaches generally.
When the body is parched, it draws water from anywhere H20 is available, including the brain. The result? The brain — including the protective covering around it — shrinks, causing it to pull away from the skull and create head pain.
“Eating water-rich foods, like cucumber and watermelon, recalibrates the fluid balance in the body,” Wellenstein said. “The brain fills back up with water and the headache symptoms resolve.”
When You Have A Cough or Sore Throat
Depending on the severity of your sore throat, foods that are rough or jagged in texture (like raw vegetables) may be harder to swallow and cause further irritation, Wellenstein said. It’s best to save snacking on these for when your throat is back to its regularly scheduled programming.
Eating citrus fruits when you’re sick can be tricky. On one hand, doing so can reload your body with vitamin C, as well as electrolytes like potassium, which you may be running low on.
On the other, “the acidity levels found in oranges and grapefruit may further irritate the throat,” Wellenstein said, so you may want to score your vitamin C and electrolytes from other sources until your throat feels better.
Not only are eggs super easy to swallow, but they contain both vitamin D and zinc, a dynamic duo that works with the immune system to show invading viruses and bacteria who’s boss.
Plus, the protein that eggs provide gets broken down into amino acids, which are then upcycled into antibodies and other proteins that offer additional help to your immune system.
Not only can its soothing texture help relieve a sore, itchy throat, but “honey is a natural cough suppressant,” Wellenstein said, and may be just as effective as over-the-counter methods.
Bonus: A 2013 review published in the Iran Journal of Basic Medical Science suggests that honey has antibacterial qualities that can help the body fight off pesky germs.
When You Have A Stomachache, Nausea or Diarrhea
Dairy foods contain lactose, which the stomach breaks down with the help of a digestive enzyme called lactase.
“In the setting of gastroenteritis with diarrhea, the lactase enzyme can become temporarily depleted due to inflammation in the lining of the gut (where the enzyme is located),” said Rabia De Latour, gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.
Eating dairy when your stomach’s already feeling iffy can intensify symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain.
Bran is high in insoluble fiber, which doesn’t dissolve or gel in water, so it has a tendency to send food through the bowels at a speedier pace — not an ideal outcome when you’re already living on the throne. The same goes for granola, brown rice and whole wheat pasta.
“Sugars present in beans, called alpha-galactosidase, can irritate stomach issues, such as diarrhea, gas and cramping,” Ghannoum said. This is because the body may not synthesize enough of the necessary gas-reducing enzyme to fully digest these sugars.
Besides being super bland and gentle on the stomach, oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which pulls water into the digestive tract, helping to bulk up poop and regulate how quickly food is sent through the body.
Oatmeal also contains selenium, which helps protect the body from infection, and zinc, the immune system’s partner in fighting off unwelcome bacteria and viruses.
Rice is another bland food that will give your digestive tract a much-needed breather. It’s full of starch and low in fiber, making it a perfect “binding” food to harden your poop following a bout of diarrhea, De Latour said. Rice is also an excellent food for easing your body back into eating solid foods again.
When you’re suffering from diarrhea or vomiting, your body’s potassium levels can become depleted. Potassium is an important mineral that balances the amount of water in your body and keeps your cells in tip-top shape.
Bananas to the rescue: “Try looking for bananas that are a little more green than yellow,” Ghannoum suggested. Unripe bananas “have more resistant starch, which encourages the growth of good bacteria in the gut.”