Prairie Fare: Keep your immune system strong this fall

Julie Garden-Robinson
North Dakota State University Extension
Julie Garden-Robinson, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

“Oh, no,” I thought to myself.

I woke up with a stuffy nose and a headache.

I have been on many plane trips lately. I heard some people in the airport coughing and sneezing. Some of the people sounded as though they should be in a hospital.

Did the prowling germs they were expelling find their way to me? Did I have a cold, the flu or something worse on the way?

With all the isolation and social distancing of the past couple years, I haven’t had a cold or the flu in a long time. I had my annual flu shot later that week as a precaution.                          

We had turned on our furnace and the dry air probably led to my issues. I felt better after having a steaming hot cup of tea. To be on the safe side, I took it easy that day, drank a lot of warm beverages and let my immune system do its work.

Most of us get a cold or the flu on occasion. What’s the difference, anyway? I visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for some clarification.

Flu is caused by influenza viruses, while colds can be caused by rhinoviruses, parainfluenza and seasonal coronaviruses. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, and that illness is different from the common cold or the flu.

Colds and flu share some symptoms such as fatigue, sneezing, cough, stuffy nose and sore throat, but the symptoms can be variable. See https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm to learn more.

Getting the flu is more serious than getting the common cold. Flu symptoms often include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, and sometimes, vomiting and/or diarrhea.

The flu can result in inflammation of the heart, brain and muscles. Serious bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, can occur after having the flu.

Specific testing is needed to determine if you have the flu or COVID-19.

Fortunately, for us, our bodies have a variety of disease-fighting cells and organs, including our spleen and bone marrow. Keep your immune system strong by following these tips.

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Handwashing is considered the single most important way to prevent the spread of infection. If you are not close to a sink, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer according to the directions.
  • If you have a cold, be sure to cover your cough with your arm, not your hands. Better yet, stay home when you are ill and recuperate.
  • Eat a healthful diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables with lean protein, healthful fats, low-fat dairy and whole grains to round out your plate. Drink plenty of water too.
  • Be active at least five days per week, aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day.
  • Get plenty of rest. In general, people need seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

Search online for “NDSU Extension Nourish Your Immune System” for some of the specific nutrients your body needs to defend itself. Protein, vitamin D and antioxidants are among the key nutrients.

Customize your own soup recipe using what you already have on hand.

Soup is an excellent autumn food to enjoy. A steaming bowl of soup may help fight respiratory illnesses. This step-by-step recipe from our “Pinchin’ Pennies in the Kitchen” series allows you to use what you have on hand to create a personalized soup.

Create a soup in seven steps

  1. Choose one fat.
    1. 2 tablespoons canola, sunflower, olive, vegetable (soy) or other oil
    2. Heat in large pot on stove.
  2. Rinse and chop one medium onion.
    1. Add to pot and cook over medium heat until tender.
  3. Choose one broth. Add to pot.
    1. 2 (16-ounce) cans chicken, beef or vegetable broth
    2. 4 cups water plus chicken, beef or vegetable bouillon or soup base prepared according to manufacturer’s directions
    3. 1 (16-ounce) can crushed or diced tomatoes and 3 cups water
    4. 4 cups milk and chicken bouillon or soup base prepared according to manufacturer’s directions
  4. Choose one protein. Add to pot.
    1. 1 pound cooked (or leftover) chopped/diced beef, chicken, ham, lean sausage, firm tofu, etc.
    2. 1 (16-ounce) can beef, chicken, ham
    3. 1 (16-ounce) can beans (pinto, kidney, navy, black, etc.), drained and rinsed
  5. Choose one starch. Add to pot.
    1. 3 to 4 cups diced potatoes
    2. 4 ounces egg noodles, macaroni, pasta (or 1½ cups leftover cooked noodles)
    3. ½ cup uncooked rice (or 1½ cups leftover cooked rice)
  6. Choose a mixture of 2 to 3 cups chopped vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned). Add to pot.
  7. Choose one or more seasonings, add to pot and simmer 20 to 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
    1. 1 to 2 teaspoons dried herbs (oregano, basil, cumin, chili powder, thyme, rosemary, parsley, etc.)
    2. Bay leaf (remove before serving)
    3. Minced garlic
    4. 1 to 2 Tablespoons fresh herbs (add five minutes before serving)

Nutritional content will vary depending on ingredients used.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson.