Hard to believe, but the flu may be making a comeback this season, as the CDC warned recently. Although confirmed cases have gone down nationally over the past few weeks, a more prevalent strain of the virus could be pushing those numbers up again, some outlets are reporting.

You should certainly consult with your doctor about whether the flu shot is right for you, though it’s far from a slam dunk. It was only 43 percent effective last year, as the CDC noted. And the flu virus mutates all the time, so it’s constantly evolving faster than the vaccines meant to stop it.

My bias is to always work with the body to shore up its natural defenses before reaching for pharmaceutical treatments. If your immune system is well-nourished and healthy, it will withstand challenges a lot better. Immune-boosting foods (such as garlic) and supplements (such as Sambucol) can strengthen your immune system.

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At the first sign of a cold, I start adding these supplements and foods:

Echinacea. This herb is used to fight the cold and other upper respiratory infections. Take it at the first sign of symptoms. It might keep the cold from developing or make symptoms less severe; you can take anywhere from 300 mg to 500 mg three times a day.

Zinc. Your cells need this mineral to fight bacteria and viruses. And it’s important in the development of white blood cells, which are part of your immune system. I recommend 15 mg a day every day — the amount usually found in a good multivitamin — and 50 mg a day at the first sign of a cold (check with your doctor first on any of these recommendations).

Cherries and other berries. Almost every cold is accompanied by inflammation. Cherries and berries are filled with compounds called anthocyanins, which are highly anti-inflammatory. One or two daily servings of cherries or berries is ideal. (Berries were number one on WebMD’s list of disease-fighting foods.)

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Black elderberry. One of the most powerful berries is black elderberry. Unfortunately, you won’t find this at the grocery store (and they taste horribly). What you will find is a marvelous extract of black elderberry, sold over the counter as Sambucol. I added this to the expanded 10th anniversary edition of my best-selling book “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.” People have been known to use it on pancakes in place of syrup, or to use it as flavoring for sparkling soda. One Israeli study took a group of people who were “coming down with something” and gave half of them Sambucol and half a placebo. The Sambucol group were back in action almost four full days before their placebo counterparts.

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Black elderberry is good to take even if you’re not sick, as it helps charge up your complex immune system. I recommend one to two capfuls a day during cold and flu season — three caps a day when you’re coming down with something.

Vitamin C. This is one of the most researched vitamins in terms of boosting the immune system. It’s a highly effective antioxidant that helps protect against the free radicals generated by the immune cells to kill pathogens. Especially during cold and flu season, I recommend 1,000 mg a day as a supplement, plus plenty of high-C fruits and vegetables, such as yellow bell peppers, guava, kale (or other dark green leafy vegetables), and oranges.

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Garlic. Since ancient times, garlic has been used to ward off colds. Supplementing your diet with fresh garlic or garlic extract may help keep nasty germs away. When you use garlic for cooking, be sure to add it toward the end, and be sure to chop it up thoroughly — the active ingredient (allicin) is created by breaking down the cell walls. This combination of foods and supplements will go a long way toward keeping you healthy by boosting your immune system.

In addition, if you do get sick, make sure to:

  • get lots of sleep
  • try using a neti pot to soothe sinuses
  • gargle with hot water, sea salt, lemon juice and cayenne pepper
  • spread on a mentholated rub like Vicks
  • eat some homemade chicken soup

The latter is not just an old superstition. Research by Stephen Rennard, M.D., at the University of Nebraska Medical Center shows that chicken soup actually does help support your immune system.

Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS, is a nationally known, board-certified nutritionist and the best-selling author of 15 books, including “The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth.” He has appeared on many news shows and has contributed to articles in The New York Times, Forbes, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair Online, Men’s Health, Prevention, and other print and online publications. Based in Los Angeles, he is a consultant for Cenegenics Medical Institute.

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