When the body is sick; at the root, it is simply worn out. The energy reserves have been depleted and sickness is the body’s way of showing it. This makes sense: if you only get a few hours of poor sleep one night, the next day your energy is depleted. Keep this going for two or three days, energy becomes null and unless we regenerate, we start to deteriorate.
Surely, you can also undo things as well – too little food, exercise and passion for life can leave one generally lethargic. As most of us here know by now, health is a balance, yin and yang.
However, for the most part, when we are dealing with common sickness or the flu, it is a case of exhaustion. The body is run down from too much of just about everything: work, food, excitement, stimulation, exercise and more.
At this point, the body is in need of some energy cultivation. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is referred to Chi or Qi energy. This “life essence” is found in the kidneys and is depleted from too much output.
The reason we would want to avoid overeating when sick, then, is because digesting food requires tons of energy; energy that the body doesn’t have much of. The last thing we would want to do is burden an already weakened body with the task of digestion – a task that requires a great deal of energy, calling for many physiological functions to take place at once. (1)
The best thing to do is to preserve the small amount of energy a sick body has. The best way to do this is fasting. This is an ancient form of healing that’s been around since we’ve been around. We talk a lot about intermittent fasting here in the Paleo community.
The basic wisdom behind the concept of fasting is that we are essentially getting out of our own way and letting the body balance itself. After all, it’s not a food, supplement or anything that heals, it is the body that heals itself. Fasting gives the body the opportunity to get back into homeostasis (self-repair). (2)
While prolonged fasting may not be for everyone, it is safe to say that the safest and simplest route to take when sick is to do exactly as the animals in the wild do when sick – find a quiet place to lay, away from any business, lay down and sleep, only getting up to sip some water.
Depending on how sick you are, some nourishment may help build up some energy. In what I call the “hierarchy of health” that I talk about in a few of my articles, I explain that sleep trumps all else in terms of health. Without good sleep, we do not have a solid foundation to exercise or even digest food. Therefore, sleep is numero uno.
The first thing to do is to sleep and from there, once you start regaining some energy, you can move into some very easy-to-digest foods that will help the immune system.
The Best Foods To Eat When Sick
We know that the best thing to do when you’re sick is to fast while getting great sleep and rest. If you start to get authentic hunger even after resting deeply, then here are some of the best foods to eat.
These foods are going to have a few shared characteristics. First, they will be simple, not composed of many of complex ingredients. They will be easy to digest. Finally, they will support the digestive system and the immune system.
Here are some foods that fit that bill:
- Probiotic Foods: Especially liquid probiotic foods such as cultured vegetable juices (the juice from sauerkraut is great), kvass, raw coconut kefir and soups made from miso (a fermented food that supports immune health). Learn more about probiotic foods on this earlier blog.
- Lysine-Rich Foods: The tricky thing about viruses is that they do not respond to antibiotics or most other conventional treatments. Therefore, a healthy diet and lifestyle is the best way to speed up the healing process.
One great way to protect the body from viruses and calm an active virus is by consuming foods rich in the amino acid lysine. Lysine boosts your body’s immunity and could protect you from future outbreaks. (4)
Foods For Supporting Gut Health & Immunity
Probiotic foods (in addition to a Paleo diet) are one of the best ways to protect the body from viral, fungal and bacterial infections that can lower immunity. By consuming these foods daily, we cultivate a lavish “inner garden” of beneficial bacteria in our guts.
Adopting a Paleo diet with a focus on probiotic-rich foods supports immunity, making you less susceptible to infections of all kinds. (5) In this way, a Paleo diet with these additional tweaks becomes a great solution for anyone interested in optimal immunity.
Specific foods that meet these qualities:
- Vegetable soup (with added seaweed)
- Bone broth
- Sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables
- Soft-cooked vegetables
- Green juice (no fruit)
- Green smoothies (again, no fruit)
- Collagen/Gelatin (especially rich in amino acids like lysine)
The Worst Foods To Eat When Sick
I know there are going to be the die-hard foodies that will have trouble not eating anything at all while sick. If this is you, then stick to the recommended foods. In general, keep your foods very simple and easy to digest. Think soups, juices and smoothies.
However, while you’re sick, you’re going to want to avoid certain foods. Otherwise, the sickness can accelerate and become prolonged. When you have a virus (such as a common cold) you will want to give special consideration to what you consume.
Nuts and seeds, for example, contain high levels of the amino acid arginine. Studies show that arginine actually encourages outbreaks of viruses. (1) Someone consuming a diet with too much arginine can be unknowingly welcoming the growth of low-grade chronic (often unnoticed) viral infection – even just a common cold sore.
Avoid These Sources of Arginine if You Have a Virus:
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, pecans, cashews, etc., as well as peanuts
- Soybeans (unless truly fermented, like natto or miso)
Add These Foods Rich in Lysine:
- Wild-caught fish
- Gluten-free grain-like seeds: amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa
- Cow’s milk kefir. (Before you experiment with dairy, you will want to know your gut is in good shape, no leaky gut or signs of digestive imbalance.)
Additionally, you will want to avoid other immune-suppressing foods such as sugar. Stick to organic berries instead of anything sweet, even sugary fruit. You will also want to avoid heavy amounts of fats for the time being, as well as other concentrated foods like eggs, animal foods, most dairy and generally anything that’s prepackaged. Keep meals especially fresh.
So when you feel a cold coming on, or perhaps you have a low-grade viral infection, be sure to avoid arginine-rich foods and consume plenty of lysine-rich foods.
(Read: 7 Natural Sore Throat Remedies)