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Healing Soups

From grandmother with love (and phytonutrients): Now's the time to nourish your body with old-fashioned healing soups.

By Dayna Macy

A Holy Trinity of Flavor

"When I don't feel well, I make a soup with ginger and garlic," says renowned cookbook author and whole-food champion Rebecca Wood. "Ginger increases circulation and cuts congestion. Garlic is antibacterial. You can also use kombu [an edible seaweed] in the stock and add other immune boosters like shiitake mushrooms and turmeric." Like Wood, I often add ginger and garlic—and turmeric, too—to my winter meals. I've dubbed this combo "the holy trinity" of immune-boosting ingredients and use it to spice up Indian dals and broths for Asian noodle soups.

"Current experiments suggest certain foods do have antibacterial properties and begin to validate what we know about traditional folk medicines in fighting infections," says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Tufts University. "You can actually do experiments that take extracts of garlic or curcumin [the substance in turmeric that gives it its yellow-orange color], put them in a cell culture, and see their antibacterial activities."

Perhaps more important than killing bacteria directly, some food constituents boost immune responses by increasing the activity of white blood cells. "This is as good, or even better," he says, "since an enhanced immune system is a much broader defense against disease."

What's more, he adds, "this knowledge stems from thousands of years of Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, Native American medicine, and other traditional medicines. Using foods and spices for therapeutic uses isn't a trend; it's a global phenomenon."

Soup Is Good Food

To give your immune system a fighting chance against the colds and flus you'll be exposed to this season, be sure to eat plenty of foods rich in vitamins A, C, and E, including leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, legumes, and citrus fruits. Why these nutrients? Vitamin A is critical for supporting the lining of the lungs and gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Vitamins C and E maintain the healthy functioning of infection-fighting white blood cells, which are crucial to a strong immune system.

Minerals like selenium and zinc, commonly found in leafy greens, nuts, and seeds, are also important for immune system support. Seaweeds tend to be very high in mineral content. So do mushrooms, which also have probiotic qualities that help maintain the right balance between harmful and beneficial bacteria in the gut. The GI tract is host to many immune cells, so maintaining its health is essential to staying healthy yourself.

One simple and comforting way to enjoy these immune-boosting foods is to cook them up in a soup like the one Susun Weed, an herbalist and the author of the four-book Wise Woman Herbal series, calls Immune A-Go-Go Soup. Rich in vitamins and minerals, the soup is a funky mixture of onions, garlic, cabbage, seaweed, wild mushrooms, root vegetables (like beets, carrots, parsnips, or turnips) and tonic roots like dried Siberian ginseng and ginger, all simmered in water. Weed varies the ingredients every time she cooks up a pot—sometimes throwing in beet tops or a different root vegetable, for instance—and recommends it to cancer patients and others who need to fortify their immune response.

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