Fever, body aches, sore throats, and coughs that last till spring—it’s that time of year again. But you don’t have to be miserable. Herbs, supplements, foods, and lifestyle practices can help you kick that sickness to the curb. Just try these science-based remedies that really work.
Suck on some zinc.
It can significantly reduce the duration of colds and severity of symptoms. Taken within 24 hours after symptoms start, zinc lozenges can shorten the length of colds by up to three days and cut the duration of some symptoms, such as stuffy nose, by as much as 58 percent. While lozenges have the best immediate effect, zinc supplements may also support immunity and lower your risk of getting sick. To stop a cold in its tracks, take zinc lozenges as soon as symptoms appear. For longer-term protection, take zinc capsules or tablets. But avoid zinc nasal sprays and swabs—they’ve been linked with an irreversible loss of the sense of smell.
Get more sunshine.
When skin is exposed to sunlight, the body produces vitamin D, critical for healthy immune function. In cold, cloudy winter months, when you’re not out as much, you may need supplements, since low levels of vitamin D can make you more susceptible to colds and flu. Epidemiologic studies show that high vitamin D levels are linked with a reduced risk of upper respiratory tract infections, and supplementing with vitamin D significantly lowers risk of infection. In one study, vitamin D cut the risk of respiratory infection in half, especially in people who were deficient. Look for vitamin D in gel caps or liquids for best absorption.
Load up on echinacea.
It’s rich in compounds that support the immune system by activating the body’s defense systems. Some studies show that echinacea can inhibit the flu virus, viral growth, and the secretion of pro-inflammatory compounds in the body. Studies on echinacea’s effects on colds are mixed, but some research suggests that it can inactivate certain respiratory bacteria, reverse inflammatory effects caused by these bacteria, and control symptoms. In some cases, echinacea may reduce the likelihood of getting a cold by 10–20 percent. Choose standardized echinacea tinctures for maximum absorption, or try echinacea capsules.
Don’t forget “Indian echinacea.”
Andrographis, also called “Indian echinacea,” supports immune function and can both prevent sickness and significantly improve symptoms. Studies show that andrographis is twice as effective as a placebo at reducing respiratory tract infection symptoms (cough, sore throat, runny nose, fever), and can lessen the duration of illness. One review of 33 studies found that andrographis was significantly better than other herbal therapies at reducing symptoms of respiratory tract infections. Most studies used a product that combines andrographis with Siberian ginseng. Try andrographis capsules or tablets, or look for it in combination respiratory health formulas.
Sauté some shiitakes.
They’re rich in compounds called beta glucans that support immune function and protect against colds and flu. Add broccoli or kale—like other cruciferous vegetables, they support immune function—and carrots or other orange vegetables that can protect against infection. Include lots of garlic, which activates the body’s natural killer cells and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms. And sprinkle your stir-fry with nutritional yeast, which increases the body’s potential to defend against invading pathogens and can reduce infections by as much as 25 percent. If you don’t love mushrooms, try a supplement. Look for reishi, maitake, lion’s mane, or cordyceps, or choose a blend formulated to support immune function.
Boost your berries.
Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and other berries are rich in polyphenols that support immune function and may protect against the flu. Elderberry in particular is rich in antioxidant polyphenols that enhance immune cell activity and may block a virus’s ability to spread. Research shows that elderberry both inhibits the flu virus and reduces symptoms if you do get an infection. In one study of people who had the flu, almost 47 percent of those who took an elderberry extract for three days had a complete resolution of their symptoms. In another study, elderberry extract cut duration of flu symptoms in half. Look for syrups, lozenges, or effervescent tablets, and take as soon symptoms appear.
A good night’s sleep protects immune function and can reduce your risk of colds and flu. Part of the reason: the body releases chemicals during sleep that help regulate immune response and fight infection. Sleep also lowers stress, which can make you more susceptible to sickness. Quality is as important as quantity: one study found that people who slept less than seven hours a night were almost three times more likely to get a cold, and those who slept poorly were more than five times more prone to colds. If you struggle to snooze, try melatonin, .valerian, or kava kava, which have all been shown to improve quality of sleep.
Get back to your roots.
In herbal medicine, it’s thought that the healing compounds of many plants are more concentrated in the roots. Three to try:
- Ginseng has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for its immune-supportive effects. It helps protect against upper respiratory infections, and some studies show that taking ginseng daily for 3–4 months during flu season can significantly decrease the risk of developing a cold or flu and reduce the number of colds in a season. If you do get an infection, ginseng can reduce symptom severity and duration. Choose standardized ginseng in tinctures or capsules, ideally organic, and look for a formula that’s been tested for purity.
- Pelargonium, from a plant known as African geranium, has both antiviral and antibacterial activities, and is effective in treating a number of respiratory conditions, including bronchitis, sinusitis, and the common cold. Other studies show pelargonium extract may inhibit infection by, and prevent the replication of, respiratory viruses. It’s sold under the brand name Umcka or as umckaloabo, in syrups, liquids, drink mixes, and chewable tablets.
- Turmeric, traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine, is known for its ability to reduce inflammation and support immune function. It also has antibacterial and antiviral properties, and can protect against viruses that cause a variety of respiratory illnesses. In some studies, curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, prevented replication of some strains of the flu virus by 90 percent. It’s also effective in preventing bronchitis. Look for standardized forms in capsules or tinctures, and be sure it contains black pepper extract (piperine) to dramatically increase its absorption.
Supercharge your smoothie.
Make your breakfast count with an immune-boosting smoothie: start with plain yogurt, rich in probiotics that support immune function, improve the activity of natural killer cells, and prevent infection. Research shows that probiotics are effective for fighting the common cold and flu-like respiratory infections, and can reduce the number of respiratory tract infections. Add some kiwis, peaches, or papaya—all are high in immune-enhancing vitamin C to protect against pathogens and reduce the frequency of colds. Sweeten your smoothie with Manuka honey, a special variety that comes from Australia and New Zealand. Studies show that it has antibacterial and immune-supportive properties, and may protect against the flu virus.
Related: Brain-Boosting Smoothie Bowl
Take a hike.
Exercise enhances immune function and can help your body fight off bad bugs. A brisk walk or hike is ideal; in one study, regular moderate exercise reduced respiratory infections by a third, but strenuous exercise increased susceptibility. And hike with a friend—social interactions reduce stress and improve immune response. Start exercising before cold and flu season to bolster your body’s defenses. If you have a bug, take it easy. Gentle movement with a common cold can speed healing, but if you have a fever, chills, body aches, or chest congestion, rest until you’re better.