In any given year, nearly half of the American population will catch a cold, and 40 percent will come down with the flu. Yet, even with those odds, some people manage to stay healthy all year long. As you sneeze and cough your way through yet another cold or flu season, these hale and hearty survivors boast of beating the odds. What do they know that you don’t?
Perhaps these fortunate few are simply blessed with powerful immune systems. But even if your immune system isn’t made of armor, don’t worry. There are many natural ways to boost your body’s own defenses. Even if you do succumb to illness, herbs and supplements can soothe your sore throat, lessen congestion and stop that runny nose.
And unlike over-the-counter cold and flu medications that merely mask symptoms, natural remedies may actually shorten the time you spend wallowing in misery. What’s more, by eating a healthy diet, minimizing stress and taking a few extra vitamins, you may even avoid the next bug that tries to take up residence in your respiratory tract.
Catch a Cold Before It Catches You
In the movie “Unbreakable,” Bruce Willis’ character has a revelation: He can’t remember ever being sick. Not even one day of his life. Maybe he was privy to the following ways to stop a cold before it starts:
• Wash your hands. Colds and flus are spread through secretions from the mouth, throat and nasal passages. Besides inhaling viruses though a sick person’s sneeze or cough, you can easily pick up germs from surfaces such as telephones, doorknobs and countertops. During cold and flu season, wash your hands frequently before eating, before touching your mouth, eyes or nose and definitely after being near somebody who is sick. And forget antibacterial soap. There’s no evidence that it’s any better than plain old soap and water. In fact, recently it has been linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
• Eat your veggies. If your diet is low on antioxidant vitamins like C, E and beta carotene, your body won’t have the resources it needs to fight off viruses. Load up on fresh vegetables and fruits, and make sure you drink plenty of water.
• Practice clean living. Alcohol depresses the immune system, and smoking is associated with greater susceptibility to colds. You don’t have to lay off the eggnog entirely, but don’t overdo it, especially when you’re feeling run-down or stressed.
• Mellow out. If you’re one of those people who catches everything that comes along, stress could be the real culprit. Study after study shows that stress weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off disease. While a vacation in Hawaii might be out of the question, there are many ways you can cope with stress in your life.
Get plenty of rest, exercise regularly and practice techniques like deep breathing, yoga or meditation. You might even try saving a few minutes every day to do something just for you: Get a manicure, read a book or watch your favorite TV show. Anything to give you some down time.
• Boost your immunity naturally. The herbs ginseng and astragalus, as well as maitake and reishi mushrooms, may help your immune system fight off infection, if taken regularly throughout the cold and flu season. Consult an herbalist or your doctor for dosages.
Stop a Cold in Its Tracks
If you feel a cold coming on even after taking every precaution, you’re hardly alone. Since there are more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold and 100 that cause the flu, it’s nearly impossible to dodge every bug. In fact, most healthy people catch one or two colds every year. Act quickly, however, and you might just be able to nip a cold in the bud—or at least lessen your symptoms and shorten the time you spend recuperating. The following herbs and supplements are must-haves in your arsenal against colds and flus:
• Echinacea: There are hundreds of herbs worldwide that have been used to fight the common cold and flu, but echinacea is the most widely studied of them all. At least nine double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have shown that this Native American herb can lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of colds and flus. There is also some evidence showing that, if taken at the first sign of illness, echinacea can stop a cold in its tracks.
Though researchers aren’t certain just how this herb works, they suspect that echinacea acts like a wake-up call for the immune system, stimulating it into a short-term burst of increased activity.
“Echinacea is like a general behind the lines, ordering the troops—in this case your white blood cells—to fight the enemy,” says Karim Abdullah, N.D., a naturopathic physician and professor at Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. Currently, however, there is no evidence that echinacea works as a long-term preventative treatment. In fact, many natural health practitioners believe that echinacea loses effectiveness over time. Abdullah recommends taking 300 milligrams (mg.) or 3 milliliters of the liquid tincture form three times per day, at the first sign of illness, for up to two weeks. All the species of this herb—E. purpurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida—have been shown to work equally well.
• Vitamin C: Another old standby for fighting off colds is vitamin C. Not only does it act as a natural antihistamine, but vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant. This means that it is able to neutralize extra free radicals—the same free radicals that are responsible for the cold symptoms produced when your body is fighting a virus. Studies show that regular supplementation with vitamin C can reduce the number of colds you get each year by up to 20 percent, as well as significantly lessen symptoms such as sore throat pain, aches, chills and nasal stuffiness. Even better, more than 10 recent studies show that taking 1,000 mg. or more of vitamin C daily can reduce the length of a cold by as much as a day. While that might not sound like much, consider the fact that no over-the-counter medicine for colds has been proven to lessen the time you spend being sick (except for Zicam, a new nasal gel). But just taking vitamin C isn’t enough. You must also make sure you get enough rest, as this vitamin is depleted by stress. “Even if you eat adequate amounts of high-in-vitamin-C foods, stress can increase your need for this vitamin,” says Abdullah.
During cold and flu season, load up on fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, kale, strawberries and kiwis, all of which pack substantial amounts of vitamin C. When you feel a cold coming on, Abdullah recommends taking from 3,000 to 5,000 mg. per day of the vitamin, in divided doses. Though higher doses are safe when taken short-term, they may cause diarrhea.
• Zinc: Since even a mild deficiency of this mineral can weaken your immune system, making sure you get enough could keep you from picking up colds and other infections in the first place. To get the Recommended Daily Allowance (15 mg. for men, 12 mg. for women), eat zinc-rich foods such as legumes, nuts and fortified breads and cereals, or take a multivitamin that contains zinc. If you end up sniffling and sneezing anyway, sucking on zinc lozenges may help you feel better faster. Several double-blind studies show taking zinc can shorten the duration of a cold by an impressive three days.
Researchers think this is due to the fact that it causes the body to produce interferon, a protein needed by the immune system to fight off viruses.
Zinc is also valuable because it relieves symptoms such as coughing, nasal congestion, runny nose and sore throat. But be sure to get lozenges that are free of the sweeteners sorbitol, mannitol and citric acid, all of which have been shown to prevent zinc from being absorbed. At the first sign of a cold, take 15 to 25 mg. of zinc—preferably sweetened with glycine—every two hours until symptoms disappear, but no longer than two weeks. “Some people think if it’s good for a cold, it must be good all year long.
That’s simply not true,” warns Abdullah. Long-term use of zinc at more than 100 mg. per day can cause toxic effects. And be sure to take it with food, since taking zinc on an empty stomach can produce nausea.
• Homeopathic cures: Based on the principle that “like cures like,” homeopathic remedies use tiny amounts of substances that, in large doses, would ordinarily cause discomfort. Jackie Wilson, M.D., D.Ht., a homeopathic researcher based in Escondido, Calif., stresses that homeopathic medicine is very precise. “Different remedies are prescribed based on the speed of onset, the symptoms, how the patient looks and even his or her mental and emotional state,” she says. Because homeopathic medicines—unlike herbs—are regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration, they are considered extremely safe. That means that diagnosing yourself isn’t likely to do you any harm. To better understand the subtleties of this healing modality, Wilson recommends reading Healing with Homeopathy, by Jennifer Jacobs and Wayne Jonas (Warner Books, 1996).
For the early stages of a cold, Wilson recommends aconite (30c pellets that you allow to dissolve under your tongue). Other remedies to have in your cold and flu first-aid kit include: Arsenicum for dull throbbing headache, chills and burning nostrils; Nux vomica for nasal congestion and achiness; and Allium cepa for watery eyes, sneezing and profuse nasal discharge.
Fight Back With Food
Once you’ve developed a full-blown cold or flu, you might not feel much like eating. This is an entirely natural response to being sick. “Digestion requires a lot of energy, so it makes sense to let the body spend its energy fighting off the infection rather than digesting a heavy meal,” says Abdullah. For a few days, you might want to limit your diet to broth, tea, diluted fruit juice and fresh vegetables and fruit.
Abdullah recommends staying away from foods high in refined sugar, since studies show that sugar reduces the ability of white blood cells to kill bacteria. Along with many other natural health practitioners, Abdullah also believes that dairy foods and refined flours are mucus-forming and should be avoided during illness.
Take a Sinus Sauna
When a stuffy nose prevents you from getting a good night’s rest, it’s tempting to reach for an over-the-counter decongestant. But there are several ways to relieve your congestion naturally. One simple method to clear out your sinuses is to take a hot bath. Another is to do a steam inhalation. Light Miller, an Ayurvedic doctor based in Sarasota, Fla., and author of Ayurvedic Remedies for the Whole Family (Lotus Press, 2000), recommends using essential oils of eucalyptus, peppermint or rosemary to enhance the clearing effect of the steam. The method is simple: Boil 2 cups of water and pour into a glass or ceramic bowl. Add six drops of oil and, using a towel to form a tent over your head, place your face 6 inches above the water, breathing deeply for 10 minutes. “Doing this at least three times a day is the best way to (clear) the mucous membranes and help you breathe again,” she says.
Miller also recommends drinking hot ginger tea and using a vaporizer at night to help you breathe easier.
There’s a reason you feel tired when you’re sick: Your immune system functions best when you’re asleep or in a deep state of relaxation. “Rest is at least as important as any supplement,” says Wilson. So if you’re not feeling well, don’t drag yourself to work. Besides exposing your coworkers to your illness, you may end up prolonging your cold or flu—and your misery. Instead, take this tried-but-true advice: Prop your feet up, wrap yourself in warm blankets and drink lots of fluids. Combine these common-sense measures with proper nutrition, immune-boosting herbs and antioxidant vitamins, and you’ll be well on your way to recovery.