Many of us have already gotten flu shots, and thus feel we have done our part to prepare for and prevent any illnesses this winter. While vaccination is important, there are many more things we can do to optimize our immune system for the upcoming cold and flu season. Most of the recommendations here are meant for when you get sick, but following this advice throughout the winter months in general may help you avoid any episodes at all!
What we eat is the foundation of our health. Therefore, eating clean is one of the most important things you can do when you get sick. Let your body put energy toward healing, not towards damage control. Cut down or out on sugar, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and all processed foods. Think of the good old remedy, chicken soup: the broth is full of nutrients that help you fight illness. Adding mushrooms, ginger, garlic, onions, and chilies all can give it more immune-boosting strength! Mushrooms themselves are great immune helpers, especially shiitake. Fresh mushrooms may be found at the store, but can be pricey. It is easier and more economical to find them dried, keeping in the pantry to toss in soup when you are sick. Garlic and ginger are both anti-inflammatory and help support your immune system, too.
When I first met my husband, two of his go-to remedies for colds were Sprite and orange juice. It’s what his family always did. But not only are both of these beverages high in sugar, neither are good sources of Vitamin C. It can be found in healthier forms in citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwis, green leafy vegetables, or taken as a supplement for higher doses (see below).
There are also things we can do, or change, with our daily activities that can help prevent or manage a cold or flu. Prioritize sleep and rest. Don’t push through one more TV show, hour on social media, or pile of laundry if you are feeling tired. Your immune system refreshes while you sleep. And take the time off work if you need it. Sometimes it just takes a day or two of true rest to get yourself back in action, rather than going through the motions at work, not getting better, and spreading your germs to your colleagues.
Cough and congestion are usually the most bothersome complaints when people come to the doctor with these types of illnesses. Placing a humidifier in your bedroom can help keep the congestion from getting dried out and sticky, helping you breathe more fully while you sleep. Nasal saltwater rinses also help with congestion (8 oz tepid water, ¼ tsp salt, 1/8 tsp baking soda in a spray bottle or Netipot). Rinsing your nose out twice a day can help with a fresh start for the day, and clear out for better breathing before bed. Honey is a wonderful and effective cough suppressant; a study compared 1 tsp honey to other common cough syrups, and honey was more effective. Honey is not safe for children younger than 1 year old, however.
Now here are some exciting things I like sharing with patients. Most of us know that both the flu and colds are caused by viruses. Viruses are different than bacteria. Antibiotics are useful only against bacterial infections. Antibiotics have no action against viruses, and therefore have no place in treating a cold or the flu. Tamiflu is a medicine we reserve for cases of severe flu, otherwise we expect our own immune system to fight off the infection—all of the actions in this article help to strengthen your immune system to do just that.
In addition, here are a few products you can pick up to have ready for the next time you feel the sniffles coming on. These might be found at your local pharmacy, a natural grocer, or easily on-line. Herbs are most effective taken early on in illness, the earlier the better. Not only have these herbal remedies been around for years with no additional side effects, recent research studies have backed up their effectiveness as anti-viral treatments.
Pelargonium sidoides, a plant in the geranium family but native to South America, has been studied for its antiviral properties. One good quality study showed it shortened the duration of patients’ cold symptoms. Umcka is the brand name that markets this product.
Elderberry is also a powerful antiviral. There is good evidence that shows it is effective against the flu and other flu-like illnesses. Sambucol, Sambucus, and others are brand names. Elderberry is found throughout Nebraska as a native berry. If feeling particularly crafty, you can make your own elderberry syrup, it’s quite easy!
Echinacea is perhaps more familiar as an herb to take when you are sick; research studies, however, have been mixed. It does not hurt to take it, and many people swear by it. As above, it is most effective if taken at the earliest signs of being sick. Interestingly, Echinacea purpurea, or coneflower, is also a native that thrives in Nebraska if you are interested in growing your own medicine.
There are many additional supplements people swear by to help them through their colds. Some use high dose Vitamin C when they get sick, but the best evidence supports taking a low dose (such as 200-500mg) daily through the winter season to prevent illness. If taking when you get sick, increase to 2 to 4 gms to be useful, although there is not as much evidence for it.
Zinc does not have a lot of data behind it either, but seems to work for some people. Frequent high doses started at the sign of first symptoms (e.g. 9-24 mg every 2-3 hours) will be the most effective. Oscillococcum has shown up at Whole Foods check out counters across the country. Also supported by a good quality research trial, they are homeopathic tablets placed under the tongue shown effective to decrease the duration of cold and flu symptoms. As mentioned above, Medicinal Mushrooms benefit your immune system in many ways—some even have growing evidence as anti-cancer agents! Cordyceps, reishi, shiitake, and maitake are all types of medicinal mushrooms. You can find them fresh, dried, or in capsules.
Lastly, Probiotics need to be on the list. They help balance out our gut, boosting the powerful immune system found there. They are therefore best taken daily through the winter as a prevention tool. Or, if you do end up being prescribed an antibiotic, don’t forget the importance of taking probiotics during your antibiotic course and at least for a few weeks following.
Feel free to clip this out for reference when your next cold rolls around. Happy winter season, may it now be happier and healthier!