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Fall is upon us, and with winter fast approaching, the sounds of the season can be heard all around… “Ahh choo!” Yes, with the snow and cocoa and roaring fires of the colder weather unfortunately comes the season for colds and flu bugs. But never fear, we’ve uncovered some of the most tried and true natural home remedies for cold and flu season.
But first, it’s important to know the difference between these two illnesses. While often lumped together, the flu and a cold are not at all the same thing, as Khara Lucius, ND, FABNO, Naturopathic Oncology Provider at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center explains.
“Colds are typically caused by the common rhinovirus, which is responsible for up to 50% of cold cases,” she says. The other 50% are caused by up to 100 different viruses, according to New York naturopath Dr. Serena Goldstein, ND.
Christina Major, a MS Holistic Nutritionist and Herbalist and the Health Recovery Expert of Crystal Holistic Health, says that the common cold can be even more vast than that. “Generally, the common cold is a catch-all for any illness we get that is short and duration and has minor symptoms.”
“While colds are very common, fortunately, symptoms do not last very long in most people, usually one to two weeks,” explains Lucius. “Cold symptoms may include sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion and mucus production and coughing.”
The flu, however, stems from a completely different virus known as the influenza virus, of which there are several kinds, A, B, and C, according to Goldstein. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), types A and B can cause seasonal epidemics almost every winter in the United States, while a new type, C, is mild, and not thought to cause epidemics.”
Major says that today there are over 300 strains of flu falling into these three or as many as four categories, and as many as 15 new strains appear every year. “It’s why none of the flu vaccines to date have over a 40% success rate, and last year’s success was only 9% (and 20% had severe adverse side effects),” she explains.
Flu symptoms, as well, are quite different from cold symptoms, as Lucius explains. “Flu symptoms may include body aches, fatigue, headache, respiratory symptoms and fever,” she says.
Tina Fabiano, DO, Quality of Life Physician at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center also notes that the common cold is usually milder than the actual flu. The one similarity? “These viruses do not respond to antibiotics, which are treatments targeted toward bacteria,” says Fabiano.
This means that some of the best ways to treat both of these illnesses is by taking care of yourself and allowing your own immune system to fight off the virus, rather than by trying to treat via over-the-counter drugs. And that’s where our natural tips come in.
1. Do Protect Yourself
There are a few things that you can do to avoid coming down with a cold or the flu before it even pokes out its ugly head.
The first is to understand how the cold and the flu are transmitted. “Both can be transmitted through direct contact with infected individuals, touching contaminated objects, or inhalation,” says Goldstein.
Of course, that means that rule number one is to wash your hands more frequently in the winter and to avoid contact with people who have symptoms.
“You may be more susceptible if you’re continuously indoors when around others who are sick,” says Goldstein.
In fact, according to Fabiano, the flu may not really be a cold weather illness, but more a close proximity illness. “While we don’t completely understand why influenza is a seasonal illness, we know that cold weather brings people closer together, which allows for easier transmissibility of the virus,” she says. “Because winter is the traditional time of the flu, perhaps people associated it with cold weather and thus warned of bundling up properly.”
Major agrees. “You are exposed to illnesses at the rate of 100,000 times per day,” she says. “There are actually more in the summer, but you don’t get sick as often because you are exposed to fresh, healthy foods more often and get more exercise. You feel sick only when your immune system is fighting something hard. Catching a chill can cause the immune system to fight harder, as can being around someone who is sick.”
Another major preventative measure is to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep and are not under too much stress, according to our experts. Lucius cites a recent study that showed that those getting less than six hours of sleep a night were about four times more likely to develop a cold than those who got seven or more. “Go to bed between 10pm-11pm every night,” recommends Goldstein.
Lucius also recommends keeping stress at bay. “Increased stress is associated with an increased risk of acute respiratory infection,” she says.
Goldstein agrees. “Now is a good time to figure out the root cause of your stress and develop strategies to help clear your mind, such as completing the task or meditating for 10 minutes per day,” she says. “Increased stress creates more cortisol, which can hinder optimal immune function.”
Goldstein has a few more suggestions, including movement every day to stimulate the immune system and staying hydrated. She also has some more surprising suggestions.
“Laugh every day!” Laughter, she says, “can increase the number and activity of natural killer cells, T lymphocytes, and other immunoglobulins important to fighting off infections.”
She also says that some of the same things your mom probably told you are actually true: dress warmly and avoid alcohol and tobacco smoke to limit stressors to your immune system. And Janet Little, Nutritionist for Sprouts Farmers’ Market, says that you can also boost your immune system before the cold or flu hits by taking echinacea.
“Studies show it can support your immune function by helping to stimulate white blood cells,” she says. “Echinacea helps the body produce more germ-eating cells called macrophages, which protect your body’s immune system by searching out and destroying common cold and flu viruses and bacteria.”
When your body is prepared for battle, the onset of a cold or flu doesn’t come as quite such a shock to the system.
2. Do Eat Right
One of the best ways to stave off the symptoms of colds and the flu is by eating right. Carina Parikh, MScN, MSiMR, a holistic nutritionist at Kate Naumes ND Holistic Wellness, says, “Food can definitely play a role in enhancing the immune system to help with winter colds.”
She recommends a few things, including citrus fruits, thanks to their vitamin C content. “Try squeezing half a lemon in a large glass of water in the morning and at night.”
She also suggests naturally antibacterial garlic and onions. “They contain allicin, a compound shown to enhance the body’s ability to fight off infections and viruses.”
And that old wives tale of chicken soup being the cure for the common cold isn’t nonsense. “Homemade bone broth is one of the best things you can consume during the winter to fight off sickness and infection,” says Parikh. “This is because bone broth is chock full of vital nutrients, and also contains collagen, which breaks down into essential and nonessential amino acids.”
And be sure to throw some carrots into that soup, as Parikh explains that beta carotene “may increase T-cell function, causing your body to have a greater immune response to help fight off infection.”
Ginger is another food she recommends. “Ginger contains sesquiterpenes, which are chemicals that fight congestion and suppress coughs,” she says.
Little agrees. “Ginger has been shown to support digestion, allowing the body to better absorb some key nutrients.” She and Parikh both suggest ginger tea as a preventative and a remedy.
And last but not least, zinc is an important mineral for helping to fight off infection, present in grass-fed beef and lamb, nuts, chickpeas, and lentils.
That being said, once you’re already sick, don’t force yourself to eat when you’re not hungry. Major says that that old adage of starving a fever, while not entirely true, is not without merit.
“Seventy percent of our immune system is in our gut,” she says. “During an illness, we want the power to fight the invaders, not food. Our body slows and stops our digestive system to allow this to happen. Forcing ourselves to do anything more than sip water or tea causes us to stay sick longer. When the fight is over, we naturally become hungry again.”
Goldstein agrees. “You don’t want to overeat because you want your nutrients to fight the cold, not always be diverted to digestion,” she explains. “Both conditions require nutrition and calories, so focusing on nutrient dense, blander foods, is desired.”
This all boils down to paying attention to your body and what it’s trying to tell you. If you’re not hungry, don’t force yourself. Listen to your body, and you’ll be well much more quickly.
3. Do Manage Your Symptoms Naturally
Once you actually come down with symptoms, it can be tempting to reach for over-the-counter painkillers, decongestants, and fever relief. But before you do, consider some natural remedies, which are a much safer option and may even get you better more quickly.
Cold symptoms usually include congestion and runny nose. Parikh suggests upping your intake of omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation, thereby reducing these symptoms. “If your sinuses are congested and swollen, getting those fatty acids may help ameliorate those symptoms.” Try some poached wild-caught fish or scrambled eggs for a punch of omega-3s.
Congestion can also be helped with steam inhalations, according to Lucius. “Performing a simple steam inhalation with some common kitchen spices such as rosemary or thyme may help relieve congestion,” she says.
Congestion relief is hindered by certain foods, such as dairy, refined sugar, and alcohol, which may be good to avoid until your symptoms disappear. Refined sugar and alcohol will dehydrate you, something you don’t want when fighting off a bug. “Being properly hydrated allows your nose to flush mucus easily,” says Major. “Being stuffed up is a sign you need more water.”
Little has some suggestions for these “wet” bugs where you’re sneezing and blowing your nose constantly. She likes to use black cherry bark, osha, and lobelia in herbal remedies to help keep symptoms at bay.
If, however, you have more of a “dry” bug with a scratch throat and cough, Little suggests marshmallow root, slippery elm, and mullein, while Goldstein suggests gargling warm warm with a pinch of salt.
Goldstein also suggests taking care of your environment by vacuuming every day to rid your home of dust and other allergens, as well as opening the windows when you can. This might seem counterintuitive, as you probably think that the cold air only increases your symptoms, but fresh air can actually help quite a bit.
Flu symptoms are a bit different, so it’s only natural that you’d want to fight them a bit differently.
Lucius cites a study that found that people recovered from the flu far more quickly when they took elderberry, so you might want to add that to your daily routine, either as a tea or a syrup. Little agrees. “Elderberry is high in antioxidants and can help dissipate icky symptoms, which is the first step to regaining health and feeling better,” she says.
“Recent studies found that elderberry contains immune-enhancing properties to help ease flu symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue, sore throat and body aches.” She also notes that elderberries contain two powerful antioxidants — quercetin and anthocyanins — that can help enhance immune response and get you better more quickly.
Parikh suggests modifying your diet to include blander foods and certain herbs and spices including ginger and cinnamon when suffering from the flu. Stick to vegetables, simply prepared (either boiled or steamed), and avoid meat. The less work your body has to do to digest at this point, the better you’ll feel.
“Above all, lots of rest is my preferred way of nursing myself back to good health,” says Fabiano.
4. Don’t Believe the Myths
For every natural home remedy for cold or flu, there is at least one myth. Don’t believe everything you hear – our experts say that some of these things just aren’t true.
The first myth is to avoid exercise, something that Goldstein says gives people the wrong idea about the importance of movement in getting better. “You don’t have to go to cross-fit every day, but exercise and movement (e.g. yoga, walking) helps keep blood and lymph moving, important fluids in circulating oxygen and nutrients, and cells in your immune system, respectively, to your organs and muscles.”
Fabiano cites the feeding a cold and starving a fever myth, which, as we’ve already seen, has some merit but is not entirely true. “This is definitely one of those myths that has found its way into the American home through folklore,” she says. “Proper hydration and nutrition are warranted for the common cold and especially the flu.”
Lucius addresses one that should be common knowledge but unfortunately surpasses certain people. “One common myth that many people believe is that they need to take antibiotics when they have a cold or the flu,” she says. “Since these illnesses are caused by viruses, and not bacteria, antibiotics are not effective.”
In fact, pills in general can be a big temptation for many feeling ill, and jumping straight for the medicine cabinet is a reflex that needs to be nipped in the bud.
5. Don’t Jump Straight for Pills
The downsides of treating cold and flu symptoms with over-the-counter medications often far outweigh the benefits, as our experts explain.
“Decongestants may raise blood pressure and have a rebound effect, meaning that while it helped reduce stuffiness, it may reappear in a few hours,” explains Goldstein.
Other medications like antihistamines may cause drowsiness, making it hard to function.
Major warns against using nasal sprays that dry out your nose. “(They) only will make the symptoms stick around longer,” she says.
The only thing you may want to watch and possibly treat is a fever, according to Fabiano, who says that a temperature above 100.4 is worth bringing down safely with Tylenol or ibuprofen. But Major warns that a low-grade fever is not necessarily a bad thing.
“You should never break a fever unless it becomes dangerously high,” she says. “A fever is our body’s natural defense mechanism to destroy viruses and bacteria. It turns out, these little invaders are very sensitive to temperature. When you force a fever to break, you are making your immune system work harder and delaying your own natural healing processes.”
She does caution that if a fever goes over 104 degrees or lasts for 3 days you should seek out the opinion of a medical professional, so keep a close eye on a fever if it does develop, and do not hesitate to call your doctor if needed.
At the end of the day, however, the best cure for a cold or the flu is time. “Some medications aid the body’s natural healing processes,” says Major. “Most do not. Most will allow you to function in daily life, but delay your true healing. The longer you delay healing, the worse you will feel. Plus, your body now has to fight the pills, and that leaves less to fight the invaders.”
Give your body the tools it needs, and it will fight off seasonal cold and flu symptoms on its own.
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