10/17/2017 1:37:00 PM Pushing back against cold and flu season
By Dr. Kim Hapke
Most of us want to keep the number of days we are dealing with a cold or the flu to a minimum. There are ways to support the immune system naturally to prepare for the upcoming winter months and to care for ourselves if we should fall ill.
The simple foundations of health cannot be ignored when trying to stay healthy through the winter. Diet and sleep are two vital influences on the immune system. You can't supplement your way out of a poor diet. Incorporating foods with lots of color in one's everyday diet ensures that the immune system gets regular influxes of supportive vitamins like A and C. Sugar and alcohol have a negative influence on the immune system, so limit their consumption for optimal immune health.
Even short-term sleep deprivation can leave us more susceptible to getting ill. Immune functions most affected by lack of sleep include those that fight viral infections. Aim for at least seven hours; more if that does not leave you feeling well-rested.
Frequent and thorough handwashing is still the best way of preventing the spread of colds and flu. Regular soap and water is as effective as antibacterial washes, which can contribute to antibacterial resistance.
Some nutrients are best used preventatively. A deficiency of Vitamin D is associated with a greater risk of catching colds or flu. It is worth it to get your serum levels of Vitamin D checked for many health reasons, and this adds to the motivation. Supplementing with probiotics has been shown in some studies to be associated with a decreased risk of coming down with a cold or gastrointestinal infection.
If you are exposed to many viruses or get sick often, consider an herb like astragalus which can be taken through the season to support the immune system. It is mild in taste and the dried herb can be added to winter soups for immune enhancing effects.
Once you get sick the best way to care for yourself is to get enough rest. If a cough is interrupting sleep, a simple remedy is a spoonful of honey, which coats and soothes the throat. Eat lightly, avoiding dairy and citrus which can cause more mucus.
Hydration is important as it loosens the secretions in the nose, throat and lungs. Teas are a good way to take in immune stimulating herbs like echinacea or herbs to soothe a sore throat like licorice. In our dry climate, using a humidifier in the bedroom may cut down on nighttime bouts of coughing. Steam inhalations can be used to loosen a cough or to open sinuses. Get a pot of water steaming, pull it off the burner, drape a towel over one's head and inhale. Don't get too close! A few drops of essential oil like eucalyptus or peppermint may be added to the water to assist in opening breathing passages.
Hydration and steam inhalation are two of the positive benefits of chicken soup, a comforting and traditional remedy. Some researchers have found that the broth does influence the immune system in ways that may be beneficial during a cold.
Many of us have our favorite remedies which we swear shorten our colds or flu. Unfortunately, few of these hold up for a majority of people under research. Zinc is the nutrient with the strongest research supporting its use during a cold, in some studies shortening the length of a cold by a day. Zinc lozenges are recommended as they keep the zinc in contact with infected tissues longer. Not everyone likes the taste of these. Zinc nasal sprays are not recommended as they have caused several people to lose their sense of smell, some permanently.
Though echinacea is the herb that gets the most press for supporting the immune system, elder has better evidence supporting its use during a cold or flu. It is immune enhancing and induces sweating, helping to modulate a fever. Both berries and flowers are used as medicine. The berries are often offered in syrup form, making this herb more palatable to children than many herbal remedies.
Have a few things in the home to be readily available when viruses do invade. Stocking throat-soothing herbal blends of teas, lozenges and elderberry syrup in the cupboard and some chicken broth in the freezer make it easier to care for oneself and family when illness strikes and the last thing you want to do is leave the house.
The rituals we use to care for ourselves and our family are comforting in ways that cannot always be measured in studies and will be remembered long after the winter season.