Just today, I saw about 10 different signs advertising the flu vaccine. I’ll never know why, instead of this massive ad campaign, physicians don’t just encourage the use of immune boosting herbs such as Echinacea, and Elderberry or recommend fresh-made vegetable juice, essential oils, miso soup, Omega 3’s and Vitamin D. Actually, I do know why…except for a few docs who have broken from the pack, physicians are not trained in nature’s healing secrets. And when these strategies are not part of one’s tool box…you know what they say, “If all you have is a hammer, everything else looks like a nail.” If all you have to prescribe are pharmaceuticals and vaccines, then every infection and condition looks like something that requires a drug or vaccine. And there’s one more reason conventional physicians do not understand or recommend natural remedies. They believe that there’s no good science to support their use. Hopefully, in addition to providing safe, effective and natural strategies for preventing the cold and flu, the scientific studies referenced throughout this article will help put that false notion to rest.
I have been very fortunate during my 35 years as a nurse to learn about natural healing strategies from herbalists, nutritionists, naturopaths, chiropractors and naturally oriented MDs. I was even lucky enough to have a pediatrician for my own children who instead of prescribing medications when they showed signs of an infection (some of which have recently been proven to be harmful for children)(1), would tell me to make the kids organic carrot juice. He’d also recommended increasing their dose of Vitamin C, encourage me to make them homemade chicken soup and give them a few doses of Echinacea. I feel blessed, because now my kids are healthy adults and applying some of these same principles with their own children. It is these common sense approaches often forgotten in our high-tech, pharmaceutically-oriented culture that I’d like to discuss.
As far as staying healthy during the cold and flu season, one can never underestimate the importance of certain lifestyle habits such as getting enough rest and sleep, proper hand washing, daily exposure to sunshine and fresh air, exercise, practicing positive thinking, and staying well hydrated with ample amounts of water. But now, thanks to emerging science, as well as a new reverence for ancient healing principles, our understanding of how to prevent colds and the flu goes beyond these basics and gives us access to additional tools for maintaining optimal health throughout the winter season. Although there may be some variations to the suggestions below based on our age, gender, health history, stress level, etc., most of us can derive great benefits from applying some or all of these tips:
- Let’s start with Sugar: Did you know that a serving of sugar that exceeds 4gms (a little over a teaspoon) causes our immune system to function less effectively? If the goal is to keep our immune system strong, doesn’t it make sense to cut way back on our sugar intake? Look for those not so obvious sources such as juices (certain brands contain 30-50gms per serving), some brands of ketchup are 33% sugar, and a few varieties of granola have 45 gms of sugar per serving! Don’t be fooled because the package says it’s natural. Read the sugar content on the label first. If you are going to have something with sugar in it, try not to exceed 4gms of sugar per serving. Still not convinced? Read the book: Sugar and Immunity by William Stoll, M.D.
- Vegetables and Fruit: The current recommendation is to consume 4 ½ cups per day…which is not always easy to do. One solution might be to get out the juicer (I know you have one in that back cupboard!) and juice some of veggies and fruit. Yes, it’s a pain to clean, but there is no better source of nutrition then a fresh made batch of organic vegetable juice. You might be thinking, “let me grab a V8”. Although there is some nutritional value left in those cans or bottles, even the nutrient content of fresh made juice begins to decline within 20 minutes after making it. So you can imagine how little is left in the canned version that has been sitting on the shelves for months! When making your own juice, the carrot/apple combination is a good place to start because it tastes great. From there, you can add more greens like watercress, parsley and beets and cut back on the sweet carrots. For kids: get bolder as they get older!
- Multi–Vitamin: My recommendation for anyone seeking a comprehensive supplement program to enhance their overall health and boost their immune systems is to start with a great multi. Try to get one that has optimal levels and easily absorbable forms of these important nutrients: Calcium, Magnesium, Zinc, B vitamins and Ester C. Check the labels and compare it to one of my personal favorites Nutritionists Choice multi at www.NutritionistsChoice.com Whenever adding a multi or any other supplement, start with a low dose of one, take with food, and gradually, (very gradually) work up to the full dose before adding the next supplement.
- Fish Oil: Following the introduction of a good comprehensive multi, many professionals focused on optimizing your health suggest adding a mercury-free fish oil which contain Omega 3 fatty acids. Fish oil is notorious for reducing inflammation caused by free radical damage. It can improve attention, support cardiovascular health, strengthen immune function and affect each cell’s ability to absorb nutrients and release toxins. (3) Omega 3’s can also improve skin texture (check for bumps on the back of your arms and watch them disappear after a few months of taking fish oil). Look for a reputable company that goes the extra mile of ensuring their product does not contain mercury.
- Vitamin D: Recent studies have shown that Vitamin D deficiency is linked to an array of acute and chronic health problems including a higher rate of respiratory tract infections. (4) Optimal levels (above 70) on the other hand have been shown to promote cognitive function and cardiovascular and immune health. Dr. Larry Rosen, MD (a naturally- oriented pediatricians from NJ), reporting on a Vitamin D survey (5) wrote “that those individuals with Vitamin D deficiencies are at higher risk to contract the flu and develop complications from those infections.” For more information on vitamin D and to check appropriate tests and dosages for children , go to www.VitaminDcouncil.org.
- Echinacea: Echinacea is an immune supportive herb that tends to be most effective when used at the first signs of an infection and is not as effective once you already have an illness. For studies and more information on Echinacea (my all time favorite immune boosting herb), go to (6).
- Probiotics: Foods such as miso, kefir and yogurt are sources of “friendly” gut bacteria. Probiotics with funny names like Acidophilus and Bifidus help crowd out pathogenic organisms such as yeast, parasites and nasty bacteria. Probiotics also keep the gut wall from becoming porous which prevents toxins and undigested food from getting across its barrier into the blood and causing an improper immune response. They also help the body create B vitamins. There have been studies showing that taking probiotics as an infant can lessen a child’s incidence of allergies, eczema, and asthma and that if given when a child is developing a cold or flu, can help short circuit and lessen the time of the infection. (7)
- Vitamin C: Many health practitioners including Dr. David Berger, MD a pediatrician from Florida recommend Vitamin C to help support immune function. Dr. Berger has a wonderful website Wholisticpediatrics.com and on it you can find the following dosage recommendations for children: For children under 1 year of age give 100mg per month of age. For children up to age 5, 1000mg per year of age, and as much as possible for older children and adults, as long as the stool does not become loose.
- Elderberry Syrup: My daughter-in- law, Jen has degrees in botany, environmental science and is a master gardener. She knows more about herbs and plants than almost anyone I know and she was the one who told me about the healing properties of elderberries. These berries that come from the Elder tree (Sambucus) are a rich source of antioxidants. Jen makes her own syrup and gives it to my son and grandkids. Although they live in Portland, Oregon where winter days are often damp, cold and rainy, they are rarely sick. One study that was recently published showed that in a test tube (in vitro) when cells were exposed to the flavanoids in elderberry syrup they created antibodies against HINI (the swine flu!). (8) I find it amazing that very few of us know about this study. Where are the announcements from the CDC about how effective elderberry is against the flu? Instead we see signs on roadways and parking lots encouraging us to get our flu shot as if the shots are the only option to prevent the flu.
- Essential Oils: According to Tacy Apostolik (a Board Certified Reflexologist and an Internationally Certified Aromatherapist), using essential oils, (aromatic liquids distilled from plants), can be very effective for cold and flu prevention. In addition to being highly antibacterial, and anti-viral, they can also help speed up recovery, and lead to a better, overall state of health. Tacy states: “According to the philosophy of Chinese medicine, winter is the time to support the kidneys and adrenals. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove are supportive to these organs. Interestingly, these are the very spices we associate with the winter months. These particular oils are considered “hot” oils, meaning they can cause irritation if applied directly to the skin. Therefore, you can mix them (50-50) with a mild oil such as lavender or Roman chamomile, and apply to the bottoms of the feet. This can have a double effect of supporting the urinary system, while reducing stress and aiding in a good night’s sleep.” Tacy recommends only using oils of the highest quality. Instead of an antibacterial soap, she also suggests mixing 8 – 10 drops of any antiseptic citrus oil such as lemon, orange, or grapefruit with filtered water in a small 2 oz. spray bottle as a great way to keep your hands bacteria free. The wonderful thing about essential oils Tacy says, “is that they are intuitively smart. While protecting you from ‘bad’ bacteria, they support the ‘good’ bacteria we need to stay healthy.”
- Water: Drink lots of filtered water…not from plastic bottles.
- Some additional supplements that can be helpful in boosting the immune system that I’ll discuss at length another time are: Zinc, the homeopathic remedy Oscillococcinum, and Vitamin A from cod liver oil.
To summarize: if you or your child feel like you are getting sick, give the immune system all the help you can! Try to rest, cut out sugar and dairy (very mucus forming), make some fresh juice made from carrot/apple/ginger (just a smidgen of ginger or the kids won’t drink it), make some miso soup or take another source of probiotics, drink herb teas with a little honey and lemon, use Echinacea drops in water every 4 hours, maybe add Elderberry syrup, Vitamin C and eat really really healthy food including lots of veggies and homemade organic chicken soup! If none of the above works…be smart…go see your naturally oriented physician.
Bio: Maureen McDonnell has been a registered nurse for 34 years (in the fields of: childbirth education, labor and delivery, clinical nutrition, and pediatrics.) Maureen is the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences and is the co-founder of Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet. Her published articles on autism and health can be found at www.SOKHOP.com . In addition to writing a monthly column Common Sense Approaches to Women’ Health. she is the owner of Nutritionist’s Choice multi vitamin: www. NutritionistsChoice.com. Presently Maureen is the Medical Coordinator for the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer. She and her husband H Hanson have five grandkids and feel blessed to be living in the beautiful mountains of WNC
- Schaefer MK, et al: Adverse events from cough and cold medications in children. Pediatrics. 2008 Apr;121(4):783-7.
- Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children Pediatrics 2009; (ISSN: 1098-4275)
Bjorksten B. Evidence of probiotics in prevention of allergy and asthma. Curr Drug Targets Inflamm Allergy. 2005 Oct;4(5):599-604
3. Richardson AJ. Omega-3 fatty acids in ADHD and related neurodevelopmental disorders.
4. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2006 Apr;18(2):155-72. Review., Parker G, Gibson NA, Brotchie H, Heruc G, Rees AM, Hadzi-Pavlovic D. Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders.Am J Psychiatry. 2006 Jun;163(6):969-78. Review. La Guardia M, Giammanco S, Di Majo D, Tabacchi G, Tripoli E, Giammanco M. Omega 3 fatty acids: biological activity & effects on human health.Panminerva Med. 2005 12;47(4):245-
5. Ginde AA, Mansbach JM, Camargo CA Jr.: Association between serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level and upper respiratory tract infection in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Feb 23;169(4):384-90. Kumar J, et al: Pr2nd Vit D study: Prevalence and Associations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Deficiency in US Children: NHANES 2001-2004. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug 3.
- 8. Leyer GJ, et al: Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug;124(2):e172-9.Roschek B, et al: Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 2009 Jul;70(10):1255-61. Zakay-Rones Z, et al: Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.