The cold and flu season is upon us. Kids are returning to school, and exposing the entire family to “the communal germ pool” as one of my favorite teachers used to say. Influenza and the common cold are both infections caused by different viruses. This time of year it is important to support immune function. Did you know that there are a multitude of studies showing natural therapeutics can be effective at preventing and treating common infectious illnesses? There are some basic lifestyle, diet, vitamins, herbals and physical medicine therapies that can be extremely helpful during this season.
Lets talk lifestyle first!
- Sleep – Studies show that even modest sleep disruption can delay healing. Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep a night to achieve restorative sleep, and allow the body to enter a deep enough sleep that the immune system can do the work it needs to. Good “sleep hygiene” can be helpful. That means having a consistent bedtime, reducing exposure to screens, avoiding caffeine late in the day, and minimizing alcohol exposure.
- Stress – Elevated stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which suppresses immune system function. Keeping your stress load down, and finding healthy ways to manage stress (meditation, a spiritual practice, exercise) can help lower your cortisol and keep your immune system on track.
- Diet – Avoiding sugar and foods high in refined carbohydrates is important for your immune system. Studies show that consumption of refined sugar (this includes soda, candy, baked goods etc) causes immediate suppression of the immune system for five hours. In contrast to that, fruit, with it’s healthy sugars and phytonutrients can help you stay healthy. Eating a piece of fruit every two hours or so can also manage blood sugar and lower cortisol, further supporting immune health.
Natural products — there are many that have studies behind them in reducing either the incidence, duration or severity of viral infections.
- Echinacea – studies show that echinacea is effective at preventing and treating viral illness. In one study, people who took echinacea over a four month period were less likely to get sick, or to have symptoms, even when they contracted a virus. I love echinacea for its safety and effectiveness. It is inexpensive, and available in children’s immune formulas.
- Zinc – Zinc is a powerhouse when it comes to staying healthy. Multiple studies prove it’s capacity to shorten the duration of the common cold. Even a simple zinc lozenge can do the trick.
- Vitamin C – Vitamin C is a potent anti-viral, and anti-oxidant. It also reduces inflammation caused by infection, which can reduce discomfort. I prefer the use of liposomal vitamin C, which get has better penetration into the cells, and can act more directly.
- Elderberry – Elderberry, another powerhouse, has extensive scientific evidence for killing bacteria and viruses, including influenza viruses. It has been shown to reduce the duration and symptom level in people who have viral infections.
- Probiotics – Up to 85% of our immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract, so it’s no surprise that having robust growth of healthy bacteria in the GI tract is an important part of staying healthy. Studies have shown that probiotics maintain intestinal immunity and an anti-inflammatory response.
- Vitamin D – Studies are mixed on vitamin D and its use for preventing and treating viral infections. We do know that it makes the immune system more effective at fighting viruses, but dosing recommendations vary. It is good to have your vitamin D levels checked to make sure that they are in a healthy range. A functional range (where we function the best) is between 70-100 ng/dl. Most people are well below that level. I recommend 5000-6000 iu/day for my patients in Northern Minnesota. Occasional testing when taking vitamin D is important, because it is a fat soluble vitamin, and can become toxic (although incidence of this is extremely rare).
- Herbs – In addition to elderberry and echinacea, there are many other herbs that help with killing viruses and supporting the immune system. Some of these are larch, garlic, billberry, andrographis, & astragulus.
I like to keep some formulas that contain multiple ingredients in my medicine cabinet. Here are some of my favorites, both personally and professionally.
- Biocidin Throat Spray – excellent for viral infections that start in the throat. It is antiviral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and immune boosting. At the first sign of a sore throat, I recommend using three pumps every hour until symptoms resolve. In one study, he use of Biocidin TS increased immune signalling by 30% in the throat. It is safe for children too.
- Vital Kids Berry Well Immune Support – great tasting kids herbal formula.
- Elderberry Plus Syrup – by Wise Woman Herbals – Has zinc and elderberry, plus osha – a great antimicrobial and respiratory support herb. Safe for children. This is one of my personal favorites, but it has a strong flavor that might make picky kids squawk .
- Liposomal vitamin C – I recommend 1000 mg three times/day. LipoZome-C is a great tasting and affordable product. Also safe for children.
I have had the experience of watching whole families get through the winter without any missed school days utilizing these simple methods for supporting immune health!