We are in the thick of cold season, and perhaps you’ve already come down with a cold, or maybe you’re just doing your best not to get sick. The Center for Disease Control estimates that the common adult will develop 2-3 colds per year. That said, I want to discuss some alternative, holistic cold remedies that I swear by (some are supported by literature, others aren’t). Now, I’d just like to reiterate that I am a nutrition therapist and physical therapist (yes, I hold a doctorate degree, but I am NOT a medical doctor). So, if you want individualized medical evaluation and treatment, you need to see your doctor. My intention in all of this is to give you some alternative tools to help you feel better, faster. Also, I’m talking about the common cold here. I’m not saying that these remedies should be front-line approaches for managing more serious things (including the flu and colds that worsen after 3 days or last more than a week). And one more thing – if you’re taking any prescription drugs regularly, be sure to discuss ANY and all of these modalities with your physician before trying them.
First, let’s start by talking about how best to prevent colds. I’m sure that we all know that basic precautions are the best way to prevent the spreading of germs. That means, wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face (especially your eyes), and keep household objects and surfaces disinfected when someone in your house is sick. Getting enough sleep, controlling stress levels and eating nutrient-dense foods are also key to keeping your immune system functioning its best. Ever get a cold after a trip? We often blame airplanes (and sure, there are plenty of nasty germs on planes), but we are so often sleep-deprived, stressed and perhaps nutrient-depleted after traveling that we are more susceptible to developing a cold in these instances. Ok, so what more can we do besides the basic precautions? Here are my top picks:
- Zinc – It’s shocking to me that people aren’t using zinc more. It’s one of the only supplements that has been shown to be effective in cold prevention! I always carry zinc lozenges when I’m going on an airplane, especially since we are often deficient in this mineral (which is naturally-occurring in oysters and red meat). One thing to note – zinc can cause some GI issues, so start with low doses and see how you tolerate it.
- Probiotics – This one is very important, especially if you have taken antibiotics recently. It is imperative that we have adequate and healthy microflora in order to support our immune function. Personally, I love to ask an expert at Natural Grocer’s or Whole Foods so that I can find the appropriate strain. Scientific literature also supports use of probiotics as a cold-prevention strategy.
- Echinacea – This herb has demonstrated some proming, but inconsistent effects in preventing colds and shortening their duration. You can sip it in tea, but I take it as a capsule when I feel like I’m at risk for getting a cold and have since I was a kid (thanks, mom, for being so forward-thinking).
- Ginseng – This root is touted for its immune-supportive function and anti-inflammatory properties, despite the lack of scientific evidence. I personally like to sip ginseng tea when I feel like I’m coming down with something.
- Garlic – I know, I know. Taking garlic capsules doesn’t sound appealing. I’d be lying if I said they don’t give you horrendous burps, because they do. But, there has been some evidence indicating that ingesting of garlic can help with cold prevention. This effect is due to allicin, a compound contained in garlic.
- Eat foods high in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and Vitamin E – Deficiencies in these 3 vitamins are linked with suppressed immune function. As always, I encourage people to get these nutrients from whole foods, rather than supplementing. You can find vitamin C in citrus fruits, bell peppers and dark, leafy greens. Vitamin B6 can be found in leafy greens, chickpeas, cold water fish (e.g. tuna and salmon) and chicken. Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of Vitamin E.
Now, let’s talk about tools to manage cold symptoms. Because, listen, you may get sick. And once you do, it’s good to have strategies to lessen your suffering without having to rely up on over-the-counter medications (which simply suppress your symptoms and don’t truly help you get over your cold).
- Maintaining adequate hydration status – If we are properly hydrated, our mucus will be thinner and therefore, easier to drain. That said, limit caffeine and alcohol, as these substances will dehydrate you.
- Cleavers – This herb is often made into a tincture, which you can drop into water and drink. The herb helps to reduce swelling of tonsils, so it can be very beneficial when you are experiencing sore throats and swollen glands.
- Honey – The microbial properties of honey can help to kill bacteria. Plus, honey has been shown to be effective in managing sore throat associated with colds.
- Licorice – This root has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, so it certainly can help you to feel better, although there is no evidence to suggest it can effectively shorten your cold. I personally drink licorice tea with honey during the first 2-3 days that I’ve got a cold.
- Elderberry – There has been some preliminary evidence that supplementation of elderberry has been linked to shortened duration of colds. However, the research doesn’t provide overwhelming support. I can say that I’ve used elderberry drops in the past and they certainly do help to relieve a sore throat!
- Colloidal silver – Ok, so this is something that has absolutely no evidence to support it. BUT, it’s still something that I occasionally incorporate. In fact, it’s something that my mom had me do! Essentially, the idea is that silver flakes have an antimicrobial effect in your body. Does it work? I don’t know, but I have perceived a reduction in the soreness of my throat when I’ve used it as a spray. Obviously, ingesting a lot of a metal is NOT a good idea, so I cannot ever recommend doing this frequently.
- Wild cherry bark – When you’ve got an unproductive cough, this is a particularly effective treatment, in my personal experience (although, there isn’t a lot of research). You can make wild cherry bark tea or can use a liquid extract that you dilute in water and drink. Remember, that we do not want to suppress a productive cough, because this is our body’s way of ridding itself of mucus.
- Eucalyptus oil and peppermint oil – These oils open your airways, which can help to alleviate congestion and expel mucus. You can diffuse these oils, apply them topically on the chest or add a drop or two to a warm, wet washcloth and place it over your face while you breathe deeply.
- Chicken Bone Broth – Carnosine is a compound in chicken that has some benefit in thinning the mucus, thereby shortening a common cold. Because bone broth is so nutrient-dense, it’s my go-to when I’m under the weather.
- Avoid known irritants – This goes without saying, but if you’re allergic to something, be sure to limit your exposure to them during this time. Consumption of dairy, sugar and processed foods can also increase your mucus production, so it’s best to eliminate these foods from your diet until you’re feeling better.
Here’s hoping that you don’t get sick! And if you do, I certainly hope you find relief from some of these holistic interventions.