By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
There are a lot of reasons to love winter. Snow, if you’re in a colder climate, the holidays and the chance to start fresh in the new year.
But there’s another side to winter, too—cold and flu season.
As much as we may wish we could, none of us can wrap ourselves in a bubble and avoid the onslaught of seasonal germs. But you can take steps to increase the likelihood that you’ll be one of the “lucky ones” who escape the misery.
Here’s a look at some of the best ways you can prevent and treat colds and flu, as well as my take on whether it’s worth the time and effort to get a flu shot…
Prevention: The Best Ways to Stop Colds and Flu Before They Start
Preventing colds and flu really boils down to one thing—keeping your immune system as healthy as possible. The stronger and more able it is to intercept and destroy viruses before they can take hold, the better off you’ll be.
There are a lot of ways you can go about doing this, but these six always worked well for me:
- Eat an immune-boosting diet. You know which one…the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet! PAMM is rich in antioxidant nutrients, which have been shown to have antiviral properties, plus it’s high in fiber. Fiber’s important because it feeds our gut bacteria—and gut health has a huge impact on our immune system. Specifically, I like garlic, onions, ginger, and other spices for boosting the immune system. All of those foods have antimicrobial properties that can help prevent colds and flu.
- Stay hydrated. Increasing the amount of pure, clean water you drink every day helps keep the mucous membranes in your eyes and nose moist. This may not seem like a big deal, but when they’re dry—as they tend to get in the winter when we spend a lot of time in heated, indoor spaces—they’re less effective at catching and sweeping viruses out of the body.
- Don’t skimp on sleep. Fighting the urge to rest puts the body—and your immune system—under a lot of stress. Don’t do that! If you’re tired, take a break and rest. It could be the difference between a healthy cold and flu season and one that’s not.
- Stock up on flu-fighting supplements. One of my favorites is beta glucan 1,3/1,6. Beta glucan is extracted from yeast, and it turns up the activity level of the “natural killer” cells in your bloodstream. NK cells are one of the first lines of defense against viruses. Take 250–750 mg daily. I also like resveratrol and CoQ10. Resveratrol has been shown to limit virus replication, which can help stop it from taking hold or significantly lessen any symptoms you experience. CoQ10 is great for its antioxidant properties and its ability to support energy production throughout the body—a key to keeping your immune system at the ready. A daily dose of 50–100 mg of each (resveratrol and CoQ10), ought to do the trick. Finally, don’t forget vitamin C and N-acetyl-cysteine, two more great ways to keep your body’s antioxidant levels up. Take up to 5,000 mg per day of vitamin C (in divided doses) and 600 mg of NAC twice a day.
- Increase your vitamin D intake. There are competing opinions and conflicting research on whether vitamin D supplements can help prevent the flu. But there’s no debate about some other facts—that a correlation exists between the seasonal decline in vitamin D levels and the incidence of flu, that a lot of us are still woefully deficient in vitamin D, and that vitamin D plays a key role in immune function. So my recommendation? Take your vitamin D! A dose of 2,000 IUs daily will do if your levels are normal, but if you’re low, up your dose to 5,000 IUs daily.
- Practice good hygiene. This should be common sense, but it’s always worth a reminder. Regular hand-washing goes a long way when it comes to preventing colds and flu. You don’t need antibacterial soap, either—the regular stuff will do just fine. Avoid rubbing your eyes and nose, too, since that can transfer any virus you have on your hands directly into the body.
How to Treat Colds and Flu to Feel Better Fast
Now, what should you do if you do get sick?
The bad news is that both colds and flu are viral, so drugs won’t help much. Even prescription meds like Tamiflu will only shorten your illness by about half a day. You’re better off just letting the bugs run their course.
The good news is that there are things you can do to lessen your symptoms and help prevent secondary infections—like bronchitis or sinus troubles—from setting in. Here are four of my favorites…
- Make some chicken soup. But not just any chicken soup—you need to spice it up with garlic and jalapeno peppers. The extra heat in this recipe stimulates the flow of mucus throughout the body, including in the lungs, which makes it a great way to reduce congestion.
- Eat a little raw honey. Tea or lemon water sweetened with a little raw honey is soothing to sore throats, plus it’s a good way to take advantage of honey’s antibacterial nutrients. I also like an occasional straight dose of raw honey for its ability to stop coughs. (Just watch how much you’re eating, because of sugar content.)
- Use a neti pot. They’re messy, but neti pots help keep the mucus moving in your nasal cavities. That means bacteria are less likely to fester and cause a painful sinus infection later on.
- Rest! Colds, especially, may seem like something you should be able to power through, but listen to your body. If you’re tired, sleep—don’t go to work, don’t do the shopping, and don’t agree to watch the grandkids. Your body needs to rest so it can use its energy to fight the infection. Overriding that impulse will wear you down even more and make recovery longer and harder.
Should You Get a Flu Shot?
Maybe, depending on your health status.
If you’re healthy, I’d skip the shot and focus on natural prevention instead. As we’ve seen over the past couple years, there’s no guarantee that the vaccine makers have “guessed right” about which flu strains are in the shots. And even when they do, the shots still aren’t 100 percent effective.
Another thing I’m not crazy about is the fact that some flu shots—the kind that come out of “multiple dose” vials—still contain thimerosal, a chemical preservative made with trace amounts of mercury. The CDC says this is safe, but I say you can’t be too careful. Heavy metals like mercury accumulate in the body over time and can wreak havoc on health.
That said, there are times when the benefits of getting a flu shot outweigh the risks.
Generally, I recommend them to the elderly, as well as anyone with a serious illness like congestive heart failure, asthma, or an obstructive lung disease. Folks with those conditions are at high risk of serious complications.
Remember, getting sick doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. Just put these “doctor’s secrets” to work every day, and before you know it, cold and flu season will be long gone!
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