It’s no wonder we get sick. Many of us are busier than ever and we often don’t take enough time to care for ourselves. “Colds and flu, both viral infections, often occur when too much is going on in our lives,” says Brigitte Mars, an herbalist and co-author of The Country Almanac of Home Remedies. “Natural remedies help to bring you back into balance by bolstering immunity, strengthening the body and encouraging it to heal itself.”
Unlike prescription or over-the-counter drugs that are often used to suppress symptoms, natural remedies help make us more resistant to infection and improve our overall health so that when we do get sick, we rebound more quickly. Natural remedies are also easy to find: Many are probably in your own kitchen or garden, or at your favorite health-food store. As with any health treatment, talk with your doctor before making changes.
Why it works: Medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake and reishi are used to help boost immunity and fend off illness. These versatile fungi have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, and also contain immune-boosting polysaccharides, which can help strengthen the body’s defenses.
What the research says: Research is promising when it comes to medicinal mushrooms’ ability to improve immune function. Maitake mushrooms, for example, have been shown to stimulate phagocytes, which are cells that kill bacteria. Extracts of maitake and the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha are often combined to ease stress and boost immunity.
How to use it: Medicinal mushrooms are available in capsules or as a liquid extract from health-food stores; follow package directions. You can also find fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms at grocery stores. Add them to soups, scrambles, stir-fries or pasta dishes twice weekly. Although medicinal mushrooms are generally considered safe, consult your health-care practitioner before using them, especially if you have an autoimmune condition.
Why it works: Elderberry syrup (Sambucol is a common brand sold in health-food stores) contains antioxidants and compounds that have an anti-inflammatory effect. It’s been shown in some studies to decrease inflammation, aches and pains, sinus congestion, chills, headache and respiratory infections; and may help stop the spread of the cold and flu virus.
What the research says: When a group of 60 patients exhibiting flu symptoms were given elderberry syrup, 90 percent felt better after just three days, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of International Medical Research. The control group recovered after six days, while also using nasal spray and taking additional painkillers.
How to use it: Follow product directions, generally a dose every couple of hours when fighting off illness, and decrease dosage as you improve.
Why it works: If used at the first sign of a cold, echinacea (look for Echinacea purpurea) may help you get better faster, make symptoms milder or even stop them before they start. “Echinacea works by increasing the levels of a naturally occurring chemical in the body known as properdin, which helps cells resist infection,” Mars says.
What the research says: Taking echinacea at the first sign of a cold can ease symptoms and shorten duration, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics. In the same study, University of Alberta researchers found that volunteers who took echinacea experienced 23 percent lower symptom scores than those who did not.
How to use it: Take 200 mg of an echinacea supplement twice daily for a maximum of two weeks, decreasing as you improve. Avoid if you have an autoimmune disease, as it stimulates the immune system.
Why it works: Homeopathic remedies seem most promising when treating cold or flu at the first sign of an infection. According to the manufacturer, the homeopathic throat and nasal spray FluNada (from STS Health, stshealth.com) coats throat and nasal pathways, where viruses typically enter the body. The product is made with herbs that have antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties including elderberry, eucalyptus and mint. “It’s designed to inhibit replication of viruses before they can overtake your immune system,” says Suzy Cohen, a pharmacist and author of The 24-Hour Pharmacist. Use it if you have a runny or blocked nose, a sore throat, cough or body aches and pains. Another homeopathic remedy, Oscillococcinum, (from Boiron, boironusa.com) is best used at the onset of flu symptoms.
What the research says: According to the company, FluNada has been laboratory tested to be more than 99 percent effective against multiple cold and flu viruses, including H1N1, H2N3, H5N1, H7N9, rhinovirus, coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). “Scientific data shows that FluNada kills viruses within five minutes, meaning a fast reduction in symptoms,” Cohen says.
A 1998 study in the British Homeopathic Journal showed that Oscillococcinum had a positive effect on flu symptoms and duration of this illness. “It helps with nasal discharge or congestion, chills, and ear and frontal sinus pain,” Mars says.
How to use it: FluNada and Oscillococcinum are both widely available at health-food stores and online; follow package instructions.
Looking for more natural remedies? Try these Aromatherapy Recipes to Treat Colds and Flu.
Natural Remedies from the Kitchen
Some of my favorite cold and flu remedies can be made from common household items. Herbalist Brigitte
Mars suggests keeping these items in your kitchen pantry during cold and flu season.
Cayenne pepper contains vitamin C and is used to warm chills and alleviate sinus pain and congestion. Add one to two dashes of cayenne pepper to a cup of boiling water with lots of lemon juice, honey, and ginger or horseradish to take advantage of this healing spice.
Garlic is used to improve congestion and chest colds, and it’s considered an herbal antibiotic. Add minced garlic to soups, or eat it raw in salad dressings or mixed into mayonnaise. If you’re taking blood thinners or have recently had surgery, you shouldn’t take garlic.
Ginger may help the body beat the cold virus. It can also ease nausea and boost immune response. Sip on ginger tea or add ginger to stir-fries.
Thyme leaf is used to expel phlegm and relieve congestion. It is antiseptic and an immune stimulant. Try gargling with thyme tea to ease a sore throat.
Zinc, especially used in the form of lozenges, may help prevent viral replication in the throat, possibly by stimulating T-cell response.
Propolis, a substance produced by bees from tree resins, may help fight infection and can be taken in lozenges.
Add 2 teaspoons each of apple cider vinegar and honey to a cup of hot water for an effective and delicious, health-boosting drink. Drink three times daily to help break up mucus congestion.
Chrystle Fiedler is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Natural Remedies and many other natural health titles. Find her at chrystlefiedler.com.