When it comes to cold and flu season, prevention is the best medicine. But sometimes the most diligent efforts fail and you catch a cold or flu bug anyway. The first thing most people do when they experience signs of a cold or flu is reach for over-the-counter medications.
Although these meds might temporarily ease your symptoms, they don’t shorten the duration of illness. In fact, some of them can actually lengthen the amount of time you’re sick, because they interfere with your body’s natural immune function. And, a review of 51 studies of various products revealed they have little to no effect on flu viruses.
Furthermore, these “remedies,” which are often a combination of different types of drugs (i.e., pain relievers, decongestants, etc.), come with a long list of potentially dangerous side effects. Many also contain alcohol—especially the nighttime products that people rely on to help them sleep.
Fortunately, there are natural alternatives that not only ease cold and flu symptoms, but give your immune system a boost.
Remedies for Cold and Flu Season
Vitamin C. This powerful antioxidant increases the production of key immune system components, such as interferon and natural killer cells. It also simulates the activity of antibodies, which neutralize microbes and other foreign invaders. Because Vitamin C is water-soluble you can safely take large doses. I recommend at least 2,000 mg daily, in divided doses, with meals, especially during cold and flu season. High doses of Vitamin C can cause loose stools, so build up to higher doses gradually.
Zinc. Finnish researchers recently analyzed all of the placebo-controlled trials examining the effects of zinc supplements on colds and found that in the trials using daily doses of 75 mg or more, the duration of symptoms was reduced by an average of 42 percent. Likewise, a 2011 Cochrane review of 15 trials found that cold duration and severity were reduced if zinc was taken within the first 24 hours of symptom onset. Bottom line: At the first sign of a cold, start taking 75 mg of zinc daily.
SSKI and NAC. Oral agents that thin excess mucus by either liquefying it (expectorants) or breaking it down (mucolytics) are also helpful during cold and flu season. My favorite expectorant is a liquid form of potassium iodide called SSKI, which has been in continuous clinical use for well over 100 years. The suggested dose of SSKI is 3–6 drops in water 2–3 times a day. The best natural mucolytic is N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC). The recommended dose of NAC is 400–1,200 mg per day.
Bromelain. This enzyme, which is found in pineapple, reduces levels of compounds that are responsible for tissue swelling, nasal congestion and sinus pain. In addition, like NAC, bromelain helps break down mucus and has produced measurable improvements in lung function in patients with respiratory congestion. Look for bromelain in products targeted at respiratory health and use as directed. Don’t take bromelain if you’re allergic to pineapple.
Wild cherry (Prunus serotina) bark. This traditional Native American remedy for cough and colds was widely used in over-the-counter cough syrups until the 1940s. Nowadays, you can find standardized extracts in natural products designed to treat respiratory congestion and cough.
While these therapies help alleviate symptoms and boost your immune system during flu and cold season, getting plenty of sleep is also important when you’re sick. During periods of rest and sleep, potent immune-enhancing compounds are released and immune function is greatly increased. So if you find it difficult to get a good night’s rest, try supplementing with melatonin.
Research has shown that supplemental melatonin can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and also help you stay asleep. I recommend taking 1–3 mg of melatonin 30–60 minutes before bedtime, preferably on an empty stomach. Melatonin should not be used by anyone who is pregnant or nursing or before driving.
Now it’s your turn: Do you have any natural cold remedies for cold and flu season you’d like to share?
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