Every winter people ask me what they should do to get over colds and flus. In the past I’ve written long lists of all sorts of interventions, including numerous herbs and supplements. I still think those things are useful (and I’ll share a revised list later in the article) but 12 years of parenthood has helped to evolve my thinking on the matter. Having daily contact with small humans who think nothing of sneezing directly into my mouth, I know that exposure is inevitable.
If I now had to rank the value of immune-supporting interventions, number one would be REDUCE YOUR ACTIVITY. I know it’s kind of like announcing that tonight’s dessert is prunes.
Most people either don’t want to slow down or don’t feel they have the time to slow down. But I believe that being always engaged takes a big toll on us, both physically and psychologically. And there’s no supplement that comes close to the restorative value of REST.
So learn to recognize your first symptoms of infection. Maybe it’s a certain quality of lethargy – you’re tired in a way that feels different from just a poor night of sleep. Maybe it’s a sore throat or just a tickle. Maybe it’s a headache or a stiff neck. Maybe it’s a runny nose while you still feel otherwise fine. When you notice this, it’s a message – not just that a foreign critter has taken up residence in you, but that you are out of sync with what your being needs. If you honor this message and reduce your activity immediately, you will almost never get sick.
“Reduce your activity” implies a few different things. Most often it means: sleep. If you check in – you can close your eyes and ask internally, “Should I sleep now?” – you’ll be able to feel if the answer is yes. Often, when you perceive your first symptom of infection and you respond by taking a nap, you’ll wake up and that symptom will be gone. Easy.
But if you’ve been feeling like you’re constantly staving off infections or you’re always operating at less than 100%, reducing your activity may mean lessening your overall expenditure of energy. For optimal health it’s good to aim to consume less energy than we generate. That may sound overly simplistic, and it can sometimes be hard to gauge, but it’s basic economics.
If you generate lots of energy through ample deep sleep, high quality food, loving and supportive community, spiritual practice, and other forms of nourishing self-care, you can burn more energy without needing to tap into your reserves. If you don’t sleep much and/or it isn’t restful, if you don’t eat great food (or you have digestive problems that impair your ability to extract the nutrients from it), if you don’t engage with community in a supportive way, etc., you will have less energy available to you, and unless you curb your activity level, your immune system (and other systems) will flag.
Besides reducing your activity, you can support yourself even more by tuning in when you slow down and asking, “What needs my attention?” Our susceptibility to infection is often higher during times of transition – such as transitions between seasons – because there’s a demand for attention and adaptive energy. If we don’t give any direct attention to finding our balance amidst change, we’ll unconsciously expend more adaptive energy to restore balance. Or, said in a more positive way, if we proactively slow down and tune in during challenging times so that we’re able to recognize how to adapt, we save energy in the process and usually avoid getting sick.
When you reduce your activity at the first sign of a cold, you can avoid getting sick and that’s good. But I’d really like to encourage you to voluntarily slow down even when it’s not motivated by the desire to avoid something unpleasant. This practice actually yields real, tangible, measurable improvements in calmness, happiness, and life satisfaction. So don’t wait for that sore throat.
Now, I said I’d tell you some of the other interventions I recommend for colds and flus. They’re grouped for simplicity.
- Avoid sugar (it suppresses immune function).
- Eat lightly and stick to whole, natural, unprocessed, and easy-to-digest foods (which usually means cooked).
- Drink plenty of room-temperature or warm fluids (water, broth, electrolytes, tea).
- Almost all aromatic herbs (such as thyme, mint, ginger, garlic, oregano, sage, etc.) have immune supportive effects, so use them liberally in your soup and tea.
- Make it easy for your body to get the nutrients it needs with a minimal expenditure of energy.
- Don’t touch your face. Just make a rule with yourself that you don’t put your fingers in your ears, eyes, nose, or mouth unless you just washed them.
- Keep the surfaces you touch clean (cell phone, computer, counters, door knobs, sponges, etc.)
- Stay warm. Research shows there isn’t much truth to the longstanding notion that cold weather makes us sick – at least not in a direct way – but it does play a role. If you’re feeling too cold, chances are you’re using adaptive energy to keep yourself warm, and this means less energy that’s available for immune function. Also, cold weather is usually dry too, and dry mucus membranes are less effective at trapping viruses. Finally, viruses are more stable, and therefore survive longer on surfaces, in cold weather than in warm.
- Reduce stress.
- Get enough good-quality sleep.
- Get acupuncture and massage.
- Exercise (not when you’re actively sick though)
- Whatever you do, do it fast. Almost all immune-enhancing supplements have the best chance of success when taken at the absolute first sign of illness.
- Herbs: There are lots of great immune enhancing herbs, and many are specific as to when and how they’re best utilized. It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into those specifics, so I encourage you to consult a trained herbalist or do your own reading on the nuances of these herbs, but here are some of my favorites: lemon balm leaf (gentle anti-viral), echinacea root (I like the tincture form best), umckaloabo root (umcka for short), osha root, olive leaf, fresh ginger, andrographis (exceedingly bitter, so best taken as a pill), elder berry and flower, and the Chinese pill formulas Yin Qiao [Yin Chiao] and Gan Mao Ling.
- Mushrooms. Nearly all edible mushrooms have immune enhancing properties. Some of the most potent include: ganoderma (reishi), maitake, shiitake, coriolus, chaga, agaricus blazeii, turkey tail (trametes), agarikon (fomitopsis), lion’s mane, and mesima. I believe these strengthening fungi are best taken before you get sick, but they can also be taken while you’re sick (especially if it’s a prolonged illness).
- Vitamin D. I generally recommend 35 units per pound of your body weight as a maintenance dose, though for myself, I double or triple this when I’m fighting an infection.
- Vitamin A has anti-viral activity in high doses, though it can be toxic to the liver over time and it isn’t safe for pregnant women. For non-pregnant individuals with healthy livers, you can take 100,000 to 200,000 units of vitamin A for the first several days of an illness. Often a single big dose is enough to stop an early infection.
- Vitamin C is a great, safe immune enhancer. All forms are useful, though I prefer the kind that’s bound in a layer of fat for better absorption. This is sometimes called “lipospheric” or “lypospheric” vitamin C. A similar form is known as ascorbyl palmitate. I recommend about 500 mg of vitamin C per hour when actively fighting an infection (or just below the dose that gives you loose bowels).
- Zinc lozenges, specifically in the form zinc gluconate, has been proven to reduce to the duration of a cold. It’s best to suck on one slowly, repeatedly throughout the day. The downside is that, especially on an empty stomach, zinc can give you a stomach ache.
- Glandular extracts. If you don’t have a problem with animal products, some have potent immune supportive effects. They are mostly derived from otherwise discarded organs from the meat industry (beef, pork, and lamb), except in the case of the company Standard Process which raises them on their own century-old organic farm. The most common glandular extract for immune support is thymus, the gland in your chest that produces T lymphocytes. Some of the products my patients have had the most success with include Pro-Boost, X-Viromin, and Congaplex.
There are two last points I want to make. One: when you start to feel better, keep taking good care of yourself and reducing activity for at least one more day. A major rookie move is to respond to the message from your body, see positive results, and then jump right back in to high activity and crappy diet, just to get hit hard with a relapse you can’t immediately clear.
Two: nothing wastes energy like fighting with reality. I’ve been able to sail through a cold by focusing inward, finding my feelings of resistance to being sick, and letting them go. I believe anyone can do this. Think about your illness and notice the feelings in your body – particularly the lack of ease. Often there will be a feeling of tightness, tension, or bracing somewhere, or some other unpleasant feeling that isn’t due to the virus itself, but to your reaction to it. If you just keep bringing yourself back to your body and letting go of this resistance, your whole experience of being sick can change. Let your cells do the fighting, not your mind.
Dr. Peter Borten