Let’s face it; no one has time for a cold. In addition to making you feel miserable, colds destroy your schedule. Work, family, errands—they all have to wait while you get better. Or even worse, you have to carry on despite your achy muscles, headache, sore throat and more.
So it’s no small wonder that Americans spend billions each year to prevent and treat colds. Do you think you’re getting your money’s worth? It really depends. There is a dizzying array of potential cold therapies, conventional and alternative. Some we take out of habit, because our parents gave them to us; others because a colleague swears by it. But really, the best way to choose a cold remedy is to look at the evidence. What can published research tell us about herbal cold remedies and over the counter medications?
Vitamins: Supplements or foods?
Whether preventing a cold or speeding recovery, a strong immune system is the answer.
One of the most common supplements used to boost immunity is vitamin C, yet there is conflicting evidence on whether taking vitamin C supplements can prevent colds or not. A recent report suggests that it doesn’t prevent them, but it may reduce severity of symptoms.
However, a comprehensive review conducted by Harvard researchers, found that vitamins B, C and E, as well as antioxidant carotenoids, do contribute to enhanced immune function.
Furthermore, there’s some interesting research showing that foods which are high in vitamin C and other nutrients can boost immunity. One study tested a concentrated fruit and vegetable juice powder and found that it reduced DNA damage in immune lymphocyte cells and boosted the number of immune T-cells, both critical functions in fighting a cold. The concentrated powder increased levels of vitamin C and carotenoids in the body.
For cold prevention and treatment, I recommend a multinutrient supplement with food-based sources of vitamins A, B, C, D3, E and minerals, and a diet emphasizing super-foods such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables. By combining food-based supplements with powerhouse produce, you can cover your nutritional bases with optimized sources of critical immune-boosting vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants that are available in nutrient-dense natural foods.
Zinc: The essential immune mineral
With its ability to impact a variety of mechanisms, zinc is one of the most important minerals for immune health. In fact, zinc deficiency can damage important immune cells, particularly T and Natural Killer cells. Two studies in particular, both conducted on elderly patients, show the importance of zinc for immune health. Zinc deficiency is common in older adults and may contribute to immune issues, including poor response to vaccinations. In one study, zinc supplements improved collective immune response.
Another study also examined zinc deficiency, again with good results. Compared to the control group, participants who received zinc had significantly fewer infections. The zinc supplements offered antioxidant protection by reducing oxidative stress from free radicals, as well as inflammatory proteins in the body. A recent analysis of 17 studies also found that zinc reduces cold symptoms. Great natural sources of zinc include oysters, toasted wheat germ, beef and lamb, spinach and pumpkin seeds. 15-25 mg/day of natural zinc supplementation is also recommended, and can be increased to up to 4-5 times daily during a cold.
Medicinal mushrooms: Nature’s smart drugs
Certain medicinal mushrooms have a very complex and beneficial relationship with the immune system. Mushrooms are incredibly rich sources of therapeutic compounds such as beta-glucans, which energize immune cells when they are underactive, and control them when they become overactive (as is the case with allergies or autoimmunity). Essentially, medicinal mushrooms help train the immune system to better respond to threats. They also support vital energy, reduce inflammation, support digestion and circulation, detoxify the body and promote optimal healing.
Research on medicinal mushrooms is quite extensive. For example, one study found that an extract from maitake mushrooms energized macrophages, immune cells that attack viruses, cancer cells and other dangers. Another study found that maitake enhances immune cells called phagocytes, and boosts the toxicity of natural killer cells.
Beta-glucans have shown a number of benefits in animal studies and there is considerable interest in their immune-boosting abilities. The National Cancer Institute is sponsoring research to determine if beta-glucans can enhance immunity to make cancer treatments more effective.
To obtain optimal benefit from medicinal mushrooms, choose an organically grown formula with multiple mushrooms varieties, such as maitake, reishi and poria.
Echinacea: Traditional cold treatment
The herb Echinacea has been used for centuries to treat colds and other illnesses. One common practice is to take it at the first signs of a cold to ward off the virus. There is some evidence that Echinacea may provide protection against colds. One study examined a combination of Echinacea, wild indigo and thuja leaf herbs to determine whether they had any effect on colds. The herbal formula showed superior activity against colds, compared to a placebo.
Chicken soup: Mom was right
There is, of course, the old wives tale about chicken soup being a great home remedy for the common cold. Many families swear by it, and they may be on to something. At least one study has shown that chicken soup contains a number of substances that can provide medicinal and therapeutic benefits in treating colds, including anti-inflammatory benefits. Adding in vegetables such as garlic, carrots and kale, can enhance these immune effects.
OTC medications: Are they safe?
If you get the feeling that we need more research on alternative cold remedies, that’s true — the fact is, we need more research on all remedies, particularly over the counter cold remedies which are so commonly used today.
One study looked at the effectiveness of oral antihistamine/decongestant/analgesic combinations for cold treatment, and found that, while these drugs were mildly effective for adults and older children, they did not benefit younger children at all. Furthermore, the authors weren’t sure the benefits provided by these combinations outweighed the potential side effects in adults.
The bottom line
We all want to find better ways to help us prevent, and if necessary, get through a cold quickly.
The best advice I can give is to take a holistic approach to immunity. Eat whole, unprocessed foods with lots of antioxidants; drink plenty of filtered water; get regular, gentle exercise and plenty of sleep. Lastly, research shows that stress relief and a positive mental outlook are critical for strong immunity, and may be your greatest allies against colds and flus. A healthy diet and lifestyle will go the extra miles, to protect you from getting sick down the road.
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