by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
Let’s face it: Beyond making us feel miserable, even a minor cold can be a major disruption, especially since we rarely take the time to allow ourselves valuable rest. Inherently, we know that work, errands, obligations, and other parts of life have to wait until we get better. Yet, despite our body’s warnings, we often carry on business as usual with the achy muscles, headaches, and sore throats a cold brings.
The truth is, Americans spend billions of dollars each year trying to prevent and treat colds.But are we getting our money’s worth? That depends. There is a dizzying array of available cold therapies, both conventional and alternative. Some we take out of habit or because our parents gave them to us, and others, because a friend recommends them.
But really, the best way to choose a cold remedy is to look at the evidence. What does the research tell us about herbal cold remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications?
Whether it’s to prevent a cold or support a quick recovery, a bolstered immune system is key. One of the most common supplements used for immunity is vitamin C, yet there is conflicting evidence as to whether taking vitamin C supplements can prevent colds. A recent report suggests that it might not prevent them, but it may reduce the severity of symptoms.
However, a review conducted by Harvard researchers, found that vitamins B, C, and E, as well as antioxidant carotenoids, do help enhance immune function.
There’s also some interesting research showing that foods high in vitamin C and other nutrients do help to 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 in fighting colds. This and other related research points to the importance of obtaining the majority of your nutrients from food or food-based supplements, rather than synthetic vitamins produced in a lab that are difficult for the body to assimilate and may be problematic over time.
For cold prevention and treatment, I recommend a multinutrient supplement with food-based sources of vitamins A, B, C, D3, and E, along with essential minerals. In your diet, emphasize “superfoods” like brightly colored fruits and vegetables, organic produce, and unprocessed whole foods. Healthy eating habits and food-based supplements allow you to cover your nutritional bases with optimized sources of the critical immune-boosting vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants available in nutrient-dense natural foods.
With its ability to perform a broad range of actions, zinc is one of the most important minerals for immune health. Zinc deficiency can damage immune cells, particularly T- and natural killer, or NK, cells. Two studies in particular, both conducted in elderly patient populations, 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. 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 and lowering inflammatory proteins in the body. A recent analysis of 17 studies also found that zinc reduces cold symptoms.
Natural zinc sources include oysters, toasted wheat germ, beef, lamb, spinach, and pumpkin seeds. Supplementing with 15 to 25 milligrams a day of natural zinc is also recommended, and can be increased to as much as four to five times daily during a cold.
Certain medicinal mushrooms have a complex and highly beneficial relationship with the immune system. Essentially, medicinal mushrooms help train the immune system to better respond to threats and help tamp down an overactive immune response. They also support vital energy, digestion, and circulation; reduce inflammation; 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 invaders.Another study found that maitake enhances immune cells called phagocytes and boosts the toxicity of natural killer cells.
Beta-glucans found in mushrooms have been shown to have 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 mushroom varieties, such as maitake, reishi, and poria.
The herb echinacea has been used for centuries to treat colds and other illnesses, and there is some evidence that echinacea may provide protection against colds. One study examined a combination of echinacea, wild indigo, and thuja leaf to determine whether the herbs had any effect on colds. The herbal formula showed superior activity against colds, compared to a placebo. It’s recommended you take echinacea at the first signs of a cold, or following exposure but before symptom onset.
There is, of course, the old wives’ tale about chicken soup being a great home remedy for the common cold. Many grandmothers swear by it, and research shows that they’re onto 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 vegetables and herbs like carrots, onions, kale, garlic, astragalus root, and ginger can enhance these immune effects.
We absolutely need more research on alternative cold remedies, but the fact is we need more research on all cold remedies, particularly the over-the-counter cold remedies commonly used today. One study looked at the effectiveness of oral antihistamine/decongestant/analgesic combinations for treating colds 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 in adults outweighed their potential side effects.
We all want to find better ways to help us prevent and, when 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 flu.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.