by guest blogger Mark A. Moyad, MD, MPH, natural health expert
It is really incredible and sad to think that the flu causes around 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations every year. These numbers need to change! So here are some of my favorite tips for natural cold and flu prevention. These are some basic, inexpensive, and effective things to do from head to toe to prevent cold and/or flu symptoms from getting you this season. These tips can also potentially reduce the severity of infections if you happen to get one.
1. Stay heart-healthy. It is really that simple folks: heart healthy = immune healthy. I’m often asked if there is an immune-healthy diet? Yes, and it’s made up of the same foods that are heart-healthy. Why? A heart-healthy diet—one that is low in calories, high in fiber, high in healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, high in fruits, and especially high in vegetables—is also the best diet for the immune system. And exercising and not smoking and having low blood pressure, low cholesterol, a small waist, and a low body weight—all components of taking good care of your heart—are all good ways to keep your immune system strong and healthy. Researchers have found that even when you get the flu, you’ll tend to have a lower chance of being hospitalized if you are more heart-healthy than those who are less so. Remember that this winter when you’re up early in the dark dreading that morning run.
2. Get a flu shot. I know, you’re thinking, “Wait, that’s not natural.” True, but it is a selfless act and an immunity booster. If you don’t think you’re going to get the flu, that’s fine, but older and younger individuals who come in contact with you are vulnerable, and it can be a life-threatening infection for them. So, if not for you, get the shot for your kids, parents, and grandparents. Also, the flu CAN LEAD TO PNEUMONIA (a big-time killer). So get the flu shot, please. After getting a vaccine shot, some people experience a runny nose or achiness for a day, but this is a GOOD SIGN that your immune system is educating itself to fight this bug; it does not mean you have the flu. Even if you still get the flu despite the shot (in general, 20 percent of us do), the vaccine gives your immune system a little boost that can reduce the flu’s severity. New research also suggests that since the flu can reduce the risk of a large inflammatory response from a major infection it may also provide secondary benefits like reducing the risk of the cardiovascular disease, which is the number one killer of Americans.
3. Use magic soap. Magic what? Magic soap. Otherwise known as alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Hands are the most common mode of cold and flu virus transmission, thus proper hand hygiene is critical. If you have cold or flu viruses on your hands and you touch your nose or eyes, you can move those viruses down the tear ducts into the nose, then to the back of the throat and then—BAM!—you’re ill! But, STAY AWAY from antimicrobial soaps that contain triclosan—they are not any more effective than soap and water, and triclosan is an endocrine disrupter that may also spread antimicrobial resistance. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on both sides of your hands, and make sure you get those fingernails!
4. Eat honey. Eating honey has more research behind it than you might think. And the research suggests it might reduce the risk of flu infections by flushing bacterial and viral pathogens. A well-done clinical trial of eating one to two teaspoons of honey in the evening compared to taking dextromethorphan (a cough medicine ingredient in most conventional over-the-counter cough products) found that honey may be more effective at preventing and treating nighttime cough. Honey contains a compound that can be converted into a small amount of hydrogen peroxide and that, along with other antimicrobial compounds, may prevent or at least improve recovery from infection. Darker varieties of honey, such as buckwheat honey, have more antimicrobial and antioxidant bang for your buck—and manuka honey is so potent it can be used to treat infections in wounds.
5. Gargle with water. That’s right, just water. A large clinical trial found that people who gargled with water a few times a day were more than one-third less likely to catch a cold. And if you do happen to get sick, add some salt to the warm water and gargle with that. The salt will help clean the virus from the back of your throat.
6. Spray your nose. Not everyone’s favorite, but very effective. Use a saline nose spray several times a day to flush out the bacteria and viruses. Nasal sprays are sterile, take seconds to use, are inexpensive, and have been shown to be safe and effective for preventing and treating cold and flu symptoms. There are smaller versions for kids. Using it three or more times a day is a wonderful and safe preventive measure for everyone in the family.
7. Be smart about supplements. A growing body of evidence suggests that both brewer’s yeast and North American ginseng are effective in preventing and treating cold and flu symptoms. Sprinkling a teaspoon of brewer’s yeast on your food daily or taking a 250- to 500-milligram (mg) ginseng product may end up being a good idea, and both have great safety records. Also, a 50-year analysis of studies supports that taking several hundred milligrams or more per day (for example 250 to 500 mg a day) of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) significantly lowers the risk of pneumonia and helps speed recovery. Keep in mind that pneumonia is the leading cause of death in most flu cases that result in death. Take the nonacidic form of vitamin C, also known as calcium ascorbate, buffered vitamin C, or pH-neutral vitamin C, to avoid stomach irritation.
Dr. Moyad is the Jenkins/Pokempner director of complementary and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center and the consulting director for the Eisenhower Wellness Institute. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with his wife, Mia, and their dog, Chauncey.