Conventional wisdom holds that there’s not much you can do to prevent colds and flus—and even less you can do to treat them. Of course you could get a flu shot, but research suggests they aren’t nearly as effective as many believe. OTC remedies like antihistamines, decongestants, and NSAIDs can suppress some of the symptoms associated with colds and flus, but they do nothing to prevent them or shorten their duration. And while antibiotics may be necessary in certain cases (e.g. a cold that progresses to a severe sinus infection, though even this is debatable), they aren’t useful for treating the viral infections that cause colds and flus.
Cold and flu season beating you down? Check out these 7 tips for boosting your immune system.
But here’s the good news: there are, in fact, several steps you can take that will strengthen your immune system and not only decrease the chances that you’ll get sick in the first place, but help to reduce the intensity and shorten the duration of any cold or flu you do get. Instead of just suppressing symptoms, these tips will actually improve the function of your immune system as well as attack the viruses themselves.
#1: Load up on Immune-Boosting Nutrients
There are several micronutrients that are essential for immune health. Many Americans don’t get enough of these nutrients through their diets. But even if you are getting enough, taking additional amounts of them when people around you are sick, or if you’re already sick, can be a big help. These include:
- Vitamin C. Liposomal forms are best absorbed. I suggest one teaspoon once a day on an empty stomach for prevention, and one teaspoon twice a day for treatment. If you’re using ascorbic acid, take 1,000–4,000 mg/d, up to bowel tolerance.
- Vitamins A & D. Both of these fat-soluble vitamins are important for immune health, but here’s a little-known fact: research suggests that they are only effective for preventing/reversing colds and flus when taken together. This is why I’m such a proponent of cod liver oil: it contains natural forms of both A & D in a synergistic blend. I recommend Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil from Rosita as my preferred cod liver oil product. For more information, read this article. You can purchase EVCLO here.
- Selenium. Selenium helps to balance and regulate the immune system. Most Americans get enough in their diet, but taking a little extra during cold and flu season can help. I suggest 200 mcg/d 3-4 times a week. This is the brand I recommend. Note: I do not recommend long-term, continuous selenium supplementation because it has been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer in men.
- Iodine. Iodine also plays an important role in immune health, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. Ironically, this is especially true for health-conscious people that have removed iodized salt from their diet. The only significant sources of iodine in the diet are sea vegetables, fish heads, and dairy (especially pasture-raised dairy). If you’re not eating these foods regularly, you may want to supplement with about 1 mg per day of iodine in the form of kelp capsules. Note: some people with autoimmune thyroid disease cannot tolerate iodine even in this relatively low amount, so exercise caution if you have Hashimoto’s or Graves’.
- Zinc. Zinc is another immune-boosting nutrient that many people don’t get enough of. If you like oysters, they are your best bet for meeting zinc needs through diet. You can also take 30 mg/d of zinc picolinate or zinc gluconate for short periods when you feel you’re fighting something.
#2: Drink Fresh Ginger Tea
Ginger is a potent anti-viral substance that prevents the adhesion of viruses to the upper respiratory mucosa.
If you drink the concoction I recommend below at the first signs of sickness, you can often fight it off successfully. But—and this is a big “but”—you have to drink it at or near the strength I suggest, or it won’t be effective. Some people find this difficult to do, because ginger is so intense, but if you can handle it your immune system will thank you.
Also, while it’s possible to do this without a juicer, it will take a lot longer. You can get pretty good juicers now for less than $100, so if you or someone in your family suffers from frequent colds/flus, a juicer is a worthwhile expense (and of course it has many other uses).
- Juice (or grate on a fine setting) 1–2 pounds of ginger; place juice in a jar and refrigerate
- Place 2–4 ounces of ginger juice in a mug with the juice of one-half lemon and a large tablespoon of honey (honey is also anti-viral). I recommend Beekeeper’s Natural honey. Add 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper and 6 ounces of hot water.
- Drink 2–6 cups of this a day, sipping slowly throughout the day
#3: Wash Your Hands
Maybe you already know this, but studies have shown that frequent hand-washing is one of the most important things we can do to protect ourselves during cold & flu season. Wash your hands every time you arrive at a destination while out and about, and first thing when you get home.
#4: Take Elderberry Syrup
Elderberry is one of the most effective botanicals for strengthening immune function and preventing colds and flus. Take 1 teaspoon twice a day if you feel like you’re coming down with a cold or flu—and continue taking it if you do get sick.
#5: Take Immune-Boosting Herbs
There are several botanicals that have a potent immune-boosting effect. I recommend the following blend for prevention during cold season:
- Mix equal parts astragalus, cordyceps, and rhodiola in tincture form. Herb-pharm is my favorite brand.
- Take up to 1/4 teaspoon 3x/d for prevention, and 1/2 teaspoon up to 6x/d if you’re already sick.
Note: since astragalus, cordyceps, and rhodiola are “immune boosting” botanicals, people with autoimmune diseases that involve an overactive immune response should exercise caution and speak with their health-care practitioner before using them.
#6: Take Anti-Viral Herbs
If you’ve finally succumbed to a cold or flu despite your best efforts, there are a number of anti-viral herbs that can be helpful. If you want to go deep on this topic, I strongly recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner’s excellent book, Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. But if you just want to cut to the chase, here’s the formula he recommends for treating mild influenza and colds:
- Mix 2 parts lomatium, 2 parts red root, 2 parts licorice, 1 part isatis (all in tincture form).
- Take 30–60 drops mixed with 1–2 ounces of water each hour until condition improves. You may have trouble finding some of these botanicals locally, but you can get them fairly easily online.
Of all of the recommendations, I suspect most people will have the hardest time with this one. In our crazy, hectic world, rest is simply not valued—but it’s absolutely necessary when battling a viral infection is consuming a lot of your energy.
Of course it’s not always easy to take time for yourself, especially if you have young children (I know this firsthand!), but even a few short rest periods throughout the day can make a big difference when it comes to supporting your immune system.