Q: Cold and flu season is almost here. What should I do to avoid getting sick?
-Edith K., New York, NY
The first thing to remember is that colds are viral-so antibiotics do not help. Viruses get inside our cells and reproduce; bacterial infections, on the other hand, typically occur outside our cells and draw lots of white blood cells onto the mucous membranes (the sources of all that lovely phlegm). In contrast, our natural anti-viral defense is fever. So if you feel feverish at the beginning of your cold or flu-that's great. Your body is doing exactly the right thing.
Diet & Digestion
Of course, you'd rather not have to deal with the virus or the fever in the first place, and the key to avoiding seasonal bugs is to maintain a healthy immune system. And that starts with what you eat.
If there's one single aspect of a "good diet" that I can't stress enough, it's low-glycemic foods. So much of our chronic obesity, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, and brain fog could be alleviated by avoiding high-glycemic foods, such as donuts, white bread, and certain cereals and pastas.
Along with eating a clean, green, low-glycemic diet, you need to ensure that you're digesting your food properly and absorbing all those nutrients. To that end, probiotics are a front-line defense in fighting off colds. In fact, a wide variety of good "bugs" live in the intestines. Near the stomach, you'll find "acid-loving" varieties such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Closer to the large intestine, the environment becomes increasingly alkaline, and different bugs-for example, Bifidobacterium-thrive. All these wonderful bugs further break down food into its basic components for easy absorption.
Eating low-glycemic foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, can help boost your immune system and reduce inflammation. Two good resources for information on this topic are www.Mendosa.com and www.DrHyman.com.
In addition to taking probiotics, practice eating slowly, and avoid drinking a lot of liquid with your meals (which dilutes the digestive enzymes from the mouth, pancreas, liver, and stomach). And try to eat consciously-sitting down-instead of watching TV or trying to balance your checkbook at the same time. If you thoroughly chew your food, allow for the stomach acid to mix with the chewed food, and allow the acidic food slurry to stimulate the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes, you're well on your way to maximizing nutrient absorption.
I cringe when I see young mothers running around after their toddlers with anti-bacterial hand wipes. Part of strengthening our immune systems comes from "hardening" ourselves, through exposure, to the environment in which we live. When you travel, you do need to limit exposure to all the foreign bugs you encounter. But close to home, you're better off acclimating your body to the regular microbes in the water, air, and soil, so it produces natural antibodies against them. Your immune system cannot become competent without exposure. So let your toddler muck about in the dirt a bit.
Along with antibodies, specialized white blood cells or their secretions are also key components to a strong immune system. There are several ways to stimulate the production of these immune-enhancing cells, depending on your blood type. For example, if you're type A, good old echinacea works quite well to promote resistance to viral infections. But it doesn't work particularly well for blood type O. With Os, I like to use a tasty white powder made from the inner bark of the white larch tree called arabinogalactan (sold as ARA-6 larch powder). Herbal immune stimulants for those with blood types O and B include astragalus, lomatium, and ashwagandha.
At the end of every shower, I always "chase" with cold water, and I advise everyone to do the same.
Immune-strengthening nutrients include sulfur (found in onions and garlic), vitamin A (particularly anti-viral), vitamin D (make sure your blood levels are above 50 ng/mL) and vitamin C. In fact, at the first hint of a cold, I recommend 2,000 mg (2 grams) of vitamin C with a big glass of water every 2 hours, which may very well nip that cold in the bud.
Please note that immune stimulation is not recommended for those who have had an organ transplant or have an autoimmune disease. In such cases, you need keep your immune system "quiet," and try to limit your exposure to pathogens by any means possible, such as using a good mask when you fly (see ICanBreathe.com).
Your Best Defense
The liver is the most sophisticated organ of detoxification in the body, and you want it working well if you encounter a pathogen. One excellent way to keep your liver happy is to minimize your use of prescription and over-the-counter medications. It's also helpful to stimulate bile flow through the liver at the first hint of any illness. I like to use bile-stimulating herbs, such as wormwood, gentian, dandelion root, or beets to enhance optimal elimination, especially at the onset of a cold.
Another way to keep the immune system stimulated is to engage in regular hydrotherapy. That is, alternating between dousing yourself with hot, then cold, water. At the end of every shower, I always "chase" with cold, and I advise everyone to do the same. It not only feels fantastic and revitalizing, but it also leaves your hair shiny (the final cold rinse flattens the hair follicle so light glints off it better) and boosts your immune hardiness. And who needs coffee when you can get a bracing, cold rinse in the morning?
My closing thought: It's actually not terrible to get a cold at the beginning of the season. If you engage in some of the techniques above, it's likely your cold will be mild, and then you will have effectively been inoculated against this year's strain of virus.
Do you have a health question? Email "Dr. Em" at firstname.lastname@example.org; please put "Ask the Naturopath" in the subject line.