We live in a world of germy doorknobs and supermarket carts; we take subways and elevators and buses and planes. We may not be able to reduce our exposure to germs all that much, but we can certainly control the way we live and eat. Here's how to design a defense plan to bolster your immune system, whether you're prone to catching every cold that goes around, or travel a lot and are frequently exposed to germs and viruses.
I get sick every winter. How can I prevent it?
According to Emily Kane, ND, LAc, a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist based in Alaska, it's important to avoid empty calories such as sugary coffee drinks and carbs that can clog our organs of elimination (emunctories). If we're serious about health, says Kane, we'll drink only water (and herbal teas, if desired) for six weeks going into the winter season.
It's also important to know our blood type, according to Kane. Type Os, for example, should avoid wheat products before and throughout the winter season due to unfavorable immune response. Type A? Don't eat anything from cows: milk, cheese, ice cream, beef, etc. Type B? Avoid corn and chicken. And type AB? Eat a bit like both the As and Bs.
K. P. Khalsa, DN-C, RH, author of numerous books on natural healing (including his latest, The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs), suggests supplementing with andrographis, an herb supportive of long-term immunity. Take it daily for a year before the cold and flu season, and then continue it. In addition to numerous studies showing the herb's potency in reducing the symptoms and duration of colds and flu, an Indian study in 2009 concluded that an andrographis extract significantly bumped up immune response.
Peter Glidden, ND, suggests that during cold and flu season we include eggs, meat, fish, chicken, hummus, or other protein with every meal. The immune system is made up of many types of proteins, so it makes sense to increase protein in the diet. Glidden also advocates strictly avoiding sugar. Macrophages, a type of white blood cells that are also components of the immune system, engulf and digest viruses, but sugar puts them to sleep, Glidden says, giving the virus a window of opportunity.
I get a cold when I'm stressed.
"If you're susceptible to stress," Kane says, "recognize that it's a trigger that dials down our ability to resist pathogens. A stressor in the environment causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, which is an immuno-suppressant." She suggests meditating, journaling, napping, making time to be alone every day. Tune in to nature.
Vulnerability to colds can also be addressed by contrast hydrotherapy. A hot shower or bath in the morning leaves pores wide open and exposes us to germs, says Kane, who suggests doing a final rinse with cold water, making sure to slosh it under the armpits and in the groin area for 60 seconds to stimulate lymph node drainage.
As noted, andrographis is excellent for colds. In the early stages, Khalsa suggests taking 10-15 g a day in capsules or as a
tea. Also try the readily available Chinese herb combination Yin Chiao, a cooling remedy that works well with rhodiola (Arctic root). This supports the long-term health of the endocrine system and is a well-known stress remedy, lessening cortisol levels. And, according to Khalsa's research, Siberian natives who regularly drink rhodiola tea live to be more than 100 years old-so give it a try.
Helpful herb tonics include ginseng for men and dong quai (Angelica sinensis) for women, and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) to pump up white blood cell function in both men and women.
I fly a lot. How do I keep germs away?
Vitamin C, 3,000 mg taken 3 times a day for 3 days before flying, boosts the immune system. If this amount causes loose stools, take as much as you can handle. On the day of travel, eat lightly-fruits, raw vegetables, water-and avoid coffee and alcohol, which add to the dehydrating effects of an airplane cabin. Also effective is astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), adds Khalsa. Not just a cold and flu remedy, the herb supports stamina and is an acute antiviral.
Kane suggests aligning with a natural daylight schedule for optimum health. An increase in skin cancer in the last decade has led to studies suggesting that the cause might be our increased use of artificial light. According to a 2006 study led by T. Ravindra appearing in the Indian Journal of Medical Sciences, light at night that
is of sufficient intensity, duration, and spectral quality can suppress the production of melatonin, a natural hormone secreted from the pineal gland that regulates our circadian rhythm. Altered levels of melatonin have been linked to the increased incidence of breast cancer and childhood leukemia. Recently, according to Ravindra, the role of melatonin has also become an important area of study in colon and lung cancers. Kane suggests organizing our schedules so that we wake up at sunrise and go to sleep as soon as possible after sundown.
I'm a teacher. I'm stressed, and I catch everything the kids have. Help!
Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), an ayurvedic herb outstanding for building immunity, is a classic flu remedy. Taken throughout the school year, it increases the effectiveness of white blood cells and boosts the body's resistance to infection. Guduchi is considered an adoptogen, a potent herb that builds resistance to stress and illness. Khalsa suggests taking 3 g daily.
Blood types impact the effectiveness of herbs, too, according to Kane. For type Os, echinacea won't work, but Siberian ginseng, astragalus, or white larch, sometimes called ARA, are effective. Type A? Echinacea, and for stomach flu or sinus problems, try a goldenseal and echinacea combo. Chinese tonics and medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and maitake are best for type Bs.
Schools are virtual petri dishes-kids cough into their hands and then touch doorknobs, desks, and chalk. The easiest solution is to train students to wash their hands throughout the day.
I get a sore throat every winter. What can I do?
In this case, you want to both build immunity and support the tissue of the respiratory tract. Mullein, taken over a year, functions as a long-term respiratory tissue builder. Khalsa suggests 1/2 oz of the dry herb daily as a tea; it has a mild taste. Also take 2 g of ginseng a day for a year to strengthen the immune system; Khalsa notes that it's a spectacular cold and flu suppressor. Over the long term, ginseng balances stamina and energy.
We should also develop the habit of gargling, particularly those of us who have tonsils. Kane suggests using mouthwash containing eucalyptus, a wonderful antibacterial and antifungal agent. Her recipe for a homemade gargle: chop 3 cloves of garlic, boil for 10 minutes in a pint of water with a pinch of salt. Gargle daily for 2 days beyond resolution of the sore throat.
What are the best natural remedies for a cough?
Osha, or Colorado cough root, is a classic remedy. It tastes awful, but it does suppress a cough and kill the bugs that cause it. Over the long term, 1-2 g a day in capsules will boost immunity; over the short term, 10 g daily will kill the germs. Khalsa adds that coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), a European herb that strengthens lung function,
is the "best cough remedy in the world."
Coltsfoot is among a group of lung-tonic herbs that boosts the immune system as well as remedies the ailment. Another is usnea (Usnea barbarata), a natural antibacterial and antiviral. Typically, half of any bronchitis compound should consist of usnea. Other lung-tonic herbs include elecampane and black medicinal licorice. Kane notes that licorice tea, which is naturally sweet, also makes an ideal adrenal tonic. "It beefs up the adrenal glands, making them less likely to squirt out cortisol when you're stressed."
AHCC: Nature's Flu Shot
For maximum immune support, consider investing in a high-quality AHCC supplement, such as American BioSciences ImmPower and Quality of Life Kinoko Gold AHCC. Short for Active Hexose Correlated Compound, AHCC is a unique formulation of several mushroom species. AHCC-the No. 1-selling immune product in Japan-helps the immune system work more efficiently by balancing various parts of that system. Take 500 mg twice per day. If you feel a cold or the flu coming on, increase the dosage to 1,000 mg two to three times daily. AHCC is synergistic with echinacea and astragalus.
Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health boosts healthy defenses by enhancing the body's physiologic response to stress.
Wakunaga Kyolic Immune Formula 103 supports immunity with a combination of vitamins, mushrooms, and herbs.
Boiron Chestal Honey Homeopathic Cough Syrup combines homeopathic medicine and soothing honey to ease coughs.
Republic of Tea Be Well Teas-Get Wellness. Each soothing sip fortifies your immune system with rooibos, echinacea, astragalus, and ashwagandha.