Well it’s about that time of year again. Although this past Thanksgiving weekend had hints of summer weather, it’s only a matter of time before the temperature plummets, fresh salads disappear, and the seasonal depression sets in. But let’s look at things positively! We are very fortunate in Canada to experience the wonder of four different seasons throughout the year (with fall being my second favorite, behind summer of course), and a change of season doesn’t have to be all about getting sick and stressed and wanting to stay inside. In this article I’ll give you some fun facts about colds and flu, and how to stay healthy (or at least reduce any symptoms you may have).
“I Think I’m Coming Down With Something…”
If you’re guilty of saying this within the last 6 weeks, you’re not alone. It has been estimated that about one third of Canadian adults will have a sore throat, cold or flu in a given month! This costs our health care system about $2.4 billion a year and an extra $1 billion in lost productivity costs when people go to work sick. The worst part is, less than 10% of colds and flu are caused by bacteria, so don’t bother sitting in a walk-in clinic for 4 hours hoping to get anti-biotics! While a few colds or flu each year may not be that bad for some people (and actually helps build a stronger immune system) there are certain populations such as the elderly, or those with asthma and COPD, who are at increased risk of serious illness and hospitalization.
So What Can We Do to Avoid Getting Sick?
Common colds (usually caused by the ‘rhinovirus’, which explains the runny nose and sneezing) and the flu (caused by a variety of influenza viruses) don’t really care who you are, how much work or exams you have to do, or that you’re vacation is in 3 days. Even the healthiest, strongest, richest people get sick. And that’s okay. BUT, here are a few of my personal tips for staying healthy and reducing the spread of viruses to others. I’m sure you’ve heard them all before, but just in case you need a reminder…
- Drink lots of water! I recommend at least 2-3 liters per day. Personally I find the more I have in the morning the better I feel. Try to get 1000 ml in before your coffee or tea. Water helps keep your cells hydrated and mucous membranes moistened (to avoid that dry, itchy throat and sinuses).
- Get plenty of sleep! Seriously. The best thing you can do is to stay rested and don’t let yourself get run down. And stay tuned for a future blog post about ‘sleep hygiene’!
- Exercise! Studies show that a moderate level of exercise is associated with a stronger immune system, and fewer colds and flu. Even if you can’t get to a gym, going for a short walk, jog, or doing some light exercises at home will help get the blood flowing, reduce your stress, and improve your mood.
- Eat well! I would need 10 blog posts to really talk about diet, but in general, try to keep your protein and vegetable intake high when you feel you’re getting run down. Avoid foods high in sugar, as this wreaks havoc on your immune system. Try to limit anything you know might upset your stomach or ruin your sleep. Especially on the cold days, avoid raw or ‘cold’ foods such as yogurt, dairy and salads, and replace them with ‘warmer’ cooked or steamed vegetables, soups or stews.
- Wash your hands! Believe it or not one study showed a 45% reduction in the number of outpatient visits for respiratory illnesses when a hand washing program was implemented. Anti-bacterial soups won’t do much for cold and flu viruses, so it’s important to use hot water and really scrub your hands to prevent the spread of illness.
Well That Didn’t Work. Now What?
Sometimes no matter what you do, no matter what you take, you’re going to get sick. And yes, it’s probably going to happen at the worst time possible. Fortunately there is such a wide variety of things that have shown to be helpful for reducing symptoms, or shortening the duration of your illness. And yes, there’s even a clinical trial for chicken soup. Interestingly though, there’s only good research on a few of the popular ones: (don’t kill the messenger)
- Echinacea – Definitely the most amount of research, although the consensus seems to be that it’s only good for treatment of colds and flu, and not prevention. Expect it to reduce your symptom severity by about 20%, and shorten the duration by 1-2 days.
- Ginseng – Also very popular, mostly due to the research on COLD-FX, a product made from a patented extract of the North American ginseng plant. While most people actually take it once they get sick, the research suggests it’s better for preventing colds and flus. If you take it daily throughout the colder months, or when you might get run down, expect it to reduce your chance of getting a cold or flu by about half. Even if you do happen to get a cold or flu, it’s been shown to cut symptom severity and duration by 30-50%. (Keep in mind this research was all with the COLD-FX product, so the estimates wouldn’t apply to other ginseng products).
- Vitamin C – You might be surprised to hear that it’s mostly been studied for prevention, and has only really showed benefit in elite athletes or in people under significant long-term physical stress. But remember, lack of research doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work.
- Zinc – Comes in lozenges, tablets, and syrup, which has made it difficult to gather consistent research findings for it. In my experience, the lozenges work best, helping to reduce symptom duration by 1-2 days, and have the local benefit of soothing sore throats.
- Garlic – Not a lot of research for treatment yet, but one trial showed significant reductions in the incidence, severity, and duration of colds in a group of adults taking 180mg allicin over 12 weeks. Keep in mind that allicin, the main compound in garlic with antiviral properties, can be inactivated by cooking – try to add it at the end, or use raw ground garlic in soups, smoothies, and on salads.
- Vitamin D – While I haven’t done a good review of the vitamin D and immune research recently, we already know that the majority of Canadians will be deficient in the winter months, and should therefore be taking a good liquid supplement already at about 2000-4000 IU/day.
* REMEMBER, I’m providing this info to try and educate you about what’s out there. You should always consult a qualified health care provider before starting a new treatment, even if it is natural. Always read the cautions and warnings on the product label. Also, keep in mind here I’ve only mentioned some of the more popular things you’ll see at a grocery or health food store. Certainly everyone has their own favorite tools and tricks for fighting off a cold or flu, and you’ll probably find sometimes they work great and other times do nothing. They also tend to work for certain people but not others. (This is obviously because everyone has different physiology, diets, and lifestyles, which is why I love the individualized treatment approach that naturopathic medicine has to offer).
Is There Anything Else I Can Do?
There are definitely a TON of other things that can be done to help your body fight off an illness, or at least reduce your symptoms. Above all, I can’t stress enough the importance of staying home from work or school if you happen to get sick. You know you won’t be very productive anyways, and staying home will help you recover faster (not to mention your work or school colleagues will thank you). Plus, there are a few great at-home treatments you can do:
- Alternating/Contrast Showers – It’s easy, and a great way to boost the immune system and improve circulation. At the end of your shower, simply alternate between hot and cold water in a 3:1 ratio for 3 cycles. I usually do 90 seconds as hot as tolerable, then 30 seconds as cold as tolerable. Times 3. (Important! Remember to always end your shower with cold water! No cheating!)
- Sinus Rinses – It takes a bit of getting used to, but can really help improve sinus symptoms such as itchiness and congestion, and speed up recovery. I like the ‘NetiPot’ squeeze bottle – simply fill with warm water and empty the salt packet into the bottle. Shake, lean over the sink, and gently squeeze the bottle into each nostril a few times, so that the liquid rinses through your sinuses. (Try to hold your breath or prevent fluid from going down the back of your throat.)
- Steam Inhalations – If the sinus rinse is too intense for you, or you have a bit of lung/chest congestion or cough as well, try a steam inhalation! Go buy (or have someone else get you) a small bottle of eucalyptus oil from the grocery store or pharmacy. Boil about 1 liter of water in the kettle. Add a cap full (usually about 5 ml) of the oil in a large bowl and add the hot water. Then just use a large towel to ‘tent’ yourself over the steam (I do it sitting at a table, with the bowl in front of me). Try to breathe gently and normally, staying under for 5-10 minutes. If it’s too intense, you can let a bit of the steam out from under the towel.
- Stay Hydrated – If you happen to have a sore throat or cough, some warm water with lemon can work great. A personal favorite is to gargle a bit with about 1 tablespoon of manuka honey, several times a day.
* Don’t forget, there are LOTS of other treatments that naturopathic doctors can use to help your immune system or reduce your symptoms. Everything from personalized botanical tinctures, acupuncture, infrared saunas and IV therapy! If you’re really suffering or want to get over your symptoms FAST, come see me!