Flu-fighting foods

Starve a fever, feed a cold… that is what mom used to tell me. Is this adage good medicine? Recent studies suggest that to fight a cold, it will take about seven days with patented medicines; for over the counter agents, about one week. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. So should you starve a fever or feed a cold? No. The best advice: hydrate a fever, herb a cold.

Symptom relief is the answer. (Be sure to watch for complications of an intense sore throat, difficulty in swallowing or breathing, and/or a high un-breaking fever; If present, seek medical advice immediately.) The common cold and flu symptoms are caused from viruses that cannot be killed by conventional antibiotics. The key to improving symptoms is to improve secretions, irrigate passages, check fever and control discomfort myalgias (painful muscles). Rest is the best cure.

Our greatest defender against flu and colds is our immune system. When functioning properly, it kills bacteria and viruses. To do this work, our amazing immune system produces several types of cells (phagocytes, T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes), antibodies and chemicals – all without assistance from us. However, several factors under our control – diet, exercise, sleep, stress reduction and choosing effective supplements – can assist the immune system to perform at optimal level.

Here is a list, by no means complete, of foods and supplements that can enhance your immune system as well as ease the discomfort of flu and colds. Always check with your medical care provider for treatment and diagnosis. This list is not a substitute for seeking help nor it is a recommendation for treatment.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C supports the immune function, but investigations into whether vitamin C supplements actually reduce colds and other ailments have yielded mixed results. Dr. Linus Pauling believed that vitamin C was the cure-all for colds and aliments. We do know that vitamin C is an antioxidant as well as a water-soluble vitamin, so eating foods loaded with vitamin C is a good bet: guavas, strawberries, papaya, citrus, berried, red cabbage and peppers. You can also take vitamin C supplements, but be sure they are not chewable as this can erode tooth enamel.

Zinc: Zinc is critical to immune function. Deficiency impairs resistance to infection. Zinc lozenges (marketed as Cold-Eeze®) have been shown to shorten symptoms of the common cold according to the Cleveland Clinic in the Annuals of Internal Medicine, July 1996. Intra-nasal zinc spray has been pulled from the market by the FDA… it can damage sense of smell. For lozenges, it is important to start taking zinc at the onset of a cold in order for it to be effective. Side effects include bad taste and upset stomach. Be aware that prolonged intake of high amounts of zinc (150 milligrams or more daily) can actually depress immune function.

Echinacea: Echinacea is an antibiotic, antiviral and immune-enhancer… at least that is what has been advertised. This native American plant is a first-line treatment for colds and flu in Europe. The German Commission on Health recommends E purpurea as supportive therapy in colds and respiratory infections. At first sniffle, you can start taking Echinacea – 2 droppersful, 3-5 times a day (adults). Continue until the illness runs its course. This herb is not suitable for long-term use and has side effects. A new study just released from the Annuals of Internal Medicine, December 2010, reported a study of approximately 700 people taking Echinacea or placebo. There was no significant difference in length of symptoms. At most, people taking Echinacea experienced a half a day less of symptoms.

Ginger: This food source has anti-inflammatory properties. It has been shown to limit nausea and motion sickness, ease muscle aches and helps as a decongestant, which is perfect for colds. See the ginger recipe below. The dose is one cup of strong tea 2-3 times a day.

Lemon/ginger cold remedy: To help calm the stomach, ease aches and improve nasal congestion, heat one cup of Ginger Beer (it lacks alcohol) in a microwave. Bring to steam, add one slice of lemon and serve warm. Serving size: One cup.
Nutritional analysis: Calories 106, fat 0g, carbohydrates 26.4g, protein 0g.

Allium family: Garlic and onions are two members of this family. As antivirals, antibacterials, antifungals and excellent cardiovascular tonics, these foods have anti-inflammatory properties as well. It is best to consume garlic fresh, (2 cloves a day) since cooking destroys garlic’s effectiveness. Chop or crush the cloves to release the allicin (a sulfur compound) and put them on a sandwich or swallow whole. If you don’t chew the garlic, it won’t stay on your breath.

Chicken soup: Surprisingly, mom was right, chicken soup has some cold fighting properties, or maybe it is just home cures and steam from the soup to cool off the sinuses. There are reported immune-enhancing ingredients in chicken soup making it a good home healing remedy.

Astragalus: A well-known Chinese herb, astragalus is an excellent long-term immune enhancement supplement. It can help build up resistance to both flu and the common cold. It is non-toxic and promotes the development and activity of lymphocytes, macrophages and natural killer cells as well as the production of immune chemicals such as interferon. It can be used on a daily basis and it’s safe to take indefinitely. Follow package directions.

Elderberry Extract: For centuries, elderberry has been used in folk medicine as a remedy for colds and flu and scientists are finally determining why. It appears to have antiviral activity and activates the immune system by boosting the production of cytokines secreted by immune cells. A recent study published in The Journal of Internal Medicine Research showed that elderberry syrup (Sambuccol®) relieved symptoms of the flu in subjects four days earlier than those who took a placebo. It can shorten the duration of flu symptoms, not prevent it. Follow package directions.

Medicinal mushrooms: More than 50 mushroom species have medicinal properties. Three of the better-known species, shiitake, maitake and reishi, possess immune-boosting substances called polysaccharides. Host Defense is a good choice as it provides the extract of these immune-boosting mushrooms. This can be taken for long-term immune support. Follow package directions. If taking individual mushrooms, take two capsules of shiitake extract twice a day or 2-3 capsules of reishi extract twice a day. You can also eat one shiitake mushroom in soup each day.

Tiger Balm: This Chinese herbal remedy, based on camphor and menthol, is great for easing bronchial congestion. The camphor and menthol have a warming action that brings more blood to the area. Just rub Tiger Balm on the chest and cover with a warm towel.

Cayenne pepper: As one of the all-time favorite herbalists’ recommendations for colds, it helps with decongestion. It can create a sense of warmth in your stomach if taken in capsule form (2-3 capsules twice/day). Best to take with meals.

Yogurt, kefir and buttermilk: These contain active cultures of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, which are strains of friendly bacteria that may help boost immunity with antibacterial and antiviral effects. They are best if used as a preventative measure since milk products can increase mucus production.

Lifestyle Recommendations

Maintaining weight: Eating a well-balanced diet and maintaining a normal weight are good for your immune system. On recent study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that women who frequently and intentionally lost weight (10 or more pounds) had lower measures of immune function.

Get your antioxidants: Vitamins A (as mixed carotenes) C, E and the mineral selenium are essential for a healthy immune system. Try to avoid processed foods and go for a whole-foods diet replete with grains, colorful fruits and vegetables. An antioxidant supplement may help if your immune system is suppressed or compromised for some reason or if you’re not eating a healthy diet.

Stress: Whether physical or psychological, stress raises the level of cortisol, which plays an important function in regulating the immune system. Too much cortisol over the long run can wreak havoc on the immune system and other bodily systems. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2004 found that people who felt overwhelmed and otherwise psychologically stressed actually produced fewer antibodies in response to an influenza vaccine.

Exercise: Exercising (and not over-exercising) can enhance immune function. Moderate exercise is a great strategy for preventing colds and flu. Don’t work out if you have the flu or develop a fever. Extreme training (think marathon) can suppress the immune system. The average American has no need to fear they’re getting too much exercise – most of us don’t get enough. Even as much as an hour of exercise daily should help enhance immune function.

Smoking: Smoking impairs several aspects of immune function. Don’t go there.

Sleep: Sleep deprivation raises blood levels of cortisol. Lack of sleep and too much stress make the body weak. Viruses are around us all the time and when our immune system is lax, they can take over. Slow down and avoid over-scheduling so you can relax and fall asleep at a reasonable hour. If you do get a cold or the flu, rest as much as possible

Cleanliness: Wash your hands frequently. This is a no-brainer, especially when you are out in public places. Use hot water and soap. It may be a good idea to carry alcohol towelettes.

* To be on the safe side, people with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, HIV or lupus should avoid long-term use of any of the immune-enhancing botanicals.