30 Things You Can Do to Avoid and/or Kick a Cold or Flu
(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
I wrote this article (more of a list, really) around winter of 2002, after having been in practice for just three years. Since then I’ve changed my thinking a bit around some of my previous recommendations, and I’ve adopted some new ideas. So, this being the ten year anniversary of the article, it seemed like a good time to present a revised edition.
You don’t necessarily have to do everything on this list to avoid getting sick. If you’re blessed with a strong immune system, you might do none of these things and still never get sick. And you don’t necessarily have to do everything on this list to recover from a sickness either. You’ll get better no matter what, usually within two weeks. But, generally, the more you do (without exerting too much energy in the process), the better you’ll feel while you are sick, and the quicker you’ll get over it.
The beginning of the list, you’ll notice, has more to do with preventive measures you can take (some of which can also be used therapeutically, like vitamin D), and the latter portion features interventions you can use to kick an existing infection.
1. Keep your fingers out of your ears, eyes, mouth, and nose. Viruses can enter through any of these openings – not just the nose and mouth. The stuff you pick up on your hands has to make it into your body somehow, and if you keep your hands off your face, this can’t happen. You can still pick up airborne viruses, of course, so it makes sense to keep your distance from people who are sneezing and coughing. And you could transfer something on your hands to a piece of food you’re about to put in your mouth, though this is probably not a common route of entry.
2. Keep your hands and surfaces clean. If you’re keeping your hands off your face (see above), you don’t have to be totally anal about hygiene, but it still makes sense to keep counters and knobs clean, to sterilize your sponge occasionally, and to wash your hands after touching things that are likely to have germs on them, such as: phones, door handles, toilet handles, sink knobs, gas pumps, the pen and PIN pad at an ATM or checkout, kids’ toys and accessories, politicians’ hands, elevator buttons, keyboards and mice, touch screens, salad bars, public bowls of lemon slices and other condiments, food sample plates, gym equipment, grocery carts, hospitals/doctor offices, public transit, movie theater seats, and everything on an airplane. After touching these things you should be thinking, “Can’t touch face until I wash my hands.” A study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research stated that we are 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than on the ground. Part of the reason is probably dehydration (see below).
3. Drink plenty of water. Many of you have heard me say, “Half the number of pounds you weigh as fluid ounces a day.” For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should drink 75 ounces of pure water a day – room temperature or warmer. This is vital to your overall well being. It will keep your mucous membranes moist so they can effectively trap airborne viruses and dust. If you do get sick it is especially important that you stay well hydrated — it will keep your phlegm in a fluid state so it can be blown out or coughed up rather than congealing in your lungs or sinuses. Hot water (plain hot water or herbal tea) is even more effective. Just drink it all day long.
4. Wear a scarf and keep your feet warm. The Chinese say exposure of the back of the neck and head to a cold draft makes us susceptible to getting sick. Same with cold feet.
5. Eat well. This shouldn’t need much explanation. If you’ve been dining on junk food, your immune system is unlikely to be performing at its best.
6. Avoid stress and have a routine for neutralizing the stress you can’t avoid (massage, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, exercise, dancing, playing, biofeedback, etc.). As a central factor in virtually all illness, stress reduction is probably the single most valuable thing we can do for our overall health and enjoyment of life.
7. Get enough sleep. One of the best ways to avoid getting sick is to support your immune system with rest. Nothing can substitute for sufficient sleep. When you’re on the verge of sickness, taking the time to stop and rest is often the deciding factor in whether or not you’ll get sick. If you do get sick, the degree to which you prioritize rest is often critical in how long you stay sick.
8. Stop eating sugar. Sugar is an immune suppressant. If there are colds around you and you avoid sugar, you’ll greatly improve your chances of avoiding sickness. I can’t tell you how many times there were sick people around me, but I was holding it at bay – until I had some sugary treat, then it was all over. If you do get a cold, avoiding sugar will mean a shorter period of illness and less phlegm. Refined sugar is worse than unrefined sugars, but you should limit your intake all types.
9. Get acupuncture. Acupuncture is great preventative care – it enhances immune function and reduces stress to keep you healthy. When you’re sick acupuncture can alleviate the symptoms of colds and flus and speed your recovery. Your practitioner may also perform gua sha (friction on the upper back and neck with a blunt-edged tool) or cupping (suction on the back) to elicit a stronger superficial immune response.
10. Consider an essential oil diffuser for your home or work. Essential oils, the aromatic compounds extracted from herbs, are like massively-potentiated forms of the herbs they are derived from. I have seen a single drop of essential oil (which may represent as much as a half-pound of fresh herb or more) greatly improve a physical problem and change someone’s mood. An essential oil diffuser is basically an air pump connected to some sort of vessel where you put the essential oil. The air movement gradually dissipates the oil into the room, the room smells lovely, and you inhale the oils in minuscule amounts. For immune support when there are sick people around, you can use oils such as lemon, peppermint, hyssop, eucalyptus, lavender, tea tree, ravensara, rosemary, thyme, and frankincense. (I usually choose two or three.) You can also diffuse oils by putting a few drops into a small metal or glass dish of water which is heated from underneath by a candle, but the oils can be damaged by the heat and don’t tend to get circulated as well in the room as with an electric diffuser.
11. Exercise. Research shows regular exercise translates into reduced frequency of illness. Being in good shape physically means better immune function. Your circulation is better, your elimination is better, your digestion is better, your body is invigorated. In addition, I have a theory that acquiring muscle increases our “Qi holding capacity.” What I mean is that, if we’re like batteries, with the capacity to hold a certain amount of energy, building muscle is like adding cells to the battery. We can hold more energy. Be sure not to focus only on your upper body (men tend to do this more than women). Building leg strength is at least as important, and in the same way that the trunk of the tree supports the upper branches, you must build your legs if you want to really build your upper body. One caveat with exercise: It is possible to overdo it. If you feel exhausted afterwards, chances are it’s more exercise than you can handle. Too much exercise means you’re drawing on reserve energy and activating your adrenal glands; this will actually reduce your vitality and make you less able to fight off colds.
12. Take vitamin D. Most adults need about 5,000 IU’s a day, and more if you’re deficient. It’s one of the best immune enhancers there is. The fact that we produce it when our skin is exposed to direct sun is probably why we don’t get sick much in the summer. When you get sick, you can take 10,000 to 20,000 IU’s a day for a few days.
13. Take vitamin A. High doses of vitamin A are strongly anti-viral. You can take 100,000 to 200,000 IUs of vitamin A per day for the first several days of a cold. Because there are reports of liver toxicity with very high doses of vitamin A for prolonged periods, I generally don’t recommend using these kinds of doses for more than a week. If you have liver problems, you should skip this. Also, large amounts of vitamin A are a bad idea for pregnant women – it can cause birth defects. (Beta carotene, which is converted by the body to vitamin A as needed, is safe for pregnant women.)
14. Sauna. Saunas are great for detoxification and enhancing circulation. When you get sick, a sauna right at the first sign of illness – especially if you feel chilled – can help raise your body temperature and open your pores. In my experience, a sauna at the right time can stop an early infection in its tracks. The key is not to sauna to the point of dripping sweat. Much better is a longer duration sauna at a medium temperature (like 140 F) until the skin is just glistening.
15. Take vitamin C. Be aggressive when you’re sick – take 1,000 mg (1 gram) an hour. If this loosens your bowels, you can space the doses out a bit more, take it with a little food, try the buffered kind, or just do 500 mg at a time. When not sick, your “bowel tolerance” is much lower – take 1000 mg two to three times daily as a maintenance dose. I prefer vitamin C that is derived from rose hips when possible; I think it works better than the synthetic stuff. Avoid chewable vitamin C unless you are sure it doesn’t contain sugar (including fructose).
16. Use zinc lozenges. They have been shown to shorten the duration of a cold. Let them dissolve in your mouth (don’t chew). Zinc gluconate is the best form to take and they should ideally not contain sugar (that includes fructose). Some people may experience digestive upset if they are taken on an empty stomach. Don’t take much more than 100 mg total zinc daily. Avoid Zinc nasal spray, since it has been associated with loss of sense of smell.
17. Try cold sock (revulsive) hydrotherapy. I have mixed feelings about this one. To me, it’s pretty unpleasant; and it goes against the idea of always keeping the feet warm (see above). However, it can sometimes be very effective for decongesting the head and relieving headaches, and I know people who swear by it. Just before bed, soak cotton socks in very cold water, put them on just up to your ankles, and then put on a pair of dry wool socks (pull these up as you do normally). Get into bed immediately, go to sleep, and don’t take them off until morning. As your body directs its attention to warming up your feet (the furthest place from your head) the head is allowed to drain and open up. Your feet may get quite hot in the process.
18. If that sounds awful, or you just want to try something else, consider hot feet hydrotherapy. Theoretically, using hot water should have the same effect, and is much more pleasant. Try a hot foot bath at the first sign of a cold. You can also add some essential oils to enhance the effect, such as ravensara, peppermint, hyssop, rosemary, spearmint, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree, pine, spruce, fir, lemon balm, or sage. I have used hot foot baths to successfully dodge early colds, and I’ve also benefited from them in the later stages of colds, where they were useful for alleviating head symptoms.
19. Try steam inhalation. For head congestion or to kick out an early stage cold, bring some water to a simmer, then pour it into a large bowl (I prefer not to keep it in the pot, since the sides may be hot), and add a couple drops of essential oils (same ones as above). Put a large towel over your head and the bowl to make a tent that traps the steam inside. Then breathe deeply through your nose and mouth.
20. Eat light when you’re sick. Let your body devote its energy to fighting the infection rather than digesting heavy foods. Stick to small meals and easily digestible, cooked foods.
21. Try a customized Chinese herbal formula. If the remedies you are trying are not helping, you may decide to bring in the big guns – bulk Chinese herbs prepared in a formula specifically for your condition. While they require some preparation into tea and may not be the most pleasant tasting drink, they are usually stronger and more specific than other herbal remedies. If you can’t get your hands on them, or don’t have the energy to prepare them, a Chinese pill formula may help. Two common general ones are Yin Qiao (Yin Chiao), which is the basis of (the much weaker product) Airborne and many other spin-off products, and Gan Mao Ling. These often work quite well, though I feel obligated to add that the strength of Chinese medicine is in choosing herbs that are specific to each individual’s needs. Using formulas in a one-size-fits-all way doesn’t take advantage of this strength.
22. Try putting half a capful of hydrogen peroxide in each ear at the very first sign of sickness – especially if there is any sense of ear clogging. The idea behind this recommendation is a theory that colds often invade and incubate in the ear. Turn your head to one side and pour in the peroxide. There will be bubbling and perhaps a mild sense of pain if there is any infection. Wait until the activity stops and then do the other ear. Sometimes this really works well for me. However, I often feel dizzy for a short while after doing it.
23. Try mushrooms. There are many mushrooms with immune-enhancing activity. Recent research actually showed that all culinary mushrooms appear to have some benefit in this regard. Some of the most potent ones include: reishi (ganoderma), shiitake (lentinula), lion’s mane (hericium), maitake (grifola), cordyceps, coriolus (trametes), chaga (inonotus), agaricus blazei, and perhaps most potent, an extract called AHCC. You can find all of these in capsule form. I tend to feel people do best with somewhat large doses of medicinal mushrooms.
24. Try umckaloabo. This South African herb in the geranium family has been proven to improve cold symptoms and reduce the duration of colds by almost two days. It’s one of very few products (along with zinc lozenges) that can legally make such a claim. The Umcka line by Nature’s Way has been the most widely marketed, and they work well.
25. Try an elderberry extract. Elderberry extracts have been shown to kill many strains of the influenza virus. In studies, participants taking an elderberry extract typically recovered from the flu within three days, while those using a placebo took an average of six days to get well. Research has focused on the product Sambucol, though I’m sure there are other elder extracts that are also effective.
26. Break out the soup and the spices. There actually are some immune benefits to chicken soup – go figure! Beyond the nutrients contained in the meat and the marrow of the chicken bones, the vegetables and spices lend an additional immune kick. If you make soup, with or without chicken, be sure to include plenty of fresh ginger, garlic, onions, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and other spices. While you’re at it, why not throw some immune boosting mushrooms in there? (I recommend shiitake, maitake, or lion’s mane for the best mix of flavor and potency.) Greens and carrots add some extra nutrients, too. Soup is better than dry or raw foods, because it’s super easy to digest, meaning very little digestive energy is required. The broth helps hydrate you. And the warmth helps open up your head and chest. Mmmmmm.
27. Consider glandular supplements. Although these may not be appealing to vegetarians, there are now a handful of supplements made from extracts of certain immune organs, usually derived from cow, though occasionally from sheep or pig. These extracts, typically of the thymus, but sometimes also of the spleen and/or parotid gland, can be highly effective at boosting immune function. They may be a bit more difficult to find in a store than the other supplements I mentioned, but they are available through many alternative healthcare providers and sometimes online. Some of my favorites are X-Viromin, Pro-Boost, and Congaplex.
28. When you start to feel better, this is exactly the time to stick with the plan. Inevitably, there will be a window when you’ll feel much better. Often, if you’ve been using these tools to fight an early cold, it will happen on the second or third day. You will be tempted to have some sugar, or work out, or stay up late, or exert yourself beyond your means, or get a bunch of chores done, or go to the mall. And if you do, I’m sorry to say, you will almost inevitably feel worse. Especially if you go to the mall. Do not – I repeat – do not go to the mall. What if, instead, you saw this extra energy as a gift that you could either spend or invest? If you choose to invest it – by continuing to lie low, eat well, etc. – you will be rewarded with a great return: overcoming the cold within another day or two. Even after you think the sickness is over, you will always benefit from taking an extra day to be conservative with your expenditure of energy.
29. Whatever you’re going to do, do it quickly. All of the cold interventions I’ve mentioned work best when done early. The longer the cold persists, the less likely it is that supplements are going to make much difference. Have an immune support supplement with you at all times during cold and flu season. Another easy one to carry with you is a tincture bottle of Wellness Formula by Source Naturals. Just have this or one (or more) of the other supplements listed above in your coat or purse or desk, and the moment you feel unusually tired or scratchy in the throat, or cold and tight in the neck, or whatever other symptom is your indicator that you’re coming down with something, hit it hard and fast, take it easy, go to bed early, and chances are, you’ll wake up feeling fine the next day.
30. Accept the fact that everybody gets sick sometimes. Nothing wastes energy like fighting with reality. I have been able to sail through a cold by focusing inward, finding my feelings of resistance to being sick, and letting them go. I believe anyone can do this. Think about your illness and notice the feelings in your body – particularly the lack of ease. Often there will be a feeling of tightness, tension, or bracing somewhere, or some other unpleasant feeling that isn’t due to the virus itself, but to your reaction to it. If you just keep bringing yourself back to your body and letting go of this resistance, your whole experience of being sick can change. Let your cells do the fighting, not your mind.
Copyright 2012 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.