The onset of cooler weather in October coincides with the beginning of the notorious cold and flu season. The common “winter illnesses” cause mild to significant discomfort for a great many people, and millions of days lost from normal work and school activities. (Less commonly, they can also result in some serious complications and—rarely—death. In recent years, flu-related deaths in the US were estimated at 12,000 in 2011-12, on the lower end, and a high-end figure of 56,000 in 2012-13.) Preventing colds and flus, and helping people recover from them sooner, is clearly a high priority.
Colds and flus are related to viral infections. Identifying specific viruses is a research procedure, not part of typical medical care. (The image below isn’t a Christmas ornament—it’s a simulation of the common cold virus.) Conventional antiviral medications remain prescription drugs, recommended only for people who are considered to be at very high risk for serious flu complications. While they reduce the risk of such complications, they only shorten the duration of symptoms by a day or two.
Standard medical advice currently includes the following ideas:
• Hand washing and surface disinfectants are crucial for preventing viral infections.
• Neither getting chilled outdoors nor dry indoor air are risk factors for winter illness.
• Lowered immune function in generally healthy people does not result in colds and flus.
• Drinking plenty of fluids is a good idea, but what you eat when you’re sick makes no difference.
Common sense, however, suggests that:
• Staying warm, and maintaining comfortable humidity in centrally heated environments, are both reasonable measures.
• If, as medical authorities say, people whose immunity is seriously impaired face a greater risk of coming down with and experiencing more serious symptoms from colds and flus, generally healthy people are also well-advised to take steps to keep their natural immunity at peak levels.
• Quicker recovery from winter illness is more likely with a simple, nourishing diet.
• Herbs with a strong history of traditional use for winter illness can play a useful role in avoiding or getting over colds and flus.
Staying home from work or school for a few days when you’re sick is generally best for everyone concerned. Rather than trying to keep going as usual (perhaps suppressing symptoms with decongestants or similar products), a regimen of bed rest, fluids—possibly including a well-selected herbal tea—may be the best way to get back to full functioning sooner. Staying home for at least 24 hours after fever has subsided in flu is recommended.
Here are a few points to consider:
Microorganisms are simply all over our bodies and our world! We tend to think about them only as sources of infectious illness. We tend to consider our immune system only when it is obviously either under- or overactive. In fact, our health depends—not on an absence of bacteria and viruses (never a real possibility anyway)—but on a relatively healthy balance of mostly benign micro-life on the outer and inner parts of our bodies, in concert with the constant functioning of our immune systems, responding to all those tiny “critters” appropriately and adequately.
Research at Yale University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, has demonstrated that lower temperatures tend to impair the immune response to the most common cold virus, the rhinovirus—which is constantly present in around 20% of normal subjects in the study, even when symptoms of illness aren’t apparent—and also allow the virus to replicate more effectively. These findings strongly suggest that the “old wives’ tale” about keeping warm to avoid “catching cold” is actually well-founded. (Covering the nose—where the rhinovirus lives and replicates— when venturing into cold weather, may be especially helpful.)
Since the digestive tract is clearly the most abundant zone for micro-life in our bodies, it is also a critical area for our immune activity. Common sense certainly suggests that keeping a favorable microbial balance there with a prudent diet is a basic part of staying healthy and recovering from infection. A 2017 study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has shown a specific effect of flavonoid compounds on bacteria in the gut that produce interferon to reduce lung damage from flu infections. Flavonoids are found in a number of foods and beverages, and are also abundant in many medicinal herbs.
A bit of research on herbs turns up so many that are renowned for treating colds and flus! Em’s Winter Defense Tea combines several herbs with a strong records for enhancing immune response, reducing inflammation, and controlling symptoms. Echinacea root is quite well known, and has been investigated extensively, with much of the research originating in Germany. Another plant widely used and studied for treating upper respiratory infections, especially flu, is Elderberry. Demulcent herbs such as Marshmallow and Licorice, with a soothing action on the throat and lungs, can help quiet inflammation. Wild Cherry Bark has been used for centuries to soothe coughs.
Another herb to consider is Catnip, especially well indicated for children’s colds, and for easing spasmodic coughs and sleeplessness. Less well known currently, Boneset was one of the first Native American plant remedies to be adopted by European settlers in North America, and remains highly regarded by herbalists for its immune boosting effects, preventing winter illness, and also alleviating symptoms after sickness becomes apparent.
Avoiding sickness, when we can, is always better than than treating it! Winter’s darkness is an especially good time to heed the mounting evidence for getting adequate sleep as an essential key to staying healthy. Exercise routines may be easy to neglect in the face of work and school demands, seasonal social events and family gatherings, but maintaining your workout provides the kind of beneficial short-term stress that actually enhances your resistance to illness. Meditation, prayer, and other practices that evoke the relaxation response have also shown positive effects on immunity.
Take care, and stay well!