Updated: Nov 13, 2021
During the 2017 winter in NZ, around 180 people diagnosed with the flu were hospitalized every week!
News media often repeat the usual five tips from the Ministry of Health, to stop the spread of the flu.
1. Wash your hands
2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
3. Don’t share drinks
4. Avoid crowded places and
5. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
Although well intended, my recommendations would be quite different. More with the approach to prevent the population getting sick in the first place or to prevent the illness progressing to something serious enough to require hospitalization.
So here are my top 5 tips to use at the first sign of illness, with the aim to reduce the duration and severity of the symptoms:
1. Go to bed and get a decent nights sleep!
Sleep deprivation depresses the immune system's disease-fighting abilities (1, 2, 3). It has also been said that 7.5-9 hrs of uninterrupted sleep can reboot the immune system. So turn off that television and phone, and find a dark quiet place to get a decent sleep. Or even take a 15 minute cat nap.
2. Avoid sugar & alcohol. And, if you don't feel like eating, don't eat.
Both sugar and alcohol can inhibit the function of white blood cells (one of your immune systems top disease fighting cells), which then lowers your resistance to infection (4). So if you're not feeling at your best, skip dessert or that glass of wine. Save it for when your body is in tip top shape and can handle the toxic effects.
Ever noticed you can lose your appetite when you’re sick? Well, this is you body's way of starving microbes of nutrients making it more difficult for them to function and replicate.
One study even found that fasting for 3 days kick-started the body's stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection. Ultimately it regenerated the immune system, as it also destroyed old white blood cells that may have been damaged or inefficient (5).
Although it may be beneficial for some (such as those who have undergone chemotherapy- see study), to rid their body of damaged white blood cells (6). For the majority of the population I'd instead recommend listening to your body, rather than doing a 3 day fast.
If you are not hungry, don't force yourself to eat. But if you have an appetite, choose antimicrobial and immune supporting foods such as garlic, ginger, bone broth, mushrooms and brightly coloured vegetables.
3. Use immune supporting herbs or essential oils, vitamin C and zinc
Immune boosting herbs and essential oils
There are a few immune boosting herbs and essential oils I love to have on hand at the first sign of illness. If you choose the liquid version they are great in the family tool kit for children too.
My favourites are goldenseal, berberine (barberry), echinacea, elderberry (sambuca nigra), andrographis, olive leaf and the On Guard protective blend of essential oils from doTERRA.
But a disclaimer...when using any antimicrobial there is a small chance that you can bury the illness deeper if your gut health is not adequate. (However, the same can be said with antibiotics and other synthetic medications. Also natural anti-microbials typically have fewer side effects and less potential to damage other organs, such as the liver, gut or kidneys).
So I would recommend discussing use of these natural anti-microbials with your holistic or functional health practitioner first.
Furthermore I'd check for any drug interactions or contraindications. It is easy to do with a simple google search.
The most common finding is that these herbs can lower blood pressure or impact blood glucose levels, which is not a bad thing for many!
The studies supporting herbal supplements can be quite inconsistent, usually due to the dose and differing quality of the supplements used in the study. So always make sure you choose a high quality supplement and one without added sugar or fructose.
My favourite natural anti-microbials to have on hand are:
Go Healthy Go-Vir Defence - with olive leaf, garlic, vitamin C, elderberry, zinc, pau d'arco, echinacaea & citrus bioflavanoids - a great combination
Good Health Viralex - olive leaf, astragalus, zinc, vitamin D3, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (probiotic)
Thorne Berberine-500. I’ve found this particularly helpful for bacterial infections.
Nature's way Sambucus Drops Ultra-strength Elderberry - liquid (also great for kids at reduced dose).
NOTE: These products are often used at the very first sign of illness and only until symptoms have resolved. If symptoms persist longer than 2 weeks, please see your health practitioner.
One large trial in adults found a significant reduction in the duration of cold symptoms when a single dose of 8 g was taken on the day of symptom onset (7, 8).
Bioflavanoids found in vitamin C rich foods (brightly coloured veggies, citrus fruits, leafy greens and broccoli) also appear to be highly beneficial, with an impact on viral function (9, 10), and improvement in those with allergies (11).
A fat soluble form of vitamin C called liposomal C is often recommended for better absorption. (12). (Though personally I'm wary of ones in metallic sachets due to potential metal contamination. However it has been said bottled ones could oxidize more quickly).
Most vitamin C supplements (including liposomal) are missing the super-antioxidant benefits of bioflavanoids. So a product like Thorne Research Vitamin C with flavanoids might be a better option. Flavanoids are also reported to help maximize the benefits of vitamin C by inhibiting its breakdown in the body. They have also been shown to benefit those with allergies. For a natural source of vitamin C from Certified organic Acerola Berry try Lifestream Natural Vitamin C powder.
If started within 24 hrs of getting a fever or cold, zinc can shorten the duration of an illness (13).
If you have the beginnings of a sore throat, coating the throat with zinc may also be beneficial and reduce the severity and duration.(14)
Zinc lozenges unfortunately contain some form of sugar so a liquid zinc or zinc oral drops are a great option, especially for kids.
Although zinc is safe if given at the correct dose, you can overdose on it. So if looking to take for a prolonged period, seek help from a health professional first.
A zinc taste test is one way to see how deficient you are. Unfortunately serum blood tests are not very accurate at assessing zinc status. But a zinc and copper blood test is a great way to see if your levels are balanced. Copper blood levels should never be higher than zinc levels.
Zinc is not just beneficial for your immune system (15). It helps balance hormones, supports liver and heart health, aids nutrient absorption & digestion, plus helps muscle growth & repair.
4. Stay hydrated
Keep your cells and mucus membranes hydrated by taking small sips of water throughout the day.
Chamomile tea, elderberry tea, peppermint tea are other alternatives. Lemon (and fresh ginger) tea, with a touch of pure manuka honey can also be beneficial. So are immune boosting bone broth or veggie soups.
Some also add one drop of doTERRA On Guard or peppermint essential oil to 1/2 cup of water and drink. One drop of high quality peppermint oil is the equivalent of 24 cups of peppermint tea! It is very calming, promotes healthy respiratory function and clear breathing, and is great for the digestive system.
5. Have a fever? Try not to suppress it with drugs such as Pamol, Tylenol and Paracetamol!
A fever is an expression of your immune system working at its best. Fever increases the amount of interferon (a natural antiviral and anticancer substance) in the blood. It also increases white blood cells that kill bacteria and infected cells, and it impairs the replication of many bacteria and viruses (16) .
A rise in body temperature is associated with a decrease in mortality and morbidity during an infection (17).
Suppressing a fever may therefore prolong the illness or make it worse! So instead look to provide comfort with blankets and wheat packs if shivering, and tepid (not cold) baths or cool cloths when uncomfortably hot.
Febrile seizures are rare and do not cause long term damage to the brain (18), in fact they may be protective.
So, wherever possible it can be a good idea to avoid suppressing a fever with drugs such as Pamol, Tylenol or Paracetamol.
If pain relief is definitely required then it becomes more challenging as other pain relieving meds that don't reduce a fever (such as ibuprofen) can be quite upsetting (and potentially dangerous) on the stomach
One other tip to consider..
6. Get adjusted!
You may find it interesting to know that (although not conclusive) there are a number of studies that suggest an improvement in the immune system occurs after a chiropractic adjustment. So maybe add chiropractic care to your immune system supporting tool kit. (23, 24, 25, 26).
Regular exercise, reducing stress, probiotics, adequate vitamin D levels, and even sex, may also help reduce the incidence of a cold or flu!
It is important to note that bacteria and viruses don't just go on the attack. They need a susceptible host to thrive.
Just like a seed will not grow on a rock, but will germinate in the right environment with nutrient rich soil, water and sunlight, simply being exposed to a microbe is not enough. It requires your body to provide the right environment and for your body's natural infection fighting tool (your immune system) to not be functioning optimally.
So before you blame your kids or colleague for your illness, instead ask how can I boost my immune system? Then check out "You are 90% bugs, but are you the right kind?" (HINT - your gut health has a lot to do with it!)