By Erin Stair, MD, MPH- Order her new book, a parody on the wellness industry now! Yours in Wellness, Krystal Heeling.
Are there natural tips to fight the flu or other viruses that are effective? The answer is yes. Whether you got the flu vaccine or didn’t get the flu vaccine, below is a list of things you can try to help boost immunity, lessen the severity of flu and cold symptoms and help prevent viral or bacterial illnesses. Also, it’s important to remember how the flu ( or any airborne virus) can be transmitted:
1) Through direct inhalation of droplets: These are larger viral particles that deposit in the upper respiratory tract, but are too large to navigate to your lungs.
2) Through the inhalation of aerosols: These are are tiny viral droplets that are small enough to be inhaled AND reach your lungs.
3)Contact transmission: Viral particles are transferred to your mucous membranes directly or indirectly through an object or other person. Fomite is the name for an object that can transmit an infectious disease.
The virus most often spreads through tiny droplets in the air when someone sneezes, spits or coughs. This means that in most cases, close contact with infected folks is the biggest risk factor for becoming infected with the flu.
My list of Natural Tips for Fighting the Flu
1) Carry around a natural hand sanitizer in your pocket or purse to naturally fight the flu and common cold and wash your hands frequently
When I did my internal medicine rotation at a hospital in Brooklyn, my Attending physician told me, “We get sick because we have holes, and things get in our holes that make us sick. And people use their hands and things get on their hands, and then they stick their hands with those things on them in their holes.”
It was both crude and brilliant, and most importantly, he’s right. The “holes” he was speaking about were your nostrils, mouth, ears and, of course, the ones down south. Since then, I’ve always carried a small, portable bottle of natural hand sanitizer, and I use it consistently. Every day I’m out and about with my pup Barnaby in New York City, a place with lots of people and lots of germs. Whether I’m at the dog park, mailing something at the post office, using an ATM machine, or paying for something at the store, I use my hand sanitizer. I’m also mindful to never touch my mouth, ears, nose or eyes until I thoroughly wash my hands or use the hand sanitizer.
How transmissible is the flu from objects? It depends on several factors, such as the type of object and how often the object is touched. Obviously an object that is touched a lot risks transmitting the flu versus an object that is not touched a lot. The flu can survive for a longer time on hard surfaces than porous surfaces. Bean et al. did a study that showed that both Influenza A and B can survive on stainless steel and plastic for up to 48 hours. However, Influenza A and B survived only 8-12 hours on more porous objects, such as paper, cloth and cotton. Once the virus was transferred from an object ( the environment) to one’s hands, the virus survived for approximately five minutes on the hands. It’s worth noting that if human secretions ( for example, nasal secretions from kids) are on the objects, the flu can survive a lot longer.
2) For close contact situations, wear a face mask.
Close contact with an infected individual is your biggest risk factor for getting the flu, or any airborne virus. If I’m going to be in a crowd for an extended period of time during flu season or a viral outbreak, I put on a face mask. For example, if I take the bus from Port Authority to visit my family in Trucksville, Pa, I’ll wear a face mask. I’ll be sitting close to multiple strangers, and one, or all of them, could be infected. It’s an ideal time to dawn the face mask. Wearing a face mask in public might make you feel self conscious and make people treat you like you have smallpox, but a brief moment of social awkwardness is worth not catching a viral illness. Also, I promise you will have a 99% increased chance of getting you own seat, with room to stretch your legs.
Are face masks effective? The evidence suggests they are. One randomized controlled trial compared the efficacy of face masks in families with children who showed flu-like symptoms. Many folks were not compliant, but individuals who were compliant with wearing face masks had an 80% reduced risk of catching the flu. Also, the type of mask did not show a statistically significant difference, meaning individuals who wore surgical masks and individuals who wore P2 respirator masks both showed a reduced risk of contracting influenza. Also, the mask PLUS diligent hand-washing combination seems to be the most preventive strategy. A randomized controlled trial showed that family members who wore surgical masks AND practiced diligent hand washing within 36 hours of a family member showing signs/symptoms of the flu, significantly reduced their risk of becoming infected by 67%.
3) Use Elderberry ( Sambucus nigra )
Many wellness proponents use Elderberry to naturally fight the flu and other viruses (like the common cold). It’s a wellness guru’s favorite when it comes to natural tips to fight the flu. While most evidence is anecdotal, there are a few randomized controlled trials to support its use. One RCT involving 60 adults with flu-like symptoms showed that taking 15 ml of Elderberry syrup four times a day for 5 days showed a significant reduction of symptoms and significantly less use of rescue medication. Another double-blind RCT showed that air travelers who supplemented with Elderberry had a shorter duration of cold/flu symptoms ( 2 days less) than air travelers taking a placebo. They also had a significantly less symptom severity score ( 247) than the placebo group ( 583). The dose used in this study was 1 capsule of 300 mg Elderberry extract twice a day for 10 days prior to scheduled trip, followed by 1 capsule of 300 mg Elderberry extract three times a day for day of trip up until 4 days after trip. Essentially, you’re talking about 600-900 mg of Elderberry extract/day.
4) I wasn’t impressed with Echinacea as a natural tip to fight the flu.
I know Echinacea is very popular during cold and flu season, but there are several published randomized controlled trials on its effectiveness, and after reading those, I’m not impressed. I’m not saying don’t use Echinacea. Perhaps the dosing was subpar in the studies or the study populations weren’t optimal. I’m only saying that I wasn’t impressed and wouldn’t rely on it doing much.
5) Raw Honey Garlic ( Allium sativum) Cloves
I’m obsessed with garlic and eat it every morning during flu/cold season. While I don’t like to label any food as “super,” if I had to choose one, it would be garlic. It is well studied for its anticancer, antihypertensive and immune system boosting effects. In relation to flu/cold symptoms, one randomized controlled trial showed that garlic significantly reduced common cold occurrences. In the trial involving 146 volunteers, one group took a daily supplement of 180 mg of garlic ( Allium sativum)/ day for 12 weeks and the other group took a placebo. The garlic group had significantly less colds ( 24) compared to the placebo group ( 65).
I mentioned that I eat garlic in the morning, and I realize that sounds unappealing to most. To make it go down easier, I coat raw garlic cloves with raw, unpasteurized honey. I’ve written a ton about honey and how I use it as a significant part of my skincare routine. Honey has a lot of antiviral and antimicrobial properties, but only when it’s unpasteurized. Pasteurized honey destroys the enzymes ( proteins) that are responsible for most of its antimicrobial effects. Here is a video of me on Instagram eating some. I practice what I preach. 😉
6) Another natural tip to fight the flu and cold: Add these essential oils to steam or a shower
If you read my last post on the Neti pot, you’ll already know that I’m a fan of steam inhalation. Ever since I was diagnosed with asthma in my early twenties, I’ve done steam treatments. I’m not talking anything fancy. It’s a boiling pot of water, a towel over my head, and I inhale. 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before I go to bed at night. Respiratory symptoms often get worse when we sleep, so I highly recommend steam treatments before bedtime. I often add essential oils to the boiling water. Around flu/cold time I add thymus scented lemon ( Thymus sipyleus) and Wormwood ( Artemisia capillaris ). Thymus is shown to have antimicrobial activity against bacterial strains that cause sinus infections and symptoms. Wormwood is shown to have antimicrobial activity against strains that cause upper respiratory infections.
7) Take 46 mg of Zinc followed by 23 mg of Zinc/ 2 hours when cold symptoms start
Zinc supplementation is a solid natural tip to fight the flu. A double blind, randomized controlled trial showed that swallowing 46 mg of Zinc supplements ( lozenges) when cold symptoms initially start ( a loading dose) followed by 23 mg Zinc supplements every 2 hours for up to 7 days significantly reduces cold symptoms and duration by almost 50% when compared to placebo. Zinc is vital for a myriad of health conditions. If you don’t like supplements, meat and shell fish contain high levels of Zinc. If you are like me and don’t eat meat, eating nuts, hemp seeds and chickpeas will boost your Zinc level.
8) For the love of God, wash your hands, and don’t touch your nose, eyes or mouth until you do.
This is the easiest, yet least conducted, natural tip to fight the flu and cold. And while you’re at it, cover your mouth when you cough. I recently joked that we should bring back the Knockout Game for people who don’t cover their mouths when they cough. Wait…was I joking? 😉
9) If feverish, try Boneset ( Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Let me make it clear that there aren’t any decent studies on the effectiveness of Boneset for fever or as a natural tip to fight the flu. That said, it’s been used for years and years by Native Americans and was used by the early North American settlers to break fevers. The reason Eupatorium perfoliatum is called Bonset is because it seemed to ease joint pain associated with fevers known as “break-bone-fevers.” ( I love how names are born. 🙂 ) Some speculate the sesquiterpen lactones ( ethanolic extracts) in Boneset are responsible for its anti-inflammatory effects ( reduced fever and reduced joint pain.) If you want to try it, drink as a hot tea when you start to feel sick or feverish.
10) Avoid all Caffeine and Sleep
This is the optimal way. I know we live in a crazy world where folks don’t sleep, even when sick, and use a ton of caffeine-infused-over-the-counter flu/cold medicine to stay awake, go to work and do whatever it is we have to do. The problem is that caffeine, in the cold/flu sense, is a false prophet. It’s a temporary fix, but it ultimately slows down recovery. Caffeine has a very long half life and can keep you awake well after ingesting it. Our immune system is most active when we sleep, so we are better off drinking a lot of caffeine-free hot liquids, turning off all phones and computers, calling in sick, and sleeping as much as possible. A study published in JAMA showed that individuals who slept less than 7 hours/night were 3 times as likely to develop a cold than those who slept at least 8 hours a night. How well one sleeps matters too. The same study showed that individuals with less than 92% sleep efficiency were 5.5 times more likely to develop a cold than those who had 98% sleep efficiency or more..
11) If you have a lot of mucus, stuffiness and/or sinus issues, cut out dairy and wheat & try this
Take it from a FroYo lover: In my experience, foods with dairy and/or wheat cause increased mucus production. If you’re battling a lot of mucus and/or that stuffiness feeling in your nose, ears or sinuses, I highly recommend cutting out all dairy and wheat for two days. Do a fruit, vegetable and broth fast instead. During the two day fast, drink a lot of hot lemon drinks. I also recommend this “snack”: tiny slices of horseradish root dipped in Apple Cider vinegar. ONLY eat a LITTLE as it’s a STRONG combo and can be overwhelming. If you suffer from chronic sinus issues (which can lead to lots of sinus infections), I recommend heftily reducing dairy and wheat in your diet.
12) Functional Food Recipes as Natural Tips to Fight the Flu
If you have these ingredients in the kitchen, feel free to make & try to help with cold & flu symptoms:
1 stick of Cinnamon, 1 teaspoon Coriander Seeds; 2 teaspoons Fresh Ginger ; 4 Cloves; Fresh Lemon Juice; 1 teaspoon organic honey. Make as a tea and drink.
*I will update this blog as I learn and research other natural ways to fight the flu. Remember, research is important. Having evidence to back up a particular health claim is super important.
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If you want a book to read while you’re lying in bed, though my book Manic Kingdom might keep you up! 😉