by Kristen Rezabek, MS, RD, CD; Master Gardener Class of 2013
As the temperature drops the cold and flu season kicks into high gear. For many of us there are a number of home remedies we use to hopefully prevent the sniffles or at least try and speed up recovery time. Most of these methods can be traced back to word of mouth, advice handed down through the generations. But are these tried and true remedies for curing the common cold or just old wives tales?
Research is limited on the effectiveness of certain “cures,” however there are some foods that do show some promise to help you avoid getting sick. And if you are not so fortunate and do come down with a bug, other nutrients may help you recover faster.
To avoid getting sick this winter, practice common-sense measures such as washing your hands and getting the flu vaccine. Throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands from a variety of sources — direct contact with people, contaminated surfaces, foods, even animals and animal waste. If you don’t clean your hands frequently enough, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. And you can spread these germs to others by touching them or by touching surfaces they also touch, such as doorknobs. Frequent hand washing ensures that if you do come into contact with germs they get washed down the drain rather than introduced into your body.
When it comes to the flu the best prevention is to get your flu shot. Each year approximately 36,000 Americans die of what’s commonly known as the flu, and another 150,000 are hospitalized. If you are an older adult, have diabetes, chronic cardiovascular or lung disease, or an impaired immune system you are more at risk for becoming ill. The best time to receive your flu shot is between mid-October and mid-November. If you are worried about contracting flu from the vaccine, rest assured. The vaccine is made from an inactivated form of the virus. You can’t get the flu from a flu shot. In some cases, you may have a slight reaction to the shot, such as soreness at the injection site, mild muscle aches or fever beginning six to 24 hours after you’ve been immunized. These symptoms may last one to two days.
Nutrition is your second line of defense against the cold and flu season. In general, eating a healthy, well balanced diet ensures your immune system is adequately nourished. A variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, lean meats and legumes all contribute the energy, protein, vitamins and minerals your body needs to function best. There are a few foods that have shown promise for enhancing your immune system including tea, yogurt, and certain vitamins and minerals.
Early research has found that black tea may help reduce your risk of catching the flu. It is thought the natural compounds in the tea called polyphenols bind to the influenza virus. Drinking about 20 ounces of tea daily, but not coffee, helped volunteers avoid infections at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Yogurt and sweet Acidophilus milk have good bacteria, called probiotics. These live cultures may help stimulate the immune system. They’ve long been touted for their ability to help ease diarrhea, but newer studies show they may help with respiratory infections, too. Avoid the dietary supplements in pill form and focus on getting your probiotics from yogurt.
And how about all the hype on vitamin C? The verdict is still out on the effectiveness of Vitamin C. There have been a few studies that indicated a high dose of vitamin C – 1,000 milligrams a day, may slightly reduce the duration of your cold (by about a half a day). One important note, your body can only use about 200 milligrams at a time. To reach 1,000 mg, you would need to take it in smaller doses, two or three times a day. Large doses of vitamin C may result in diarrhea. Results are also inconclusive on Echinacea. Most studies show the herb has no effect on preventing or reducing the symptoms of a cold. People with an auto-immune disease or on chemotherapy should avoid taking Echinacea. A general multi-vitamin with vitamin A and Zinc is usually a good idea and may help prevent infection.
Just because herbs and minerals are “natural,” doesn’t mean they are safe; and just because they have been used for centuries, doesn’t mean they work. If you get sick this winter, be sure to call your doctor before trying to treat yourself at home. Avoid antibiotics, they only fight bacteria – not the viruses that cause colds and flu. And as far as the flu is concerned, your best plan of attack is not to get it at all — get a flu shot instead.
And stick plenty of fluids, an over-the-counter pain reliever for aches and pains, maybe a day or two in bed — and this hearty chicken soup recipe!