Cold and Flu Season – Natural Keys to Prevention
(Featured as a three-part series in Lifestyles 55)
The colder, shorter days of autumn and winter can make us more vulnerable to the viruses that cause colds and flu, including the rhinovirus (colds) and the influenza virus (flu). Let me help you stay well this season with some healthy lifestyle tips.
Wash Your Hands
Viruses spread by contact. Computer keyboards, cell phones, door handles, railings, shaking hands, and even touching serving utensils at a buffet are all common ways we're exposed to viruses. Simply using a pen at the bank or grocery store can expose you to a considerable number of germs, so at peak cold and flu season, I recommend carrying your own pen with you. Be aware of the surfaces you touch throughout the day and wash your hands often.
I don't recommend antibacterial soaps as many contain triclosan, a chemical that can increase certain bacteria levels. Any conventional liquid or bar soap with warm water will do the trick. A quick rinse isn't enough though, be sure to rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds and remember to scrub under your nails. If you don't have easy access to a washroom, hand sanitizers that use natural ingredients including essential oils or citrus seed extracts are effective. I also recommend regular use of natural sanitizing sprays that can be used to clean items you routinely touch like your computer peripherals and phone.
Don't Touch Your Face
A University of California study found that most people touch their face about 16 times per hour. Simply becoming aware of this and avoiding touching your face (including your eyes, nose, and lips) can reduce your exposure to viruses and lower your risk of infection. (1)
Regular exercise has been shown to decrease the risk of colds and flu by up to 50%. A study of over 1000 people confirmed that just 20 minutes a day of walking for five days a week resulted in 43% fewer sick days when compared to those who exercised one day a week or less. Those that did get sick had milder symptoms, with the flu or cold having a shorter duration. (2) Walking in specially-designed kybun footwear has the additional benefits of strengthening the foot muscles, improving balance, and reducing knee, back, hip, and neck pain. Walking more often can help get your heart rate up and is easy to incorporate into any daily routine.
Long aerobic sessions are generally not recommended, and extreme exercise can actually decrease immunity. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is not only the most efficient method of aerobic exercise, it also brings the greatest overall health benefits. HIIT consists of alternating short periods of intense exercise with periods of low or moderate-intensity training. For more information, I recommend the book Fast Exercise by Dr. Michael Mosely which explains in detail the amazing health benefits of this time-saving exercising method.
Improve Sleep and Reduce Stress
Sleep may be the most important aspect of a healthy lifestyle, greatly enhancing our immune system's ability to fight infection. Most people need between eight and nine hours of sleep for sufficient production of natural killer cells which are critical to our immune response to pathogens, including viruses. A sleep survey published in Life Science found that those who slept five hours or less had a 28% higher risk of a cold, and an 82% higher risk of the flu, pneumonia, or ear infection as compared to those who got seven or eight hours. I also recommend power naps or meditation for 15-30 minutes each day, which can help recharge the immune system, especially if you work in a stressful environment.
You can enhance the quality of your sleep by choosing a mattress made of organic Dunlop latex with wool quilted under the organic cotton cover to balance body temperature and reduce pressure points that can interrupt sleep. To further improve the health benefits of sleep, consider using a mattress protector made of Celliant fibre, proven to facilitate healing by increasing blood oxygenation and circulation.
Avoiding blue light at night can also make a tremendous difference in sleep quality. For bedroom and nightstand lamps, I recommend using LED bulbs that remove the blue portion of the light spectrum which negatively affects the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Special orange-tinted glasses are available as an alternative way to shield your eyes from blue light. There are also natural L-tryptophan supplements that work especially well when combined with the glasses or light bulbs.
A study of 294 college students presented at the 50th Scientific Assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians found that those who regularly performed nasal irrigation had a significant reduction in colds when compared to the untreated or placebo groups. An important part of traditional yoga cleansing rituals, the process involves making a saline solution by dissolving salt in water and using either a small teapot type device called a neti pot, or a more modern nasal irrigator like the Nasaline, which I prefer. For even better results, I recommend combining xylitol and baking soda with the salt. Xylitol is a natural sugar derived from birch bark or corn cobs that helps keep bacteria from adhering to the mucous membranes of the nasal passages. Nasal rinsing can also help reduce the duration and intensity of a cold or flu if you do happen to catch one.
Gum disease (or periodontitis) is caused by subgingival plaque (below the gum line). In the past, the associated bacteria which causes chronic inflammation was thought only to be a contributing factor to tooth loss. But now it's known that the gum bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis increases the inflammatory load, impairing our ability to effectively fight many diseases, including colds and flu. According to Maurizio Tonetti at the University of Hong Kong, periodontitis is the most prevalent disease of mankind, and is linked to a wide range of health conditions including arthritis, Parkinson's disease, kidney disease, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, macular degeneration, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and many other serious illnesses. Treating gum disease has been shown to help with diabetes management as much as adding a second drug to the treatment program. It's amazing how a single microbe is linked to so many health concerns, and it's important to be consistent in our daily routines and make choices that help maintain good oral health.
Choose a manual toothbrush like the Collis Curve that can effectively remove subgingival plaque where the gum and teeth meet (called the sulcus), or an electric toothbrush like the 30 Second Smile that uses the proper 45-degree angle to brush your teeth and gums. Use of a water irrigator like Hydrofloss has been proven to remove 65% more subgingival plaque than similar devices. Finally, be sure to floss after each meal, and use a proxy brush to remove food particles from between your teeth.
Caloric restriction from periods of fasting can boost the body's immune response with a wide variety of proven health benefits: even restricting calories by 10%-30% can make a big difference. To learn more about intermittent fasting, I recommend The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and The Fast Diet from Dr. Michael Moseley.
I recommend combining intermittent fasting (I fast every Monday and Thursday) with some of the dietary supplements featured in next month's article. In Part II I will outline the importance of beneficial bacteria and gastrointestinal microbiota, and how healthful food choices and dietary supplements can help reduce both the incidence and duration of colds and flu when combined with the lifestyle solutions detailed here.
Last month I highlighted several lifestyle factors that can help reduce the risk of catching a cold including nasal rinsing, hand washing, and stress reduction. This month, I'll outline other important factors for keeping the immune system strong and lowering the risk of getting the sniffles: maintaining a healthy indoor environment and balanced levels of gut bacteria.
Humidify the Air: The Benefits of Humidification
Humidity plays a key role in our effort to manage an ideal indoor environment for optimum health. A humidifier helps protect and maintain the most important of air purifiers – our own bodies! This time of year, we're constantly exposed to dry air. Our indoor climate must be humidified in fall and winter to maintain a healthy living space.
Humidifiers use either ultrasonic, evaporation, or steam technology, with models that can humidify rooms up to 1000 square feet. Steam and evaporative units are excellent choices, but generally produce higher sound levels than ultrasonic models. Ultrasonic systems are the quietest, making them ideal for bedrooms. I recommend models that use demineralization granules to reduce white mineral dust, which can be an issue with ultrasonic machines. Steam and evaporative humidifiers do not require demineralization.
Winter air dries out our eyes, nose, and mucous membranes, increasing susceptibility to airborne pathogens including viruses and bacteria. Proper humidification can help boost immune function and help speed up recovery from colds and flu. In addition, our windpipe's natural self-cleansing function is affected by dry air, contributing to infection and respiratory tract complaints. Managing humidity levels can help alleviate dry air passages and nasal membranes, allowing for better rest. Plenty of rest enables the body to recover sooner.
Clean the Air
Exposure to airborne pathogens like viruses and bacteria increases the risk of infection, but dust mites, pollen, and mold spores can all be hazardous to our health.
HEPA air purifiers have traditionally been the most popular air filtration solution, as HEPA filters can trap bacteria, viruses, mold spores, and common allergy triggers. HEPA filters are unable to kill bacteria present in the air and on indoor surfaces. An effective alternative to the mechanical design of HEPA filters, new technologies that use hydroxyl radicals can kill many airborne and surface contaminants including mold spores, viruses, and dust mites.
Immune Boosting Foods and Dietary Supplements
There is a very strong link between immune system function and a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria. With 70%-80% of immune cells located in the gut, this relationship is currently one of the most active areas of medical research. Studies published in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine found that probiotic supplements can help prevent colds, while other studies have shown they can reduce the frequency and duration of effects from gastrointestinal disorders and respiratory disease.
Sometimes called 'friendly flora', good bacteria are proven to help the body fight invading viruses and 'bad' bacteria, reducing the risk of colds and flu. Other benefits can include improvements with inflammation, cardiovascular health, weight management, and skin conditions. Healthy gut bacteria increase the absorption of minerals and vitamins from the food we eat. Growing scientific evidence suggests a strong 'gut-brain' connection, and that our gut health plays a role in keeping us happy. Lower levels of good bacteria are associated with anxiety, depression, as well as learning and memory problems.
Lactobacillus paracasei 8700:2 and Lactobacillus plantarum HEAL9 are probiotic strains that have been clinically studied to help reduce the incidence, symptoms, and severity of the common cold. Probiotics produced using a natural fermentation process including products from Dr. Ohhira's, Olie Naturals, and Living Alchemy have a wide range of beneficial bacteria that can help improve every aspect of our health.
There are a number of things that can interfere with the production of good bacteria. Problems may develop from the use of antibacterial mouthwashes, chlorinated water, colon cleanses, antibiotics, and medications like antidepressants, sleeping pills, and acid reflux drugs. Stress, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, artificial sweeteners, refined foods, and sugar may also affect gut microbiota.
I recommend choosing foods and supplements that increase good gut bacteria. A study from King's College London found that a single glass of red wine per week can increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiota, thanks to the naturally occurring polyphenols.
In addition to probiotic supplements, try to include more fermented foods in your diet, and foods that are high in resistant starch and soluble fibre. Also called 'prebiotics', soluble fibre and resistant starch essentially provide food for the good bacteria.
Some great examples of foods high in soluble fibre include Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, blueberries, and cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. Legumes and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh are also healthy options.
Resistant starch is created by allowing certain foods like rice and potatoes to cool after cooking, which causes the starch to resist digestion and act like non-digestible soluble fibre. When you reheat after cooling, the starch becomes resistant to digestion and is converted by gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids, which can help keep you feeling full longer, lower insulin levels, and assist with weight loss.
Excellent supplemental sources of soluble fibre (also called FOS for fructooligosaccharides) include hydrolyzed inulin (found in Fiberrific) and resistant starch. Produced in Manitoba, MSPrebiotic is a resistant starch derived from potatoes. Research indicates that soluble fibre prebiotics (like inulin) increase beneficial bacteria in the upper portion of the large bowel, while resistant starch increases beneficial bacteria, and boosts production of short chain fatty acids like butyrate in the lower bowel. Butyrate provides fuel for the cells of our gut lining, supports immune system functions of the colon wall, and protects against diseases of the digestive tract. Combining a quality probiotic with these prebiotics is referred to as synbiotics, which delivers the greatest health benefits by providing not only good bacteria, but all the necessary elements that allow the beneficial bacteria to thrive.
To complement the effects of prebiotics and probiotics, I recommend taking a multivitamin with each meal and incorporating foods high in plant sterols that help balance the immune system including legumes, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and rice bran solubles.
Herbs with powerful immune properties include olive leaf complex, garlic, Andrographis, Echinacea, astragalus, and pine cone extract. Studies confirm that deficiencies in zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin C are associated with a higher incidence of infection, so making these supplements part of your daily regimen is also recommended to help maintain healthy immune function.
Next month, I'll discuss vitamins, minerals, and herbs designed to shorten the duration of a cold or flu, should you catch one.
Part III: Top Natural Products for Cold and Flu Prevention
At the height of cold and flu season, many people seek out supplements with immune-boosting properties to prevent or curtail a cold. There are a lot of vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements that have powerful immune-balancing benefits: I've chosen to highlight a few of the most important ones here.
Minerals: Zinc, iodine, selenium, and magnesium are among the most important minerals; all are critical co-factors for ensuring optimum immune function. Deficiencies of all four are common even with a healthy diet, so supplementation is important. Studies confirm that zinc supplements can cut the time it takes to recover from a cold or flu in half. As zinc is not stored in the body, I recommend a minimum of 45 mg daily (15 mg taken with each meal), especially during cold and flu season. I generally suggest taking 300-400 mg of elemental magnesium (as glycinate, malate, or threonate), 200 mcg of selenium, and at least 2 mg of iodine per day as well. My favorite zinc and magnesium supplement is Magnesium Synergy from AOR which combines all these minerals with additional cofactors for enhanced absorption.
Vitamin A: A deficiency of vitamin A is associated with an increased incidence of infectious diseases, including colds and flu. A diet rich in colourful vegetables should provide enough, but to ensure adequate levels I recommend a daily multivitamin that contains at least 10,000 IU of "preformed" vitamin A (retinol acetate or retinol palmitate). While beta-carotene (the form found in plants) can be converted to preformed vitamin A by the body, as much as 47% of the population can have problems with the conversion, potentially leading to deficiencies.
Vitamin C: Made famous by Linus Pauling, the only physicist to win two Nobel prizes, many studies have found that high doses of vitamin C can help prevent colds and flu, and shorten the duration should you catch one. I recommend 4000 mg per day in divided doses, combined with a quality probiotic. Transport C-PLUS (a patented vitamin C formula) adds alpha-lipoic acid and threonic acid to maintain blood levels up to twelve hours while enhancing absorption.
Vitamin D: Sometimes called the sunshine vitamin, as it's naturally produced by the skin when exposed to the sun, vitamin D boosts production of antimicrobial peptides. These natural antibiotics help destroy viruses and bacteria. Regular sun exposure is best and is my first recommendation. Alternatively, daily use of a vitamin D lamp can be very helpful. When sun exposure isn't possible (or practical), I recommend supplementing with 5000 IU per day in the summer and 10,000 IU in the winter. As vitamin D is also an important cofactor for the absorption of calcium, I always recommend combining vitamin D with a minimum of 180-240 mcg of vitamin K2 daily. K2 works to ensure that the calcium from your diet and supplements goes into your bones and doesn't build up in your arteries.
Garlic: One of the most versatile natural products, the compound allicin derived from garlic has powerful antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antibiotic, and anticancer properties. A placebo-controlled study found those taking garlic supplements had a 63% lower risk of getting a cold or flu, and if they did get a cold, the duration was 70% shorter. Excellent garlic products include Kyolic Immuni-Shield and Allimax, a high-potency garlic supplement.
Epicor: Derived from brewer's yeast, Epicor was discovered by accident. A company that used it in animal feed found that employees exposed to it rarely took sick days. One capsule per day can help your immune system more effectively deal with pathogens that cause disease.
Pycnogenol: With a wide range of amazing health benefits, one recent study found that taking 50 mg of this maritime pine bark extract twice a day at the start of a cold resulted in faster recovery. Participants had fewer lost work days, reduced demand for treatments, and a shorter duration of symptoms including sore throat, sneezing, running nose, and coughing.
Astragalus: A powerful immune-enhancing herb that can help prevent catching a cold or flu, Astragalus can help the immune system ward off the flu virus. Recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil, you'll find it in some of the better natural cold and flu formulas. In addition to its immune properties, compounds found in astragalus root have been shown to help slow the aging process.
Andrographis: Whenever I'm asked about the popular cold and flu remedy Echinacea, I recommend Andrographis. Studies have shown a 50% improvement in cold symptoms when compared to placebo. 'Echinacea on steroids', Andrographis is one of the most powerful and effective herbs for upper respiratory diseases. One study which used 1200 mg per day resulted in a high degree of relief of the common cold by the second day. An excellent formula that can help speed recovery is CanPrev Cold-Pro which combines Andrographis with Echinacea, astragalus, ginseng, and reishi mushroom.
Forsythia, Honeysuckle and Skullcap: Long used in traditional Chinese medicine, this combination of three herbs has antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Available as Prairie Naturals Cold & Cough, it's been shown to produce an 83% reduction in cold systems in only three days. It's also excellent for children, with over 2000 clinical trials proving effectiveness.
Olive Leaf Complex: While olive leaf extract is known to help lower blood pressure and boost the immune system, olive leaf complex as a liquid is a super antioxidant with powerful antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiparasitic activity. I find it works especially well for colds, flu, and other respiratory infections. Also recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil, olive leaf can increase natural killer cell function and may be effective at reducing the viral load in the bloodstream.
Plant Sterols: Naturally-occurring fats found in seeds, nuts, grains, and legumes, plant sterols have immune-balancing benefits and can also help with allergy relief, cholesterol levels, and blocking production of the enzyme linked to hair loss and prostate problems. Rice bran solubles are nature's richest food source and are an inexpensive, great-tasting, nutrient-dense food. For supplemental plant sterols, choose enteric-coated capsules with at least 100 mg of beta-sitosterol.
European Elderberry: Elderberry extract has been shown to decrease the duration of the flu by 50%, or by about three days when taken within 24 hours of the start of symptoms. Immunity from Douglas Labs is an impressive formula that contains elderberry, Andrographis, astragalus, vitamin C, vitamin D, garlic, Japanese honeysuckle, and reishi mushroom.
Black Cumin Seed Oil (BCO): Also known as Nigella sativa or black seed oil, BCO is considered by many health professionals to be the single most powerful healing oil, with anti-microbial, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, anti-histaminic, analgesic, and liver-protective properties. BCO has been used to help reduce the incidence of bronchitis, diabetes, hypertension, migraines, male infertility, hair loss, allergies, and asthma, with bronchodilatory effects that help relieve wheezing and improve lung function.
Oregano Oil: Four to six drops can help ease throat infections and cough and cold symptoms. If you find the taste too strong, dilute 5-10 drops in a couple of tablespoons of water, hold in your mouth for 30 seconds and swallow. I recommend products that are a 50/50 blend of oregano and olive oil, with a total carvacrol concentration of 35%-40%. An impressive oregano oil product that can shorten the duration of a cold or flu is Oregano-8 Cold and Flu from Platinum Naturals which combines oregano oil with garlic, zinc, and five other synergistic ingredients.
Bee Propolis: One of the most effective natural products for relieving sore throat and oral infections is bee propolis. GH2002 is a clinically studied extract which is available as capsules. I recommend combining the capsules with a spray for the best results.
ProLigna Pine Cone Extract: Pine cone extract has a long history of usage around the world, particularly in Japan. Fourteen patents and over 31 peer-reviewed studies support its use for immune enhancement. A single small capsule per day has kept me cold and virus free for over two years.
Whether you're looking for prevention or relief from symptoms, these are just some of the safe and effective natural products available to help you stay healthy this cold and flu season.
References & Supporting Scientific Studies
(1) 'A study quantifying the hand-to-face contact rate and its potential application to predicting respiratory tract infection'. J Occup Environ Hyg. 2008 Jun.
(2) 'Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults'. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2011 Nov.
Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2016-2019. First published October 2016, last major revision in November 2019. Nathan Zassman is a trained nutrition practitioner and the owner of Aviva Natural Health Solutions.