By Elaine Everitt BSc(Hons) DO LicAc - Medical Herbalist, Osteopath, and Acupuncturist.
It's that time of year again...
After an indulgent Christmas break of late nights, excess food and alcohol, we can find that our New Year’s resolutions of detoxing, taking part in ‘dry January’, cultivating better sleep habits, healthy eating and more exercise are thwarted by the arrival of the dreaded winter cold and flu.
This January is reported to have the highest levels of flu since 2010-11.
Adults and children alike come to our clinic and Pippettes dispensary with runny noses, blocked sinuses, aching joints, back pain, headaches, ear-aches and more, all looking for something to ease these wintery woes.
While it is always easy in hindsight to advise on how to help prevent catching cold or flu by boosting your immunity, good nutrition, exercise and sleep, the facts show that certain factors during the winter make us far more vulnerable.
When the weather is cold and daylight hours are short, we produce less vitamin D (which helps boost immunity) and we gravitate to warmth and cosiness where other people are in closer contact. Viruses love this as they can spread more easily. Fans and hot air circulate them freely in enclosed spaces and researchers at MIT tell us that a good old sneeze can spread 100,000 airborne droplets (laden with germs) over a distance of 200 feet at a speed of over 10mph. If you don’t cover your nose and mouth it’s like germ warfare!
Staying out in the cold doesn’t help much either as viruses survive for longer in cool temperatures and dry air. Read this really interesting article on the BBC website.
Research tells us two interesting facts: when we females moan that we are cold – we are! Women do feel the cold more and it does make us more vulnerable to illness. Women prefer a temperature 3 degrees C higher than men. A 2015 study from Maastricht University found that while men prefer a temperature of 22 degrees C (71.6 degrees F), women thrive at 25 degrees C (77 degrees F).
"When core body temperature drops, the body shuts down blood flow to the extremities to protect internal organs," says Mike Tipton, a Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth. "This makes your hands and feet cold – and this response happens at a lower temperature in women than men."
One reason for the extra sensitivity might be to protect any pregnancies. Men also tend to have more muscle mass and the movement of muscles creates heat. This allows men to generate an estimated 35% more heat than women do.
Top tips for the cold and flu season
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Keep up the intake of fluids, including herbal teas.
Aim for at least 8-10 8 oz. glasses daily. Avoid sugary drinks, caffeine (which is a diuretic), and alcohol, which can suppress your immune system and dehydrate you.
For better breathing and less coughing, it is also important to keep the mucous membranes well hydrated. Drink as much water as possible during the day (hot or warm liquids are best if you are ill), and drink a cup of warm water, honey and lemon, or Pippettes Relaxation or Protection herb tea before you go to bed. Keep a glass of water and some soothing cough syrup by your bed.
To keep the airways hydrated, it is also important to think about the humidity in your bedroom. Moist air will help, and in winter, with central heating on, the air in our homes can become very dry which helps viruses survive longer.
You can buy humidifiers to remedy this, and this is worth considering if you have a lot of respiratory issues, but if you have a one-off cold, just placing a bowl of water on your radiator will help.
Chicken soup is good: your Nana was right!
Scienctific research actually backs this old-fashioned notion. Chicken soup contains cysteines, which thin mucus. Spike it with garlic (to kill germs) and hot red pepper flakes (to clear congestion).
Take some Vitamin C
The research on Vitamin C is inconclusive. It doesn’t appear to help prevent colds, but it seems to reduce symptoms. To boost your immune system, take a dose of around 1000-3000mg for a short period of time and spread throughout the day. The best vitamin C is from fruit extracts, especially berries, so look for a supplement made from these.
Take some Zinc
Zinc lozenges appear to help reduce cold symptoms if you start taking them as soon as you detect sickness and only short term. They are most effective as a lozenge where they make contact with the rhinovirus in the throat for longer but can have side effects of nausea. Try to find ones that contain 15-25 mg of Zinc Gluconate per lozenge.
Unpasteurised (raw) honey is an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant. It boosts immunity and suppresses coughs,
Salt water nasal spray or rinse
Salt-water helps to reduce nasal congestion while removing virus particles and bacteria. Buy a premade spray or mix the following solution: ¼ tsp salt and ¼ tsp baking soda in 8 oz. boiled, filtered, or distilled warm water. Fill a bulb syringe or a Neti pot and squirt into one nostril while plugging the other. Let it drain and repeat before rinsing the other nostril.
The reason we struggle to sleep with a cold is primarily due to gravity and hydration. Once we lie down flat, the excess mucus in the sinuses and head create far more pressure than when sitting up. This makes it harder to breathe, causes more pain in the head, and we have to breathe through our mouth which then dries out the throat and leads to coughing spasms. It's also particularly important when ill to limit exposure to bright light from computers, tablets and smartphones in the evening as much as possible. For more on sleep hygiene and good sleep habits, this article from A.Vogel is great.
HERBS TO SUPPORT THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
The best way to treat a cough and cold is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Stay away from people who are infected, ensure you are fully rested and include plenty of herbs in your diet that build long-term immunity such as medicinal mushrooms including Reishi, and strengthening herbs like Tulsi (Holy Basil) and Ashwagandha.
If you start to feel those familiar signs of a cold - the runny nose, sneezing and headaches, turn to immune stimulants like Elderberry and Echinacea to help ward it off and also reduce the length of the cold.
To reduce runny noses, mucous coughs and headaches try stimulants such as Ginger, Liquorice, Thyme, and Cinnamon,
A popular herb whose root is used to help prevent viral infections by boosting the immune system. The chemicals contained in the root differ considerably from those in the upper part of the plant. For example, the roots have high concentrations of volatile oils (odorous compounds) while the above-ground parts of the plant tend to contain more polysaccharides (substances known to trigger the activity of the immune system). The combination of these active substances is responsible for Echinacea's beneficial effects, though research suggests that the above ground portion of Echinacea purpurea is the most effective.
There have been a lot of trials on the efficacy and generally the consensus is that it can help reduce the duration but does little for the symptoms – this is where other herbs such as Elderberry, Thyme, Liquorice and Peppermint can help. I often recommend some Echinacea together with some other herbs to my patients at the change of the seasons from Autumn to Winter and Winter to Spring when we are often more tired and run down and susceptible to infection. Read more about Echinacea as a herbal remedy for colds.
A ubiquitous hedgerow plant, once known as the ‘medicine chest of the common people’ and still a favourite in Europe for fighting the common cold. These dark purple berries are a rich source of Vitamin C, anthocyanins and flavonoids, all of which are powerful antioxidants that protect the body from immunity-damaging free radicals. Elderberries have a strong affinity for the respiratory system and encourage the process of expectoration reducing acute and chronic mucous congestion. Their sweet juices are incredibly soothing and coat the mucous membranes, alleviating sore throats and irritating coughs. Elderberries have also been shown to halt a virus’s ability to proliferate (by neutralising the neuraminidase enzyme that many flu drugs target) and prevent viral replication in the respiratory mucous membranes. Amazingly it neutralises 10 strains of flu virus. Use elderberry at the first sign of contact
Pippettes combines Elderberry with Echinacea to make a tasty syrup to help prevent or fight off viral attacks and speed up recovery.
You can pick the berries in the Autumn and make a syrup, but never eat them raw.
Stimulating, warming, pungent, aromatic and sweet it is an ideal remedy for this time of year to help get us through the last of the cold weather, boost the circulation and raise the spirits. It’s commonly added to hot drinks for the treatment of colds and flus, not just for its warming and diaphoretic qualities but for its potent antibacterial and antiviral activity as well. This fantastic article explains so much about it.
Whether fresh from your garden, dried, infused or an organic essential oil, it’s such a useful herb to have on standby in the event that you fall ill with a cold or flu. Thyme has long been known as an expectorant, which makes coughs more productive so your lungs are clearer.
- Try brewing a Thyme herbal tea by steeping 2 teaspoons of fresh Thyme in a cup of boiling hot water for 10 minutes.
- A Thyme steam inhalation can help loosen the mucous on your chest: Toss a handful of dried Thyme or 3-5 drops of Thyme essential oil into a bowl of hot water and lean over the bowl, covering both your head and the bowl with a towel.
- Or Pippettes Liquorice & Thyme Herbal Syrup is a wonderful addition to your medicine cabinet as it not only frees up the mucous but fights bacteria and soothes sore throats. Suitable for children and adults.
- Or follow this lovely recipe from one of my favourite sites.
A popular North American herb that contains the glycocide amygdalin that has the ability to dampen down the cough reflex. A wonderful remedy is our Pippettes Cherry Cough Syrup at night to stop a dry tickling cough but not to be used in large amounts and not suitable for children under 2 or during pregnancy.
Used for centuries due to its strong antimicrobial qualities this herb is guaranteed to boost your immunity and likely get you noticed – or smelt. A number of studies have shown that it wards off viruses responsible for colds and flu symptoms and in 2011 a trial showed that a supplement daily of allicin extract made it less likely to get infected and those unlucky enough to catch a cold got over it more quickly. However, look carefully at what you are purchasing as allicin powdered extract is the most effective.
- Try slicing a clove into some organic virgin olive oil and raw apple cider vinegar for a healthy dressing on vegetables or salad daily to promoter your immunity.
- Grow it – it’s so easy and you can easily produce enough for the year.
Love it or hate it, Liquorice contains a chemical called glycyrrhizin which has been found to fight viruses and is a tasty addition to our teas and syrups.
Make ginger tea. Ginger is a powerful antiviral root that seems to halt cold symptoms if taken early enough. Make a tea of sliced fresh ginger root, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and honey. Ginger is a wonderful every day herb to take first thing in the morning and use in so many beneficial ways. Take a look at this great article from Whispering Earth. Or make your own Ginger syrup.
The key takeaway point here is that you must allow your body time to recover. If you can’t do this, then make small changes to your diet to help support recovery and make sure you get a good night’s sleep where possible as this is the time when the body naturally undergoes repair.
Of course, if you are feeling seriously ill or your symptoms are not improving, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor