Cold and flu season typically hits in the fall and winter months as children are back to school and more of us are spending time indoors. In my household, our medicine cabinet is stocked with natural remedies to help us stay healthy and recover more quickly. Want to know my secret weapons? Read on…
CDC Recommendations for the Flu
I take this illness very seriously, as there can be significant adverse outcomes, including death. During the 2017-2018 flu season in the United States, the influenza A H3N2 strain predominated.1 According to the CDC, this particular strain is associated with more hospitalizations and deaths in people older than 65 years and younger than 5 years. Unfortunately, for those who receive an annual flu vaccine, influenza vaccine effectiveness in general is lower against A(H3N2) viruses than others. This efficacy varies year-to-year, so the vaccine cannot convey 100% immunity.
Be sure to seek medical attention immediately if you or a family member might have the flu. The CDC recommends antiviral medications (Tamiflu)2 to reduce the duration of illness and lessen the severity of outcomes in certain populations. When started within 1-2 days of symptom onset, Tamiflu makes it harder for the influenza virus to replicate. This is a great review of Tamiflu from one of my favorite resources at People’s Pharmacy in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, Tamiflu has limited effectiveness.
Because of this, Complementary and Alternative Medicine is an important adjunct to support the immune system and help aid in recovery. In general, natural medicines help fight influenza via two basic mechanisms:3 1) enhancement of overall immunity of the individual, and 2) preventing viral replication or signaling pathways.
Natural Remedies for Fighting the Flu
These are 10 of my favorite natural remedies for fighting influenza:
#1 Elderberry (Sambucol) – There are multiple studies showing that elderberry is an effective antiviral and activates the immune system.4 Several studies have shown that elderberry can inhibit replication of human influenza viruses.5 It has also been shown to cut the duration of flu symptoms nearly in half. Considering the efficacy and low side-effect profile, I consider this one essential in treatment of influenza as well as prophylaxis of household members. I recommend starting elderberry at symptom onset and using frequently. My favorites are Black Elderberry Syrup from Gaia and a Black Elderberry tincture from Herb Pharm.
#2 Echinacea – In the past, studies have cast doubt on Echinacea’s effectiveness against upper respiratory infections. However, the research was problematic and more recent studies support its use6 for cold and flu. Echinacea is thought to have important antiviral effects. At least one study showed that Echinacea extract inhibited receptor binding of the influenza virus,7 suggesting that Echinacea interferes with viral entry into cells and limits replication and dissemination.
#3 Probiotics – We continue to learn more about our gut microbiome, and the importance of healthy digestion to support the immune system. A 2015 study suggests that Bifidobacterium, in particular, may be effective against influenza by enhancing overall immunity of the individual through the intestinal immune system.8 Lactic acid bacteria has also been shown to offer protection against different subtypes of influenza A.9 For most adults, I recommend using higher dose probiotics (at least 25 billion CFU) 2-3 times a day with food. One of my favorites is from Klaire Labs.
#4 Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency is a common issue, especially in the winter. Your healthcare provider can order a simple blood test to check for levels of 25-OH-vitamin D (my goal is generally 50-70). Vitamin D is an important immune modulator and when levels drop, the body’s immune system is suppressed.10 There is additional evidence correlating Vitamin D deficiency with an increased risk of influenza.11 For most people, I recommend using high doses of Vitamin D for the first few days of illness (in adults this is as much as 10,000-25,000 IU per day). It’s important not to use these high doses long-term, as Vitamin D is fat soluble and can become toxic. My favorites are this liquid Vitamin D3 with K2 and these 5,000 IU capsules.
#5 Vitamin C – High dose vitamin C helps boost immune function. There’s no definite consensus on appropriate dose, but I aim for 2 grams a day, or 500 mg four times a day. Side effects are minimal, but watch for diarrhea at high doses and back down if this becomes an issue. A few of my favorites are Quicksilver’s Liposomal Vitamin C and Seeking Health Optimal Vitamin C Powder.
#6 Zinc – There is limited clinical evidence to support the use of zinc, but it has long been thought to help with immune function and it’s not likely to hurt you. I recommend starting this as soon as symptom onset occurs, and sucking on lozenges every 2-4 hours for the first couple of days (again, don’t use high doses long-term). It’s best taken with food to avoid nausea. My favorite is this zinc lozenge from Douglas Labs.
#7 Viracid – This immune booster is a popular natural remedy in my functional medicine community, and I always keep this one on hand during cold and flu season. It provides high doses of Vitamin A plus Astragalus, Andrographis, Elderberry, Echinacea, L-Lysine and others. Both andrographis and astragalus have been used in Chinese herbal medicine for centuries to relieve symptoms associated with colds and flu. Because of the higher dose of Vitamin A, I avoid this in certain populations like pregnant women and young children.
#8 Monolaurin – Monolaurin is the monoglyceride of lauric acid, derived from coconut oil. It is used to promote immune system health, and specifically as an antiviral against infections like influenza. The antiviral activity12 is derived from its ability to interrupt the outer membrane of enveloped viruses, interfere with viral signal transduction, assembly and maturation. It can be used for prophylaxis and acute treatment of the flu. My favorite product is Lauricidin Monolaurin pellets, and I tell my patients to start low and go slow. I also like a Humic-Monolaurin Complex from Allergy Research Group.
#9 Garlic – Garlic has long been used as an antimicrobial,13 which is widely attributed to the compound allicin. It is both antiviral and antibacterial, and supports the immune system. This study14 demonstrates in vitro effects on influenza B. Note that Its antiviral effects are most potent when raw vs cooked, but can be taken as a supplement. I recommend the Allimax brand, which is a potent form of allicin. Take up to 6 capsules daily at the onset of symptoms and continue for 5-7 days. Used prophylactically, take 1-2 capsules a day.
#10 Oscillococcinum – this popular homeopathic medicine has been shown to15 decrease symptoms and shorten the duration of illness when taken at the onset of influenza.
These natural remedies are stocked in my medicine cabinet, especially during cold and flu season. I encourage you to have these on hand, as they are best started immediately at the onset of symptoms. You can purchase most of them for 10% off (with free shipping!) through my online dispensary.
Through the winter months we also have essential oils in our diffuser (my favorite is doTERRA On Guard). I also do a lot of nasal irrigation using Xlear Sinus Rinse which has xylitol and helps to decrease adherence of germs to the nasal mucosa.
Additional Remedies for the Flu
The basics of cold and flu care include lots of sleep, frequent hand washing, healthy foods, and avoidance of sugar and alcohol. Many people report an association between dairy and increased mucus production. Despite limited clinical evidence to support this association,16 I still recommend avoidance of dairy products for most people as long as benefits outweigh risks. Perhaps most important is good hydration with clean filtered water, herbal teas and broth. As long as the sugar content is not too high, fresh organic fruit and vegetable juices may also help since many plant-based compounds, like polyphenols and flavonoids, can provide additional support in aiding the immune system and fighting viruses.17
When it comes to fever, I generally recommend embracing this as part of your body’s immune response, rather than trying to suppress it with medications. If you must use over-the-counter medications like Ibuprofen, use them to treat pain rather than fever. There are exceptions to this, of course, like seizure disorder or febrile seizures. Please consult with your healthcare provider.
As always, these are general recommendations and are not appropriate for certain populations, nor are meant to be a substitute for seeking medical care. Influenza should be taken seriously, so be sure to seek medical attention immediately if you or a family member might have the flu.
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