Immunity: The natural “cure” for the common cold

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Supervising naturopathic doctors (ND) and fourth-year clinic interns at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic (RSNC), the teaching clinic at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), have had their hands full this winter. “Winter is always a terrible time for colds and flus,” says Zeynep Uraz, ND and RSNC supervisor. Patients seeking relief often end up in lines at walk-in clinics and emergency waiting rooms. With no cure for the common cold or flu, however, they would do better to stay home and rest, or pay a visit to an RSNC intern or a naturopathic doctor.

“We get sick when our immune systems become stressed or overburdened,” says Zeynep Uraz, ND. Uraz explains that to prevent viruses from gaining the upper hand, the body needs certain tools to buttress its immune system. Potential patients can stop that next cold bug in its track by making a few diet and lifestyle adjustments. “Viruses and bacteria are all around us, and our immune systems are designed to constantly identify and attack them,” Uraz emphasizes. “But most people’s immune systems aren’t performing as well as they could be.”

Naturopathic doctors emphasize prevention, and treating the cause of illness. Hand washing is one of the simplest ways to prevent the cause of infection. In addition, Uraz emphasizes that stress is a huge factor, since it depresses the immune system. Getting enough sleep and scheduling downtime are key components of prevention.

In addition to personal hygiene and stress management, diet plays a significant role in bolstering immunity. “The immune system needs to be fed enough nutrients to stay strong and keep doing its job. Eat lots of garlic and onions, the less cooked the better. Have fewer sugary candies, snacks and drinks, including store bought fruit juices,” Uraz says.

Many people claim they try to eat healthy, but may not be doing all they can to stay healthy and productive. It takes some effort to eat right, incorporating at least five daily servings of various brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, whole grains and lean proteins, while also nixing sugary drinks and junk foods. No daily multivitamin will make up for poor dietary habits.

In addition, vitamin C and zinc can help keep the immune system strong, and vitamin D can help the body fight upper respiratory infections. Since the body primarily manufactures vitamin D from UV rays, it may be appropriate to supplement during the winter months. “Many people can benefit from nutritional counselling, and have questions about supplements,” says Uraz. “Everyone is different. Consulting a naturopathic doctor can help ensure you’re eating as well as you think, and taking supplements that are safe and appropriate for you.”

Herbs such as echinacea, reishi and astragalus can boost immunity and help prevent viruses from taking hold. Keep in mind, herbs that are best taken for the prevention of symptoms may not be appropriate to take if and when the infection sets in. “I choose botanicals to match the patient’s symptoms,” says Uraz. “Some herbs are great for coughs but not for fevers or congestion or runny nose. Every herb has potential side effects, so the patient’s health status and medical history has to be considered.”

Boosting immunity does more than help prevent illness. Even the healthiest people get sick occasionally. Antibiotics, however, only kill bacterial infections, and have no impact on viruses. The only way to cure a virus is to give your immune system the time and tools to regain the upper hand. Supporting a vigorous immune response helps fight off the infection in less time. Rule number one is to drink plenty of fluids. Warm, caffeine-free and sugar-free drinks are best. Avoid sugary drinks such as fruit juices and soda, which can actually depress the immune response. In addition to popping vitamin C and zinc, physical therapies such as cayenne foot baths and mustard plasters can provide relief. Based on your symptoms and health status, an ND can suggest herbs that are appropriate for you.

“Listen to your body,” advises Uraz. “You’ll feel tired, and that’s your body telling you to rest. Besides, it’s better to stay home from work while you’re contagious.” That advice applies to the gym as well. Sniffling, coughing and fevers should never be brought into an environment where many people gather and share equipment. Proponents of the idea that it’s good to “sweat out” a cold would be wise to stick with hot baths and showers. A little light exertion, away from others, is fine once recovery is underway. Gently raising your body temperature will kick the immune system into high gear. Going overboard in the gym will just kick it while it’s down.

“The bottom line is that patients should do whatever they can to keep their immune systems strong. You’re far more likely to get sick if your diet and lifestyle aren’t balanced. Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it.”