Natural Ways to Prevent and Treat a Cold

Defend Yourself this Cold Season

This week, something happened in my house that never happens: my fiance got a cold.  

I'll try to convey what a big deal this is: in the 4 years we've known each other, he's been sick once.  One time!  On the other hand, I used to get sick all the time.  In high school and college, I'd have colds and respiratory infections at least 3-4 times a year and be out for days at a time.  As the daughter of a nurse and a pharmacist, I had lots of access to medical care and medicine.  I just wasn't that good at taking care of myself holistically to reduce my chance of getting a cold or to help myself recover quickly.  How the times have changed!

Now what you are probably interested in are my fiance's tips on staying healthy since he's the immunity superhero, but I think we'd both chalk that up to good genes.  (Or maybe those Italian Beefs he loves so much are a secret immunity superfood??)  So instead, today I'm sharing my cold-prevention strategy because I really think that it is what has helped me reduce my number of sick days from a dozen to only 2-3 a year.  And I didn't catch his cold this week!  Point Alia.

My tips fall into 4 categories: 1) kitchen pharmacy 2) immunity habits 3) bad habit fasting and 4) natural supplements.  Obviously, if you are sick you need to go to the doctor, but I'm always surprised how we often lose sight of the basic things we can do to help our bodies heal themselves.  Enjoy these tips and stay healthy this season!  

Tip #1: Eat from Your Kitchen Pharmacy

The kitchen pharmacy is the term I used to refer to the ingredients in my fridge and pantry that have extra healing properties, and are often used in traditional cultures that have strong food-as-medicine traditions.  When I'm trying to prevent a cold, or just starting to feel under the weather, I reach for these ingredients.  The ritual of making something fresh for yourself (or a loved one) I'm sure is part of the medicine.  

  • Turmeric gets put into everything!  Fresh or ground, this little rhizome is known to be an immune-booster and anti-inflammatory.  Try it in my Immunity Tea.
  • Cayenne and other hot spices help clear out your nasal passages and sinuses, providing relief and helping prevent congestion.  Try it in soups or sautéed vegetables.
  • Ginger, like turmeric, is a key ingredient in my immunity tea.  Ginger is an antiviral and can help with congestion too.
  • Raw Honey is soothing to the throat and it's an antimicrobial and antiviral agent.  A traditional Indian remedy for a sore throat is mixing equal parts honey and ground turmeric and swallowing right before bed (to let it stick in your throat).  This is meant to reduce swelling and inflammation.
  • Herbal Teas.  Staying hydrated is key to recovering from a cold, and warm (not hot) liquids are soothing to the throat.  I've experimented with specialty "cold" teas over the years and anecdotally don't think they make a difference.  So I just alternate with what I have at home (usually ginger, mint, rooibos, chamomile, tulsi, and hibiscus) to stay hydrated and relaxed.
  • Leafy Greens are micronutrient powerhouses!  Eat these at least once a day to make sure your body has all the nutrients it needs to get you feeling your best.
  • Lemon juice added to teas adds Vitamin C and will help add flavor back to your food if you are having trouble tasting due to congestion.
  • Broth-based soups like the herbal teas help hydrate and soothe while they provide nutrition.  Homemade vegetable broth (or bone-broth if you are so inclined) is best.  If you are getting takeout, I like Thai soups, pho, and ramen since they often have healthy spices and aromatics added and are fresh and house-made.
  • Eggs are a good source of zinc, a nutrient believed to reduce the longevity of a cold.  I find scrambled eggs with turmeric, cayenne, and vegetables is often one meal I do have the energy to make, even if I'm feeling pretty blah.  If you don't do eggs, try pumpkin seeds, chickpeas or tofu for zinc.

Tip #2: Cultivate Healthy Habits

Most of what I'm going to mention here is total Captain Obvious, but it bears repeating because these foundational habits are what I believe makes the biggest difference.  Yes, turmeric is great, but getting ample sleep for a solid week is going to have a much more profound effect on your health.  We all have that friend who's out on a Saturday night at the bar, despite having strep throat.  Girl, go home and get some sleep--River North will still be here next weekend!  

  • Sleep.  Yes, "sleep it off" is often the best and only thing we can do to start to feel better.  By not straining and stressing your body and by allowing it to sleep (when much cell repair happens), you'll feel better a lot sooner.  If you don't always practice good sleep hygiene (no screens before bed, no eating before bed, going to sleep at the same time every night, etc.), make an effort to be good about it when you are under the weather.
  • Hand washing.  My mom the nurse will be proud!  Washing your hands and cleaning up surfaces in your house will help you from picking up bugs and spreading them to others.  In general, there's no need for for harsh, anti-bacterial products (which are actually posing a public health and environmental crisis).  Stick with soap and water for your hands and a natural or vinegar spray for your kitchen, unless a healthcare professional recommends otherwise.  
  • Salt water cleanses.  Don't stress: this isn't anything crazy.  Salt water gargles for your throat can reduce inflammation and soothe a sore throat.  Just add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to warm water and gargle in batches, spitting out the water each time.  Sterile salt water rinsing can also be helpful to your sinuses, using an Ayurvedic neti pot or nasal irrigation system.  The salt water must be sterile (aka not from the tap--use distilled water and saline packets, not table salt and tap water) and you should consult your doctor or the literature that comes with your neti pot when you purchase it.  These have become very mainstream recommendations for congestion, allergies, sinusitis and more and your primary care doctor (or even neighborhood pharmacist) can guide you on using one properly.  

Tip #3: Bad Habit Fast

While I'm pretty accepting of my imperfect habits, when I'm sick or feel like I'm about to get sick, I try to be strict with myself.  Not out of punishment or fear, but by cutting out my less-than-great habits, I'm giving myself the gift of feeling better that much sooner.

  • Cut out processed foods and refined carbs.  Obviously these aren't the best foods for you anyway, but sugary foods can disrupt our digestion and hormones and make it harder to sleep and rest.  Plus they often don't provide many micronutrients, which our bodies need for optimal health.
  • Cut out caffeine.  This one might be too strict for some people, but I'm actually very sensitive to caffeine.  By cutting out my morning cup of tea, I know I'll sleep a little better and have a little less of a stress response in my body.  I just sub with herbal teas.
  • No alcohol.  Like caffeine, I know that I'm sensitive to alcohol as well, particularly when it comes to my sleep.  So nope, not even one glass if I'm feeling under the weather.   Skipping both alcohol and caffeine will help you stay hydrated as well, since they won't be working against you.
  • Cut out non-essential activities.  This is another healing habit I think I'm much stricter about than other people I know.  If I have a cold, I skip out on anything non-essential like happy hours, lectures, coffee dates, birthday parties, etc.  I try to maximize my rest time as much as possible.  Much of this probably has to do with the fact that as an entrepreneur I can't or don't want to take "sick days."  You do you, but this is one strategy that I think really works for me, even though it's not the most fun.    

Tip #4: Natural Supplements

I'm not about to tell you to skip your medicine and start taking snake oil.  But particularly with colds, there's not much medication can do.  Most cold medicines just treat symptoms which is often counter-productive to the way that our bodies are trying to heal themselves.  Also many doctors are overprescribing antibiotics to people who just have minor viral infections which doesn't help anyone at all.

Over the years, I've tried so many immunity supplements, drinks and teas.  When I'm sick, there's basically nothing I won't buy or try in an attempt to feel better.  I can't say scientifically which ones "work" or don't work.  But I will share here what I do for myself (after much trial and error) simply for your education and curiosity.

  • Elderberry Syrup.  Again, I'm not a scientist but boy do I FEEL like this stuff works like crazy.  Any time I feel a cold about to come on, I buy a bottle of this stuff (I get the widely available Sambucol).  There are scientific studies supporting it's use against the flu and more.  I get the original formula in the syrup.  Bonus: it's delicious.  
  • Oil of Oregano.  The more research I do about this one, the more unfounded it seems so it may make it's way out of my arsenal.  However, by its proponents in holistic literature, a drop or two under the tongue everyday is supposed to promote immunity and it's almost always the #1 immunity supplement you hear about.  There aren't any scientific studies supporting it (that I know of).  
  • Natural Throat Lozenges.  These are meant merely to soothe and not to cure, but I go for the Thayers Slippery Elm lozenges when my throat is bugging me.  They are made with maple sugar and do not have menthol in them.  If I'm only near a conventional pharmacy, I'll pick up Ricola.
  • Trip to Merz' Apothecary.  My go-to shop for natural supplements and remedies is Merz Apothecary in Chicago.  It's not only a dream store for an urban hippie like me, but my uncle (who is actually a trained pharmacist like my dad) owns it, so I just trust a lot of their selection and expertise.  Chicagoans can hit up their Lincoln Square store (or outpost at the Palmer House hotel downtown) or internet-havers can find them at smallflower.com 

What are your go-to cold prevention strategies?  Leave me your thoughts in the comments below!