We know: You have been told we need to boost our immune system. You ate your immune-boosting sweet potatoes, got plenty of sleep, and hit the echinacea at the first sign of a scratchy throat. But it’s called the common cold for a reason: The National Institutes of Health report that more than 200 viruses cause colds and 1 billion colds strike people every year in the US. No matter how healthy your habits, chances are the sniffles and sneezes will catch you. But over-the-counter drugs can be bad medicine. Antihistamines and cough suppressants can make you drowsy, while decongestants can cause dizziness, loss of appetite, and even insomnia (the last thing you need when you’re under the weather). So what should you do when you’re stuck on the couch next to a mountain of tissues that rivals Kilimanjaro? Give those annoying symptoms the cold shoulder with this feel-better guide.
>> Relieve a raw nose. Too much blowing can leave your poor nose red and chafed. Keep an aloe plant on your windowsill (all it needs is weekly watering and lots of sun). When your nose hurts, snip off a leaf and slit it open; scoop out the gel and dab it on irritated spots. Bonus: Indoor plants act as living air purifiers to absorb pollutants and ease breathing.
>> Curb congestion. Try the wet sock treatment, suggests Melody Hart, ND, a naturopath in Geneva, Illinois. Warm your feet in a tub of hot water; meanwhile, soak a pair of cotton socks in ice-cold water. Take your feet out of the tub, put on the cold socks, and then layer on a pair of dry, thick wool ones. The “threat” of the damp socks makes your body think it’s under attack. Your immune system responds by initiating the fever response and sending out white blood cells, which increases blood circulation and decreases congestion in the upper respiratory passages, head, and throat. Keep the socks on for three hours.
>> Soothe a sore throat. “Brew tea that contains slippery elm bark, such as Traditional Medicinals Organic Throat Coat, and drink four to six cups daily,” says Kathi Kemper, MD, of The Ohio State University. Native Americans have used this tree bark for centuries because it contains mucilage, a gelatinous substance that coats the throat and reduces irritation. Or look for slippery elm bark as an active ingredient in lozenges—sucking stimulates saliva production to keep the throat lubricated.
>> Help a headache. Rub Tiger Balm or another topical, menthol salve on your forehead and the base of your skull when symptoms begin. “The menthol triggers nerves that override the pain signal from your headache,” advises Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, medical director of the nationwide Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers.
>> Leave a fever. Rethink your knee-jerk reaction to pop Tylenol to reduce a temperature. “A fever is part of the healing process because it delivers heat and white blood cells (your immune system’s defense team) to the infection,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, author of The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth (Fair Winds Press, 2008). If the fever has you very uncomfortable, Teitelbaum suggests taking a cold bath or drinking cold water to bring it down. Call the doc if your fever tops 102 degrees and you also have a stiff neck, lung congestion, burning during urination, or abdominal pain; those can signal a serious bacterial infection such as pneumonia or meningitis.
>> Calm an upset stomach. Sip a mug of ginger tea; in China, the root has been used for thousands of years to soothe tummy troubles. Ginger contains volatile oils and pungent phenol compounds, such as gingerols, that neutralize stomach acids. Cut up 1 to 2 inches of gingerroot into small pieces, and boil in a quart of water for 10 to 20 minutes. Strain out the bits, let the tea cool, sweeten or add mint, and slowly sip it, Kemper suggests.
>> Quiet a cough. “Dark chocolate is as effective a cough suppressant as codeine,” says Teitelbaum. That’s what British and Hungarian researchers found in a recent study. What’s the sweet secret? Experts think the chemical theobromine (found in chocolate) relaxes the vagus nerve, which runs through the airways to the brain and triggers coughing. Just 2 ounces of chocolate is enough, and the higher the cocoa content (think 65 percent or more), the better.
>> Banish body aches. The hop plant, the member of the hemp family that adds bite to beer, is a muscle relaxant that will soothe general aches and pains, Teitelbaum says. It’s available as
an herb or tincture; use as directed (for example, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon two or three times a day).
The Exercise Rx
Fitness keeps you one step ahead of pesky viruses: In a University of Washington study, sedentary women were three times as likely to get colds as regular walkers. But once you get sacked with an illness, how do you know when to sit on the sidelines? Use the neck check, suggests Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Symptoms below the neck (coughing, body aches, exhaustion, gastrointestinal problems, fever) indicate a more widespread infection—one that needs rest, not exercise. Above-the-neck symptoms (sneezing, congestion, watery eyes, sore throat) shouldn’t keep you from lacing up your sneaks, but take your usual regimen down a notch.
Doctor Up Your Grocery List
Feed a cold, starve a fever? That’s an axiom that needs, well, axing. Feed a cold, feed a fever is more like it, says Beth Reardon, RD, LDN, director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. “When you’re sick, you need nutrient-rich foods that boost your body’s defenses and fight infections.” Here’s what to buy—and what to steer clear of.
>> The Immune-Boosting 5
- Brazil nuts are one of the few dietary sources of selenium, a mineral that encourages immune-cell growth and stimulates production of antibodies.
- Carrots contain carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that increase your levels of natural killer cells, the body’s defense system.
- Chili peppers hit your mouth, throat, and stomach and trigger a release of watery fluids that make your eyes tear and your nose run, which helps break up mucus and wash out viruses.
- Red bell peppers provide 250 percent of your daily immune-boosting vitamin C, plus vitamin E, which encourages reproduction of key infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes.
- Red meat guards against iron deficiency, which weakens immune cells. It also contains zinc to bolster virus-destroying white blood cells.
>> The Immune-Busting 5
- Milk, yogurt, and cheese increase both mucus production and the release of histamines—chemicals that cause congestion and inflammation. While battling a cold, get your immune-supportive probiotics from supplements or foods like Attune bars instead.
- Alcohol suppresses the immune system, making it harder to fend off cold bugs.
- Cookies, soda, and sugary foods and drinks jump-start inflammation—even that alleged cold-kicker orange juice. “You’re much better off eating an orange—OJ is very sugary,” Reardon notes. “Plus, you lose up to 40 percent of the immune-boosting phytochemicals in the juicing process.”
- Fried foods contain saturated and trans fats, both of which trigger immunity-suppressing inflammation.
- Reactive foods include ones you know you have a sensitivity to (hint: any that cause gas or bloating). “These foods set off under-the-radar inflammation,” Reardon says. Two common culprits? Dairy and wheat.
Feel better by tomorrow with our all-day plan.
>> 9am Rise and dine. Make an immune-boosting mushroom, spinach, and tomato omelet, Reardon suggests. Fungi pack significant amounts of beta-glucans, which keep immune cells in a state of vigilance, as well as ergothioneine, an antioxidant that supports the immune system.
>> 10am Take a spa-tastic shower. Sprinkle a few drops of eucalyptus oil on your shower walls. The hot water, steam, and essential oil mix cuts congestion and helps you breathe more clearly.
>> Noon Call your funniest friend. The immune system gets a kick out of laughter. Researchers from Loma Linda University in California discovered that laughter increases the number and activity of antibodies in your body.
>> 2pm Take a time out with tea. Steep a mug of white tea, which has more disease-fighting polyphenols than other varieties. Add a slice of orange to boost the antioxidant power by 30 percent and create a soothing, sinus-clearing aromatherapy experience, Reardon advises.
>> 5pm Turn off the evening news. When you take a sick day, it’s tempting to veg out in front of the TV. But all the doom and gloom on CNN can take a toll on your immune system by triggering a stress response in your body, Teitelbaum says. Plus, the bright light from the tube can mess with your circadian clock; TVs and computer screens emit blue light, which interferes with the production of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep.
>> 7pm Go with the flow. People who took an eight-week meditation course produced more antibodies in response to a flu vaccine than a control group, according to a 2003 study in Psychosomatic Medicine. Meditation is about cultivating acceptance—even accepting that you feel lousy, says Harshada Wagner, director of Banyan Education meditation center in New York City. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Tell yourself, “Right now, my body aches, I don’t have energy, and it’s hard to breathe. This is what it is.” Feel deeply what’s going on in your body—even if it’s unpleasant—and trust that your immune system will take over.
>> 9pm Hit the hay early. Sleep helps your body repair cells; plus, University of Chicago researchers found that men who slept four hours a night for a week produced only half as many flu-fighting antibodies as those who slept about twice as long. If congestion keeps you awake, elevate your head with an extra pillow, Kemper suggests.