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Use These To Prevent Colds and Flus
Although flu shots and antiviral drugs are commonly recommended for preventing cold and flu, they are not always effective and they usually come with serious side effects. Natural supplements, on the other hand, are safe and can help boost the immune system. This article discusses the most effective vitamins, minerals, herbs and other natural supplements that have been proven to prevent and/or treat cold and flu.
Zinc is one of the most common natural supplements used during the cold and flu season. It is the main ingredient of cold lozenges. Zinc is also sold in the form of nasal gel to help prevent and treat cold and flu-like symptoms.
But how can zinc relieve cold symptoms? By boosting the immune system and by its direct action on cold viruses.
Studies show that zinc promotes the production of immune cells as well as antibodies to combat cold and flu viruses. In addition, it blocks the passage of cold viruses through the lining of the nostrils.
Zinc also prevents cold viruses from docking to the surface of human cells. By blocking their adhering mechanisms, zinc blocks the entry of these viruses into cells and leaves them open to destruction by the immune system.
Lastly, zinc inhibits the replication of rhinoviruses. Since 80% of cold cases are caused by rhinoviruses, this action lowers the risk of coming down with common cold because zinc reduces the reproduction of cold viruses and, therefore, viral infection.
A number of studies and reviews have confirmed the efficacy of zinc for preventing (lowers the risk of cold by 40%) and treating cold and flu-like symptoms.
A Cochrane review confirmed that zinc reduces the duration and severity of cold as well as antibiotic use by sufferers.
While both oral zinc supplements and intranasal zinc products are effective, only the former is recommended. This is because nasal zinc gels were found to be responsible for cases of loss of smell (anosmia).
Cold lozenges, on the other hand, are safe. Common side effects of the lozenges include dry mouth, nausea, constipation and a distinct metallic taste (especially with lozenges containing zinc gluconate).
These lozenges should only be taken in prescribed doses. Overdose may cause restlessness, dehydration and severe vomiting.
Vitamin C is the other commonly used supplement during the cold season. However, unlike zinc, the evidence to support its efficacy is not so strong.
A Cochrane review found that vitamin C does not reduce the severity or duration of cold after the appearance of symptoms. However, the vitamin may provide some protection if taken regularly and preferably before the start of the flu season.
These studies also indicate that children and endurance athletes benefit the most from the use of vitamin C supplements in the prevention of cold.
Therefore, to get the best benefit from vitamin C, you need to take it throughout the flu season.
However, high doses of vitamin C may be required to boost the immune system enough to protect against cold and the flu. Multiple studies agree that doses between 1 – 6 g/day produce good results. On the other hand, prolonged use of megadoses of vitamin C should be avoided.
To improve its effectiveness, vitamin C should be combined with other antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin E and minerals such as zinc which are proven to help cold and flu sufferers.
There is a link between vitamin D status and the appearance of flu. Every year during the winter months, most people suffer from vitamin D deficiency just as they come down with the flu. And this is no coincidence.
Vitamin D production is at its peak during the summer months when most people get adequate sun exposure. However, during the flu season, vitamin D production falls and the amount of sunlight reaching temperate regions reduce.
But how is vitamin D linked to the flu? Vitamin D is an immune system booster. It promotes the production and activities of immune cells such as macrophages and leucocytes while reducing inflammation.
In addition, studies show that vitamin D promotes the production of a class of natural antimicrobial agents known as cathelicidins. Therefore, maintaining an optimal vitamin D level can help the body fight influenza viruses.
The protection provided by vitamin D is lost when its production is reduced during the cold season.
To maintain adequate serum levels of vitamin D, you need to eat foods rich in vitamin D and/or take vitamin D supplements.
However, exposure to sunlight is still the best way to get vitamin D. This is because the body naturally produces sulfated vitamin D3 in the skin while the form of vitamin D3 found in dietary supplements are usually non-sulfated.
Sulfated vitamin D3 is water-soluble and easily transported in the blood and distributed in the body.
Therefore, the vitamin D produced naturally in the skin is a lot more bioavailable that oral supplements. Even then oral vitamin D3 supplements can definitely help prevent cold and flu by increasing the serum level of the vitamin.
Vitamin D does not only help the immune system destroy cold and flu viruses, the immune boost it produces has also been proven to improve the efficacy of flu vaccines. Therefore, vitamin D supplementation is essential during the flu season whether you get vaccinated or not.
Echinacea is a North American plant also known as purple coneflower. This herb is traditionally used to treat cold and the flu.
Recent studies show that echinacea boosts the immune system and may, therefore, help reduce the duration and severity of cold and flu.
In a review of past studies, researchers from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy found that echinacea lowered the risks of catching cold by 60% and reduced the duration of cold symptoms by 1.4 days.
Although effective and safe for most users, people with plant allergies or autoimmune diseases as well as those placed on immunomodulatory drugs should avoid this herb.
Elderberry or Sambucus nigra is one of the few herbs conclusively proven to be effective in the treatment of the flu.
Different studies have confirmed that this herb is effective against multiple strains of influenza A and influenza B viruses.
In a study in which elderberry extract was compared to Tamiflu (the leading antiviral drug prescribed for the flu), the results showed that people who took elderberry got better in 2 – 3 days while Tamiflu users took 5 – 6 days to get cured.
The bioactive phytochemicals in elderberry block the adhesion of influenza viruses to cells and also prevent them from getting through the lining of the respiratory tract.
In addition, elderberry blocked the replication of influenza viruses.
Other mechanisms by which elderberry extract can help cold and flu include its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Elderberry is quite safe as long as you use the standardized extract of the plant. Care should be taken not to use other elderberry plants in the Sambucus family as they are known to contain toxic cyanide-based compounds.
Astragalus is one of the herbs used for treating cold and flu in traditional Chinese medicine. It is known as an immune system booster.
Specifically, astragalus stimulates the growth of immune cells, the production of interferon and the release of macrophages. Therefore, astragalus promotes the destruction of cold and influenza virus and can shorten the duration as well as reduce the severity of these diseases.
Mullein or Verbascum densiflorum is traditionally used to treat cough. It is a decongestant and can, therefore, relieve lung congestion through its anti-inflammatory effect.
Mullein is usually prepared as a tea flavored with honey. It can help relieve some of the symptoms of cold and flu.
Marshmallow or Althea officinalis is traditionally used to treat sore throat and cough. Besides its usefulness as a cough suppressant, it produces a mucilage that coats the throat and may soothe some of the gastrointestinal symptoms of cold and flu.
Peppermint or Mentha x piperita is also a decongestant and cough suppressant. Its main active ingredient is menthol which can make breathing easier and produce a soothing and cooling effect on the soft tissues of the respiratory tract.
Licorice root or Glycyrrhiza glabra is an herb traditionally used for treating sore throat and cough. Its expectorant, antitussive, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and immunomodulatory properties make it ideal for treating the respiratory symptoms of cold and flu.
Skullcap is used to boost the immune system. It is a common herb used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat cold and flu.
Skullcap is known to enhance the activities of macrophages. Therefore, it can help destroy cold and influenza viruses.
Garlic has a broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity. It can help destroy bacteria, fungi, viruses and antigens that may cause cold and flu-like symptoms.
Garlic is usually taken as an herbal tea preferably sweetened with honey or lemon juice.
Garlic can also be combined with onion, a related medicinal plant. In addition, ginger and turmeric are medicinal herbs that are also helpful because of their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Spirulina is a dietary supplement derived from blue-green algae belonging to the Arthrospira family.
The most common cyanobacteria found in spirulina supplements are Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. Spirulina is a superfood.
It is made up of 50 – 70% protein and all the essential amino acids are present. Also present are polysaccharides, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins. Besides its significance as a food, spirulina is also a medicinal supplement.
The polysaccharides in spirulina can boost immune functions by promoting the release of immunoglobulins and interleukins. In addition, other bioactive fractions of spirulina can enhance the activities of macrophages, leukotrienes and NK (Natural Killer) cells.
Studies also show that spirulina has a direct effect on enveloped viruses. It inhibits the replication of influenza A virus.
Lastly, spirulina has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Although there are very few studies that investigated the benefits of spirulina for preventing and treating cold and flu, its medicinal properties and the proven in vitro antiviral activity against influenza A virus make it a safe and affordable alternative to prescription cold and flu medications.
Probiotics are live microbes that confer health benefits on the host. While most probiotics are bacteria, a few of them are also yeasts.
Probiotics are no different from the microbes that make up a healthy gut flora. In fact, probiotics are meant to reintroduce beneficial microbes into the gastrointestinal tract.
The state of the gut is important to the immune system. The gastrointestinal tract acts as a barrier preventing harmful microbes, toxins and undigested food from reaching the blood. Therefore, the gut preserves the immune system and ensures that it is not overwhelmed.
Besides their protective roles, probiotics also have direct effects on the immune system. They can stimulate the release of immunoglobulins, T lymphocytes and NK cells.
Can the immune boost provided by probiotics help prevent cold and flu? Multiple studies and a Cochrane review confirmed that probiotics are indeed helpful both for preventing and treating cold and flu.
These studies show that probiotics can reduce both the duration and severity of cold and flu symptoms especially in children, shift workers, athletes and stressed individuals.
In addition, probiotics can improve the efficacy of flu vaccines. Because probiotics boost the immune system and represent a mild and constant challenge to the immune system, they represent a different kind of vaccination.
Therefore, probiotics prime the immune system to quickly respond to the influenza antigens found in flu shots. This means that the body produces antibodies against different strains of influenza virus much faster and in higher quantities.
However, not all probiotics are effective for prevent and/or treating cold and flu. The problem with studies that have found no benefits to probiotics is that researchers erroneously assume that all probiotics are equal.
With regards to cold and flu, the most effective probiotics (and the ones commonly used in positive studies) are the strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
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