by: Stacie Wolfe, ND
You wake up and know the score immediately. Your body is tired and crabby. Your head feels so packed full of mucus that you can barely breathe, which is rad considering that between struggles to suck oxygen in through your one semi-functional nostril you are coughing yourself in half. One eye is inexplicably watering and you can’t do anything but whine for someone, anyone, to come feel sorry for you. Oh my dear reader, you have the cold or flu. Bummer. Both the common cold and influenza are transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets. Which means that every time that person on the bus sneezes onto the pole instead of into a contained space, you run the risk of getting those sweet germs all up in your business. Which is how we ended up with that one watery eye and all those wishes for the swift release of death.
Every year, adults tend to get a couple of colds, while kiddos — those beautiful little germ machines — tend to come down with a few more. The flu tends to be quite less common, with between 5-20% of us being infected each year. You can expect to feel crummy for at least a week or more with either of these illnesses. While there is no “cure” for the cold or the flu there are a number of things that we can do to both limit our risk of getting sick and alleviate those horrid symptoms should we succumb to the evil effects of the bus pole germs.
The best medicine is prevention.
As a naturopath, I am no stranger to the various arguments on both sides of the vaccination debate. However, my background in public health means I always have that little voice shouting “BUT WHAT ABOUT HERD IMMUNITY??!!” That little voice does have a point. We don’t live in isolation (bus sneezes, you guys) and we have a social responsibility to take care of those around us who are dangerously susceptible to illnesses and cannot vaccinate themselves due to immunocompromise. Ultimately, it is your awesome body and you have to make the best choice for yourself, be that vaccines or abstaining, and I am here to support your health either way. But you never know who you will come across in this amazing life, so why not care for each other as best we can if we have the personal privilege of having intact immune systems?
There is no magic injection to stave off the cold, but we do have the ability to anticipate what the most likely flu strains are going to be and vaccinate against those. Is it always spot on? Of course not. Vaccines have to be manufactured in advance of the flu season if we have any fighting chance, and sometimes those guesses miss the mark due to viral mutations we didn’t see coming or just flat out guessing wrong on strain. Even with those misses, CDC reports show the seasonal flu vaccine prevents between 50-82% of new flu cases. Which means less time off work and fewer hospitalizations for quite a lot of folks.
Vaccinations aside, there are a number of ways we can bolster ourselves against that nefarious cloud of illness that swirls around us all winter long. The first weapon I always think of in the fight to remain healthy is the fuel we put into our bodies. Are you mostly an orange cheese flavored snack crisp or are you a walking pile of spinach? The immune system needs vitamins and minerals to function, and you don’t really get those from food that doesn’t resemble actual food. By all means, snack crisp away. Those are delicious. But keeping a strong, resilient body means that we need to maybe eat a few (not fried, dude) vegetables. Every day. No really. I know, doctors are the worst.
There are so many benefits to eating a well balanced diet full of powerhouse foods with all sorts of nutrients in them. For the sake of brevity here, let’s focus on a couple good recommendations:
- Zinc plays a huge role in keeping our immune system functioning optimally. It keeps our immune cells replicating and?activated, as well as keeping our cytokines (like the town crier) alive and kicking. We need zinc to keep our personal armies against disease going. So where do you find zinc in the snack world? Good news for all you
carnivores out there, animal proteins are high in zinc. So if you needed an excuse to tuck into a steak, there you go. Just do my poor little heart (and yours) a favor and ethically source your meat whenever possible, okay? Not into the meat foods? While a little less plentiful and bioavailable than meat sources, there is a solid amount of zinc in spinach, kidney beans, flax seeds, and egg yolks.
- Garlic can do everything from repelling vampires to keeping us healthy. It is magic and wise, serving to fight harmful pathogens while keeping our own microflora strong. Eating garlic regularly?can help boost the immune system overall by modulating those cytokines and increasing our body’s activation of immune cells.
You are eating whole foods, drinking water, and you got that flu vaccine. Nice work! Yet everyone around you is dropping like goo covered flies and you are worried that you might be next. One way to stay healthy is to keep that stress level as low as possible. When we are operating at higher levels of tension, our immune system tends to take a back seat to other functions, like say vision and running. Our body is fantastic at prioritizing in acute situations, shunting energy away from things that are more suited to chill times and toward those skills that are going to get you away from that monster, up into that tree, and chucking spears the most efficiently. Which is great for when you have to spear a monster in the head, but in this modern world we tend to not have to do that all too often. Our stress is more of a slow burn, always in the background, always bringing down our reserves just a little bit. Rhodiola might be a good herb to help you moderate that excess cortisol and start bringing your chronic stress back to a point of equilibrium. Another solid adaptogenic (stress modulating) herb is Ashwaganda, an ayurvedic herb with a long history of use for treatment of anxiety. All in all, a better physiologic response to stress will result in you getting sick less often, or if you are anything like I was in medical school, will help you not get fall on the ground ill the second you are no longer too stressed out to breathe. Let’s put stress management in the same category as eating food that looks like real food, shall we? Just do this as part of your daily life.
Oh no! I got sick, now what?
First and foremost, you little germ monster, stay home if you are sick. No one wants your cooties. If you do have to go to work or school, please for the love of all that is good in this world, wash your hands all the time. Cover your coughs and sneezes with your arm, not your hands. The second you sneeze into your hand and touch a doorknob, all those polite niceties are out the window and you are no better than the monkey in the movie Outbreak. Where to go from there depends on what kind of sick you are. If you actually have the flu, there are medications that can shorten the duration of illness if you start them within the first couple of days of being sick. And no, antibiotics aren’t going to help here. Those are only for bacterial infections. You have to take the right antibiotic for the right bacteria for the right amount of time. So please, the second you feel sick don’t just take the leftover pills you got from your Aunt Josie. That only helps?breed antibiotic resistance. Stop doing that.
For colds or a flu that have taken hold,?you are in for the duration of the virus, which is generally anywhere from 7 to 21 days. For some reason, viruses like to live in one week increments. In this very ordered universe, a good bet is balancing symptoms relief with allowing your immune system to do its job. Your best friend is going to be lots of rest. If you have a series you were fixing to lay in bed and binge watch on Netflix for the next 72 hours, now is the time. All those cytokines were probably going to induce sickness behavior and make you do it anyway, so why not roll with it and become an expert on seasons 2-5 of the X Files? Also, let your fever be a fever and lay off the NSAIDs. Fevers?are intended to increase your temperature above the point where the virus can survive. You don’t want the fever to get higher than 103F or persist?for more than a few days, but before these thresholds a fever is a powerful weapon. If you do go beyond these points, go to the doctor. Don’t try to be a hero.
Make sure to get lots of water. It helps to break up mucus so you can cough it up. Speaking of water, what about those neti pots? You already feel terrible, why not add some light water torture to the mix? But seriously, neti pots are fantastic for rinsing out the sinuses and preventing (or treating) sinus infections. Once you get over the aversion to intentionally putting salt water into your nose, they really are not bad. This is coming from a grown adult who still plugs her nose when she jumps into the water, so you too can overcome. Another application of water that is perhaps less intimidating is steam inhalation. This hydrates the mucus membranes and helps break up that mucus. Adding essential oils to the water is a great way to get some added benefit for adults, not for kiddos under two. Repeat, no essential oils for kiddos under two.?Two of my favorite oils are thyme and eucalyptus. Thyme is especially fantastic for viral or bacterial sinus infections as it is antimicrobial (and smells like pizza!); only use a couple of drops though or it will be too strong. Eucalyptus is also antimicrobial and is wonderful at relaxing inflamed mucosal tissue.
There are quite a few herbs that are useful when you have fallen ill. From sage for congestion to ginger for the chills, the options for plant medicine are seemingly endless. There are a number of commercially available products to treat viral illness, and they will help. Even better though is taking advantage of the years of schooling your naturopath (ahem…)?has in herbal compounding and getting a formula that is tailored to your very unique set of symptoms. There really is something to that secret ingredient of love.
The naturopathic physicians at Vitality NW have a depth of experience in getting you better when colds come knocking. If you need someone to take care of you, don’t hesitate to give us a call.