When the weather turns colder, many people end up catching colds. While seasonal illnesses are not primarily related to the temperatures outside, there are a number of wintertime factors that can weaken our immune system defenses like close quarters, drier and recycled air. Luckily, there are plenty of treatments naturopathic doctors employ to fight viruses and bacteria without resorting to pharmaceuticals.
We asked naturopathic doctors to share their advice on how to best beat colds and flus through the use of naturopathic remedies.
The first line of defense to keep from getting sick is avoiding common risk factors.
It may sound obvious, but the biggest risk factor is being around others who are sick.
Executive Director, Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges
“Aside from living in a bubble, taking precautions to stay away from actively sick people, and frequent hand washing are most effective. Most cold and flu viruses are transmitted through respiratory droplets, so if you see someone coughing and sneezing, try to stay away.”
In addition, excessive stress and other unhealthy habits put you at a greater risk of getting sick.
Associate Professor, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine
“Most of the patients who get sick in the winter are those who have lifestyles that are compromised in some way – including poor sleep habits and too much stress. This is particularly noticeable when a person is trying to push through an intense time. Their higher-than-normal cortisol levels keep any illnesses at bay while they neglect sleep and self-care, and then when the event is over (or they simply can’t keep up the pace), they come down with something hard. I encourage all my patients to make sure they set healthy boundaries for themselves, keeping the basics in place.”
Being indoors during the cold weather also increases your chances of catching something.
Adjunct Clinical Faculty, University of Bridgeport School of Naturopathic Medicine
“It’s important to be vigilant about symptoms. The indoor environment has recirculated and heated air, which carries more particles that can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. The drier winter air can also compromise the natural mucus barrier. Those are the portals through which the typical winter cold or flu virus enters the body. Pay attention to these areas! If they begin to itch, tickle, or start to discharge mucus, that is when we must act to prevent or slow viral infection.”
In addition to avoiding risk factors, there are a number of preventative health practices that can boost your immune system and keep you healthy.
“Our bodies’ immune systems function best when we give them room to work. That means making sure we’re getting optimal sleep, keeping our stress at bay, exercising and eating a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and flavonoids,” Dr. Yanez explains.
Here are nine of the top habits you can try to prevent illness:
Graduate, Bastyr University
“I drink half of my weight in ounces of water. Take your weight, divide it in half, and then divide it by eight to get the number of cups needed on a daily basis. If you think it’s too much, you can substitute some herbal tea for water. Some people need to doctor their water up with electrolytes like Himalayan salt, lemon, or frozen fruit help with the taste. If you’re dehydrated or you don’t absorb water very well (i.e. if the water goes right through you and you urinate pretty quickly after drinking water), then adding salt or lemon can be helpful.”
Dr. Solomonian recommends eating lots of fruits and veggies, healthy fats, adequate protein, fiber, and minimal simple sugars.
“Avoid sugar, candy, or pastry binges, especially around holidays!” Dr. Furlong adds.
“I try to sleep at least eight hours a night, and when I need a reset, I may stay in bed for at least ten hours per night, even if not all of those hours are sleep-filled. Healing occurs in the restful and sleep state, and it is very important for the innate capacity of the body to heal to kick in,” Dr. Parrish says.
With the onset of shorter days, Dr. Furlong recommends, “sleep a bit more than usual. Going to bed earlier matches the earlier sunsets.”
“It can’t be said enough—wash your hands. Good old soap and water are more than effective,” Dr. Yanez urges. “Saline rinses with a neti pot can also be helpful during the height of flu season to keep the respiratory passages clear.”
Dr. Furlong adds, “use a (-) ion generator in your office or at your desk. This keeps the air more like outdoor air and decreases particles and droplets in the air.”
Dr. Solomonian says it’s important to get sufficient moderate to vigorous physical activity. Ideally, that means 30 to 60 minutes per day, but at a minimum, it should be 150 minutes per week.
Dr. Furlong adds that outside exercise is even better. “Get outdoors for a bit, regardless of the weather! There is no bad weather, just bad clothes!”
“My clinic offers infrared sauna therapy in addition to constitutional hydrotherapy, and we also suggest patients take Epsom salt baths with two cups of Epsom salts per bath.” Dr. Parrish says.
7. Mindfulness and Meditation
Dr. Parrish practices deep breathing daily. “Meditation relaxes my mind and decreases cortisol that contributes to the fight-or-flight stress response,” she says. “Meditation also helps fight off sickness or prevent it altogether because prevention of illness and healing happens in a restful state.”
Managing stress with self-care is crucial, according to Dr. Solomonian. “It could be meditation, dancing, yoga, time with loved ones, seeking opportunities for laughter, expressing gratitude…whatever is most important for you!”
Dr. Furlong recommends elderberry, vitamin C, Zinc lozenges, vitamin A & D gel caps, Oscillococcinum, Echinacea, Goldenseal, or Oregon Grape fluid extract. Dr. Solomonian adds that “immunomodulating and adaptogenic herbs can help (think Astragalus, Ganoderma, Codonopsis, etc.), and some supplements may reduce the likelihood of illness (eg. zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C), but it’s tough for these strategies to make up for a poor lifestyle.”
If you do come down with something, naturopathic treatments can help soothe symptoms and hasten recovery.
“The key is to start natural therapies at the first signs of feeling unwell,” Dr. Yanez says. “Often during the season, I start taking elderberry – especially if there are bugs going around. I will up vitamin C to bowel tolerance, grab some zinc lozenges, and start with any antiviral herbs I may have on hand. I always have garlic at home and usually elderberry syrup, so these are often a quick go to. Garlic soup, garlic tea, and raw garlic in things like guacamole, hummus or tabbouleh are easy ways to hide copious amounts of the herb otherwise known as the ‘stinking rose.’ If I remember, I will also incorporate a contrasting hydrotherapy bath before bed. I’ll start out in a hot tub and then jump in a cold shower, and if time allows, repeat. Always end on cold for the best circulatory response. Then sip on ginger tea and wrap up in bed for a good night’s sleep.”
“We use lots of different naturopathic treatments to recover from illness,” Dr. Parrish says. “From prescribing vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin A to boost the immune system, to prescribing products like Acute Immune and Chronic Immune, usually depending on severity and longevity of symptoms or how lab results pan out.”
“My favorite approaches to illness (mostly the common cold) include rest, fluids (teas, broths, smoothies), and hydrotherapy,” Dr. Solomonian says. “I’m a big advocate of ‘magic socks,’ steam inhalations, and nasal irrigation. Because acute illnesses (again, mostly the common cold) can manifest in different ways, I find herbs the most helpful next tier to address the individual symptoms. Simple formulas can be made with immunostimulants like andrographis and elderberry; antimicrobials like hydrastis, thymus, salvia; demulcents like ulmus and honey; and anti-tussives like thymus and honey. Since most viruses induce a low or no fever, warming herbs can help—think ginger, or cinnamon. If the fever is higher (like with the flu), diaphoretics might be better—I like yarrow and nepeta.”
“Obviously, if you have any odd or allergic reaction to any of the recommended substances, do not take,” Dr. Furlong warns. “Herb quality varies tremendously and discount brands may not work at all or may have allergic substances in them. If you have rapid development of breathing problems (wheezing, asthma, can’t-get-a-breath feeling), chest pain, or pressure with fever or other acute symptoms, see your doctor immediately.”
NDs not only recommend these naturopathic remedies to patients–they rely on them to treat their own illnesses as well.
“I wouldn’t recommend them if I didn’t do them,” Dr. Parrish says.
“I use these myself one or two times a year when I feel the beginning symptoms,” Dr. Furlong says. “I find they often stop the virus completely, leaving me with nothing more than one day of a runny nose. Even if I’ve waited a bit too long, they shorten the symptoms and make them less severe.”
“As a mom of a young child who is constantly bringing home the bug du jour, it can be challenging to not get sick,” Dr. Yanez says. “I do my best to stay up on rest and good food and have plenty of antiviral herbs around for when the germs arrive.”
“Healthy lifestyle is really important for me,” Dr. Solomonian says. “It drives my kids nuts, but these pillars—nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress management—are strongly emphasized in our household. Stress management is probably the thing I tend to neglect the most…a symptom of our busy, modern lifestyle…but I’m working on it. And I try to heed the reminders that the universe gives me to take better care of myself. If I feel like I’m coming down with something, I get on the herbs right away, and the nasal irrigation. And my kids are the first to ask for (and remind me of) magic socks when anyone gets ill. Fortunately, none of us gets hit very often or very hard, so I guess we’re doing something right!”
“It’s normal for most people to get a cold once or twice a year, but by keeping up with the basics, the frequency, intensity, and duration of the illness is likely to be less,” Dr. Solomonian says.