Natural Ways to Support Immune Health during Cold and Flu Season
Colds and flu are rampant right now in CA and across the US. There is no cure for cold or flu -- but one can take measures to support their immune health, which is our body's line of defense against germs.
When a virus or bacteria invades our body it's the immune system that responds and works to eliminate the germs before they begin to multiply and cause the symptoms of cold or flu. If a virus or bacteria begins to multiply and evades this initial attempt of elimination, the symptoms of a cold or flu are also a response by our body to fight germs -- fever, mucus, coughing, and fatigue are a sign our body is fighting off the germs and working to clear them out of our body. Supporting our immune system can help us better fight off germs and help us to feel better faster if we do get sick.
Many peopled opted to get a flu vaccine to help their stoke their immune system to fight off the virus. Vaccines work by introducing your body to a weak or dead virus/bacteria or viral/bacterial protein that alerts your immune system to produce anti-bodies without getting the full blown symptoms of the illness. If you do get exposed to the actually virus your body can mount an attack more quickly and often prevent illness. A similar response occurs if you've already been exposed to a virus. If your body has seen the invader before it can fight it off more quickly. Of course some people prefer not to vaccinate for various reasons and are looking for natural ways to support immune health. More on this below.
So why aren't vaccines foolproof agains the flu or used to fight colds? Vaccines target a specific virus or bacteria. There are well over 200 virus strains implicated in the common cold and they often mutate. (1) There are also multiple strains of flu and they can mutate. People can acquire immunity or protection from a flu shot or contracting the virus. However, if there are multiple stains of virus circulating a flu vaccine specific for one or two types of virus may not be effective against all types of flu virus.
According to New Scientist's Deborah MacKenzie "A record number of flu stains are currently circulating..." This includes two B group and two A group viruses. Of the A strains H1N1 and H3N2, it is H3N2 that is wreaking havoc. (2) Scientists still struggle to understand what makes some flu viruses more severe than others.
So aside from vaccines how can protect themselves against the threat of cold and flu virus, especially for those who prefer avoiding vaccines?
Prevention is at the top of the list. Viruses are transmitted via airborne droplets, direct contact, and contaminated objects. Beyond prevention supporting your body and immune system can help it to do its job. Below are a few ways you can incorporate prevention and support naturally.
1. Wash your hands: Did you have a mom that was a stickler for washing your hands before you eat? Good advice. According to the CDC keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick. If soap and water are not available using a hand cleaner is the next best thing. (3). Alcohol based cleaners are readily available. If you dislike these you can try adding 10-12 drops of essential oils to aloe gel or aloe combined with distilled water. Lavender and orange essential oil make a nice combination and have germ fighting and immune supportive benefits.
2. Eat real food: Bone broth is all the rage right now. Do you remember mom or grandma cooking soup with loads of veggies, herbs, and meat with bones? Fresh, whole foods that "remember where they came from" nourish our bodies. Refined food that is stripped of nutrients or filling up on sugary treats does not nourish and support the body. Are you eating fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish, lean meats, nuts, beans, fresh herbs, -- real foods? We can't have a nutrition lesson here but supporting our body with good fuel can help it work at its best.
3. Adequate rest: When I was in martial arts one of my fellow classmates lived by the mantra "sleep is for the dead". While I appreciated his fighting spirit and intensity there is a reason that our bodies crave sleep. While we sleep many housekeeping tasks take place. Often if you are feeling unwell and tired taking the time to rest can help your body fight off an illness or recover faster.
4. Aromatherapy to fight germs: Plants have to fight off bacteria, viruses, and fungi as they grow. Many aromatic compounds found in essential oils are excellent at fighting viruses (4) and bacteria (5). We can use these same compounds to clear the air of germs by diffusing and to clean surfaces. Some aromatic compounds also stimulate the production of white blood cells (d-limonene rich oils such as lemon and orange for example). This supports the efforts of the immune system. One of my favorite clear the air blends is a homemade version of Thieves oil. I'll add a few drops of eucalyptus, a few drops of cinnamon bark, a few drops of clove bud, several drops of lemon, and a couple drops of rosemary to my diffuser. Sometimes I'll add in a bit of fir essential oil or ravintsara. It smells great and these essential oils are potent germ fighters.
A certified aromatherapist with clinical training or training in aromatic medicine may be able advise you on the internal use of essential oils, which may include sublingual, oral ingestion, or suppositories to fight an acute infection if it is within the scope of their practice.
5. Herbal helps: Herbs, vinegars, tinctures, and medicinal syrups can help boost immune health and support the body. One of my favorite ways to support the immune system is by making a simple elderberry syrup. Research on elderberry indicates that it can help fight the flu (6) (7). I am not usually able to find fresh elderberries so I use organic dried. I simmer 1 part dried elderberries to 2 parts water in a pot until the liquid reduced by half. I strain to remove the berries and measure the remaining liquid. I return the decoction to the pot and add a bit of clove and fresh ginger and honey to taste (so if I had a cup of decoction I'd add 1/2 c to 1 cup of honey). For preventative measures I use 1-2 tablespoons per day or as needed. To fight the cold and flu you can use small amounts frequently -- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon every few hours. You can take this directly or add to tea or drink in a spritzer. Thieves vinegar and medicinal pesto are also delicious ways to support your health -- click the links to see previous blog posts. And adding herbs like thyme, oregano, and rosemary and veggies like onions and garlic to your diet can help support your immune health.
If you have questions about aromatherapy or essential oils contact Tricia. And be on the lookout for the upcoming class on making medicinal syrups and essential oils for fighting germs.
4. Astani A, Reichling J, Schnitzler P (2010) Comparative study on the antiviral activity of selected monoterpenes derived from essential oils. Phytotherapy Research 24(5):673-679
5. Knobloch K, Pauli A, Iberl B, Weigand H, Weis N (1989) Antibacterial and antifungal properties of essential oil components. Journal of Essential Oil Research 1:119-128
6. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections, J. Int. Med. Res., 2004 March-Apr.; 32(2): 132-40.
7. Zichria Zakay-Rones, Noemi Varsano, Moshe Zlotnik, Orly Manor, Liora Regev, Miriam Schlesinger, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Inhibition of Several Strains of Influenza Virus in Vitro and Reduction of Symptoms by an Elderberry Extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an Outbreak of Influenza B Panama, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Winter 1995, 1(4): 361-369. doi:10.1089/acm.1995.1.361.