Water is your friend - The importance of hydration cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to recovering from an illness. The body is efficient at laying down mucus in the respiratory tract to trap invading pathogens and then expel them by coughing. In order to keep the secretions thin enough to easily cough up, the body should be well hydrated, preferably by drinking a lot of warm liquids from herbal teas or broths. Taking steam baths or showers can also help moisten and thin the secretions in the respiratory tract. If you do not have access to a steam shower, you can bring a quart-size pot of water to a boil, remove from heat, and then place your face a comfortable distance from the pot with a towel over your head to help trap the steam for inhalation. Inhale through your nose for sinus congestion, and inhale through your mouth for chest congestion. Adding a handful of decongesting and antimicrobial herbs/oils such as eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme, and peppermint to the water can also increase the effectiveness of the steam.
Don't Forget the Vitamin D - Vitamin D is a very effective antimicrobial agent, producing 200-300 peptides in the body that kill off viruses, bacteria, and fungi. A majority of our body's vitamin D is created by exposure to the sun and since it is estimated that during the darker, colder months of winter up to 85% of US adults are deficient in vitamin D, it makes sense that the immune system of the US population is compromised enough to create outbreaks of cold and flu infections. Direct sunlight exposure may be difficult for many people to get during the winter months in order to keep vitamin D levels in the body within a healthy, normal range, so taking a daily oral vitamin D supplement of 2000 IU is a great start to helping prevent and fight cold and flu infections.
Consider immune-boosting herbs - Though there are many plants and herbs that can help power-up the immune system, the following are the most widely used by naturopathic doctors and can be ingested in capsules. If you have underlying health conditions, be sure to check with your doctor before taking any new herbs.
Echinacea - This is perhaps the most popular herbal immune enhancer and for good reason. Echinacea contains flavanoids which are a group of plant pigments that protect the body against free radicals, making echinacea a strong antioxidant. Echinacea also contains polysaccharides that stimulate the immune system and enhance phagocytosis (the consumption of viruses and bacteria by the body's macrophage white blood cells). Studies have shown that those taking echinacea during an influenza infection have less severe symptoms and recover faster than those who don't take echinacea.
Goldenseal - The goldenseal plant is rich in alkaloids such as berberine which give it its antibiotic properties. This herb also increases blood supply to the spleen which is responsible for releasing immune-enhancing compounds. Because of the potency of the alkaloids in goldenseal, it is best to only use this herb for a short duration of time as prolonged use may affect the friendly bacteria in the body's GI tract.
Astragalus - Astragalus or Chinese milkvetch has been shown in Chinese clinical studies to reduce the incidence and duration of colds. Like echinacea, this herb also helps support spleen function which is an important component in immune function. Astragalus helps give the immune system a boost by increasing the body's white blood cell activity.
Licorice - Licorice is possibly one of the most-often overlooked herbal remedies but it is possibly one of the better herbal supplements to take during a respiratory infection. In addition to its immune boosting abilities to increase the body's interferon levels (a key immune chemical that helps to fight off viruses), licorice also has anti-inflammatory properties that help to soothe and relieve an irritated and inflamed respiratory tract from coughing and sore throat. Licorice has an expectorant effect on the body, helping the body to cough up secretions with less effort by thinning them out. Licorice also supports the adrenal glands which help the body deal with stress and can aid in more rapid healing.
Let food be thy medicine - Though our pill-popping society would have us first reach for a medication or supplement when faced with an illness, some of nature's most potent and beneficial immune boosters can be found right in our kitchens. The following foods not only taste good, but have several properties that make them a great staple for those suffering from the cold or flu.
Raw Honey - Raw honey has been shown in studies to have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties that make it great at helping the body to combat both external and internal infections. Adding raw honey to warm tea or even just taking a spoonful of honey not only help to fight infection, but both are also very soothing to sore throats.
Garlic - Not just a delicious additive to many cuisines across the globe, garlic is a powerful antioxidant with anti-microbial, antiviral, and antibiotic properties. For fighting infection, it is best consumed raw. Crushing or mincing the clove over a piece of toast with honey is one palatable way to consume raw garlic, though you may opt to take it like a pill and cut a raw clove in half and swallow it down with a glass of water every few hours. In addition to helping fight an infection, garlic is also a warming herb and helps to open up the pores for sweating off a fever.
Cinnamon - In addition to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties, cinnamon is also warming and promote sweating off a fever and ridding the body of toxins. Cinnamon can be taken with a spoonful of raw honey or added to a cup of warm tea.
Ginger - Perhaps one of the most potent warming foods you can ingest, ginger promotes circulation and heats up the body and break a fever sooner. Though other foods like cayenne have a similar effect, ginger is not upsetting to the stomach and can actually settle a queasy stomach and aid in digestion. Ginger is also a natural anti-viral so it is an ideal additive to a cup of warm tea when your body is fighting the cold or flu.
Shiitake Mushrooms - Shiitake has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine because of its immune-stimulating properties. Research suggests that a compound in shiitake mushrooms called lentinan works in the body to increase white blood cell production and enhance macrophage and T-cell activity.
Limit your sugar intake - It is common knowledge that too much sugar consumption can lead to cavities, weight gain, and diabetes, but sugar is also an immune-buster. An excess of sugar in the diet can actually inhibit phagocytosis (the process by which white blood cells consume bacteria and viruses in the body), thereby preventing the body from fighting infection. A high amount of sugar and simple carbohydrates in your diet also stresses the liver and pancreas, making it difficult for your body to concentrate on fighting off infection. So while there are many health reasons to limit sugar intake in your diet, it is especially wise to do so while fighting off an infection.
Keep your body warm and rested- Helping to keep your body warm by drinking hot teas, taking warm epsom salt baths, and keeping layered and under blankets takes the burden off the body to raise its temperature and fight off infection. By getting plenty of rest and keeping warm, your body will be more efficient at combating foreign pathogens.
Know when to call the doctor - Remember that serious conditions such as strep throat, bronchitis, meningitis, and asthma can sometimes look like the common cold or flu. If your symptoms become severe and unrelenting (stiff neck, high fever, difficulty breathing, inability to keep hydrated), call your doctor.