This turned out to be another really long post, so I'm uploading it in two parts to make it a more manageable read! You can check out Part Two here.
It’s that time of year when colds are upon us again, so I thought I’d write a blog post all about how to deal with them. I used to think a lot of this was common knowledge to everyone, but it turns out many people outside the alternative health community have no idea what to do when they get a cold, other than take painkillers and feel miserable until it passes. I’m not averse to taking painkillers and feeling miserable myself when I get one, but I’d be seriously panic stricken if I didn’t have all my remedies with me at the first sign of a prickly throat! Once in a while we all get hit by a horrible cold, but there is no reason why we have to catch several of them a year, nor why each one has to last for days. Here I share loads of tips to catch your cold before it catches you and send it on its way!
Before I begin, it may be useful to write a little about how colds actually work. A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, contracted when droplets of body fluid from an infectious person are transferred directly, or via contact with shared surfaces into the mouth, nose, eyes or ears. A person can be infectious before they have begun to exhibit symptoms and they remain infectious until all symptoms have gone. Some people can be infected with a cold virus and not develop any symptoms, though why this is the case for some people with some strains of the virus is unknown. There are over 200 strains of cold virus and around 50% of them are of the rhinovirus variety.
In simplistic terms, a virus is a non-living invader that reproduces by breaking into its host’s body cells, hijacking the ‘photocopier’ inside that usually copies useful information and forcing it to photocopy lots of new viruses instead. Eventually the host cell becomes so full of virus copies that it bursts, scattering them and leaving each of them free to enter other body cells and repeat the process. Every virus wears a protein coat to protect its internal DNA/RNA and the coat has spikes on for piercing and entering body cells. The spikes contain enzymes that help to break cell membranes, making entry easier for the virus. A virus is unable to reproduce on its own, so if entry to a host cell cannot be gained, it will eventually become inactive. A substance is described as having ‘antiviral’ properties if it somehow disrupts a virus’ ability to reproduce, or if it stimulates the body’s immune response to destroy and break down the virus.
Each type of virus targets particular host cells and requires certain environmental conditions to remain active. The common cold targets the upper respiratory tract and prefers cooler conditions, which is why each winter tends to herald a new season of infection. When we have a cold, many of the symptoms we feel are part of our body’s immune response to the invading virus. Our throat becomes hot and sore as part of the inflammatory response; our nose runs to help us expel the virus in our mucus; we develop a temperature so that the cool-preferring virus can be rendered inactive. Rather than attempt to quash these symptoms with over the counter remedies, many of which are designed to lower body temperature and suppress nasal discharge, it is far better to assist the body in carrying out its immune responses so that a full and prompt recovery can occur.
Please remember, as always, that I am not a doctor, so do speak to one if you feel you’ve got something more serious than a cold, or if you’re at risk of developing complications from one. Remember also to speak to your health professional before taking complementary medicines that you’ve not tried before. The tips below work most effectively when used at the very first sign of a cold, so although they can still be of benefit when you’re deep in the throes of it, the longer you wait to act and the harder it is likely to hit you. Don’t spend three days letting it turn into a blocked-nose horror and then complain that vitamins don’t work! Lots of the following suggestions can also be used pre-emptively if you’ve been around other people with colds, or are just feeling a bit run down. Prevention is always better than cure!
Drink lemon juice.
I could fill a whole blog post on the uses and benefits of lemon juice, but in summary it’s an excellent antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal, and the sharpness is soothing to sore throats. It also breaks up mucus well, so if your throat feels sticky or you’ve got catarrh, it helps with that. I use the juice of half or a whole lemon, diluted in hot water, sometimes with Manuka honey stirred in. Don’t sweeten it with ordinary sugar – there are no health benefits to be had from doing that! Lemon juice alkalises the urine nicely, making it a great choice for many interstitial cystitis sufferers, and it stimulates the production of bile, which is good for digestion.
Use Manuka honey.
Licking Manuka honey off a spoon coats the throat, helping with soreness or tickly coughs. Antiviral, anti-inflammatory and healing, it really soothes irritated and infected tissue. A UMF of 10+ is required for therapeutic benefit, so it’s not a cheap option, but many swear by it during colds, or even as a daily health-booster. Given that honey is a type of sugar and I limit my own sugar consumption, I’m always reluctant to use very much. While researching for this post though, I’ve read that 1-2 tablespoons a day is necessary to get the benefit, so it looks like I’ve not been using Manuka honey to its full effect for colds. Next time I feel one coming on I might try taking more and see for myself how effective it is! Ordinary, cheap honey does not confer the same antimicrobial effects as Manuka honey, so you do need to buy the genuine stuff for therapeutic usage.
Take raw, unpasteurised, apple cider vinegar.
I use a teaspoon of this in ‘Tiny’s Brew’ or added to lemon water, although you can make a drink out of just the vinegar and some water if you prefer. It has similar healing properties to lemon juice and is safe and even beneficial for most IC sufferers. Apple cider vinegar is one of my larder staples because I also use it on my food – it tastes pretty much like normal vinegar, if you’re wondering! Do use raw, unpasteurised – I get the 5 litre containers of it from Biona and each one lasts me years.
Drink elderberry juice – not cordial!
Elderberry juice is a lovely winter treat for me – I use the brand Schoenenberger, diluted in water and sweetened with a little Manuka honey (the honey alters the flavour quite a lot, so if you try it without honey and decide you don’t like it, do try it again with honey added). Elderberry has amazing antiviral properties – it coats the virus spikes, rendering them ineffective and may also disable the enzymes used by the virus to damage the cell membrane. Elderberry is a mild diaphoretic (makes you feel warmer), which is excellent for disabling cool-loving cold viruses and helping you to sweat them out! I often mix my evening dose of D-Mannose into elderberry juice during the winter months. It’s important to use juice and not cordial, as you don’t want anything with added sugar.
Add cinnamon powder/sticks, ginger root and cloves to your drink of choice.
All are warming, great for sore throats and have antiviral properties. I don’t tend to use cinnamon or cloves myself because I’m not keen on the taste, but I do juice an inch of fresh ginger with a carrot and an apple if I feel I’m getting a sore throat, or want a quick nutrient boost. This combination makes an excellent pre-breakfast drink, as aside from its throat soothing property it is also detoxing and stimulates the digestion. Cinnamon, ginger and cloves may all be added to lemon and honey drinks – you’ll need to cover the mug and let them steep for a bit to bring out the goodness.
Take Potter’s Cold and Flu Relief.
My mum is a medical herbalist, so she makes her own version of the famous Potter’s blend which I take at the first sign of a cold, or even if I’m just feeling really chilly. If I’m feeling vulnerable to infections – maybe I’ve not been sleeping well and have had to go out into a public place and mix with people/touch things I wouldn’t normally – I’ll often have some of this as a component of Tiny’s Brew when I get in. It contains antiviral, diaphoretic herbs to stimulate the immune response and increase body temperature. It tastes horrible, but really does the trick and I find it effective at all stages of the having a cold process. People with chronic catarrh may also find this mixture helpful, as it loosens the congestion. The Potter’s mixture is available online and any herbalist should be able to make you a blend of something similar.
Use Lugol’s iodine solution.
There is a reason why surgeons use iodine to clean things – it kills bugs spectacularly! You can either dilute a few drops in water and drink it, or ‘paint your throat’ with it. This involves dripping it not onto the actual inside throat, but onto the neck area, where you then rub it in. DO NOT DRIP IT UNDILUTED INTO THE MOUTH! Iodine stains the skin a disgusting shade of brown, so don’t paint your throat just before going out and beware of your clothes/bed linen! I do think the topical application is effective and drinking the diluted solution doesn’t seem to irritate my bladder, although I do err on the side of caution with only about four drops to a glass of water. Some people take much more than this though and I’ve even read accounts of people’s interstitial cystitis improving upon drinking iodine solution (presumably because they had an underlying, low level bladder infection). Hyperthyroid patients may want to avoid using iodine, although some are fine with it and a few even find it helpful.
Drink bicarbonate of soda in water.
Used extensively as a remedy for flu by Dr Volney S. Cheney in the late 1910s, there’s not much by way of theory or research to back this up, but anecdotally people do seem to find it effective. It tastes rather salty, but has the advantage of being IC safe thanks to its alkalising effect on the urine. I’ve tried it in the early stages of a cold and I did think it helped, although it’s not one of my principle weapons as I already do so many other things and I tend towards low stomach acid as it is. If you’re going to try this bicarbonate of soda, don’t do it just before or after eating, or else you’ll neutralise your stomach acid and make yourself feel very sickly.
Gargle with tinctures of herbs such as myrrh, calendula, sage or Echinacea.
Some people gargle with mouthwash or salt water for their antiseptic effects – I sometimes do it with mouthwash after I’ve cleaned my teeth, but I’ve never tried doing it with salt water. A Japanese study found that gargling daily with plain water cut the incidence of colds by 36%, so it seems that the act of gargling itself may be beneficial in helping us to stay healthy. During a cold, I use combinations of the above herbs, all of which are antiviral and healing. When your throat is sore, inflamed or coated with mucus, gargling with these herbs leaves you feeling temporarily cleansed and soothed. Echinacea is famous as an immune booster and if myrrh was considered an appropriate gift for baby Jesus, I’m sure it’s good enough for a Tiny Pioneer’s sore throat! You can swallow the herbs after you’ve gargled with them, but I tend to spit them out because I don’t like the idea of swallowing the ‘dirty’ mixture. I sometimes take a small sip of clean mixture at the end so the herbs can do their healing, immune boosting work from the inside as well. Some herbs have maximum safe dosages, so if you’re planning on ingesting them after you’ve gargled, do check the limits first. You can gargle and spit ad lib – I do it as often as possible at the first sign of a cold in the hope of warding it off before it progresses!
Drink yarrow, elderflower and peppermint tea.
If you can get hold of these dried herbs, you can make them into a tea. Once again they are antiviral and diaphoretic – put a heaped teaspoon of each into a mug, pour in some very hot water, cover the mug and leave everything to brew for a few minutes. Strain the mixture and sweeten with a little honey if you wish. Yarrow is said to be most effective at the very beginning of a cold, so this is one I use at the first sign of a prickly throat, but if I succumb to the snotty stages that come later, I tend to ditch this remedy in favour of others, because it’s a bit messy to make. I’ve warded off many a cold with an early dose of this mixture though and it’s another I make prophylactically if I’m feeling run down or cold. You can make a full day’s worth at once and store it in a flask to cut down on mess.
Take grapefruit seed extract.
This is an excellent antiviral and is also antibacterial and antifungal. You MUST dilute it in water as it will burn if you take it neat – I use about eight drops in a small glass of water, or twelve drops in a bigger glass. It tastes hideous, but I used to take it twice daily when I first changed my diet, as it is recommended for Candida cleanses. You can gargle with it or use it for nose drops or ear drops as well – and apparently it’s also good for head lice! The liquid drops are in my opinion much better than the tablets and are also more versatile. A bottle lasts ages, even with daily use, so this is quite an economical option.
Drink Tiny’s Brew.
This consists of lemon juice, elderberry juice, apple cider vinegar, my mum’s version of Potter’s cold and flu mix and Manuka honey all mixed together. Sometimes I stick some grapefruit seed extract and iodine in there as well. It’s essentially just a mixture of several of the above ingredients all in one cup to maximise healing impact and minimise grim drinks. The lemon and elderberry are sufficiently strong tasting to mask the other ingredients quite well, so I find it much preferable to having everything separately.
Take vitamin C.
Vitamin C could occupy another whole blog post, but I’ll try to keep things brief here. Multiple clinical studies have concluded that vitamin C is ineffective both for preventing colds and reducing symptoms/duration, so why include it in this post? Because in trials, the dosages studied have generally been only 0.2 grams to 1 gram per day. This is akin to trying to mop your whole kitchen floor with a small paintbrush – you’d hardly blame the tool or the detergent for being ineffective if it was obvious you needed a bigger mop. In fact 2 grams of vitamin C taken daily has been shown to reduce the incidence of colds and in my non-doctor opinion, the suggestion that more than 2 grams a day is harmful is a load of old rubbish for the majority of people. Vitamin C is an extremely well tolerated substance and is water soluble, meaning any excess can be easily excreted by the body. Unlike some mammals, humans are unable to make their own vitamin C, meaning we must obtain it from diet and supplementation – and given that it remains in the body for only around six hours, we need to ingest it regularly to maintain optimum levels. It’s been estimated that if we could make our own vitamin C, we’d make 2 to 4 grams a day. Unless you’ve got kidney issues or elevated iron levels, I see no reason at all why doses of 2 grams a day – and higher – should cause any problems.
While 2 grams a day of vitamin C can help to reduce the likelihood of you actually contracting a cold, if you do get one, higher doses are useful to send it on its way sooner. Three grams every four hours, or a gram every hour, is a protocol recommended by many nutritionists to maintain therapeutic levels during an infection. Vitamin C works by damaging the protein coat of a virus and by making body cells more resistant to penetration. Additionally, the vitamin stimulates the body’s immune response, helping the virus to be destroyed. It is recommended that you take as much vitamin C as is necessary to achieve bowel tolerance (a polite way of saying take as much as you can until you get diarrhoea) and then on the next day take this amount minus a couple of grams until your cold symptoms are gone. It’s best to taper the dose of vitamin C at that point rather than reducing it too abruptly.
I always take megadoses of vitamin C when I feel a cold coming on – the earlier you begin the protocol the better! Taking high doses is very much cheaper and easier if you are able to tolerate ascorbic acid, but of course many IC sufferers cannot. (See this blog post if you’re confused about different types of vitamin C and interstitial cystitis.) For daily use, my preferred type is magnesium ascorbate, because magnesium also helps with my occasional anxiety, but unfortunately once I ramp up the dosage, the magnesium gives me loose bowels long before the vitamin C itself does! During a cold, I therefore also supplement with Desert Harvest’s Buffered Vitamin C, which is of course totally IC safe and uses calcium as the accompanying mineral. However, its relatively low dose of 400mg of vitamin C per capsule means I end up swallowing a lot of capsules to hit my 3g every 4 hours target! I should really stock up on some extra varieties of vitamin C so I can easily take plenty if I need to (sodium ascorbate is an easy form to megadose with, although I’ve never tried it), but once my cold is gone I forget until next time – and of course each new supplement is an added expense.
I’ve warded off many a cold with prompt high doses of vitamin C and on those occasions when I’ve succumbed, I’ve often skimped a bit to try to avoid getting an upset stomach. Like most women I’m really embarrassed about going to the toilet away from home, so if I’ve got a heavy work schedule or need to be somewhere, I often cut back too soon. A quick word about effervescent vitamin C for those who can tolerate ascorbic acid – it tends to be full of artificial sweetener, which is very unhealthy, and the bubbles make it quite impractical for megadosing!
If you take a multivitamin and mineral supplement, you should be getting between 7.5mg and 15 mg a day anyway. 10-15mg is a decent maintenance dose, but if you feel a cold coming on, you can take more for as long as your cold lasts. Some people take up to 75mg a day during their colds, but I don’t exceed 50mg myself, as excess amounts can easily upset the balance of other minerals, especially copper. Zinc doesn’t prevent colds, but it can shorten duration and lessen severity of symptoms if taken within the first 24 hours of symptoms appearing. I don’t think I get to my zinc quickly enough when I’m going down with a cold, so next time I feel one coming I will make it more of a priority and less of an afterthought.
Take vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked with a higher incidence of infections, including colds and flu. It’s a fat soluble vitamin and less easily excreted than vitamin C, meaning you need to exercise a bit more caution when taking it, so I’m not going to recommend dosages here. In any case, there is some controversy about the amounts needed to effectively fight infections. However, based on blood work I’ve had done in the last year, I know my own plasma level of vitamin D is 90nmol/L and my daily multivitamin supplies me with 500iu (most good multivitamin supplements will supply 1000iu per full dose, as does mine, but I only take half the dose each day). During the summer when I’m getting more sunlight, I might let supplementation lapse, but during the winter I take 1000-2000iu daily on top of my multivitamin. If I have a cold, I take 4000-8000iu daily, although in light of the research I’ve done for this post, I may take quite a bit more next time I feel like I’m starting with an infection. I recommend visiting the Vitamin D Society’s website if you want to learn more – I have no doubt I’ll be visiting again myself!
Eat garlic or take a garlic supplement.
Garlic is a great antiviral and a strong expectorant. (An expectorant is a substance that helps bring up mucus from the lungs and respiratory tract – in other words it makes you blow your nose or cough up phlegm!) Fresh, raw garlic works much better than supplements for loosening catarrh and congested snot, though of course it can sting the mouth and cause nausea if you have it too strong. The best way I’ve found to take it in raw is to mix it with a little butter and mash it into a jacket potato. Beware doing it too close to bedtime – it works SO well you’re unlikely to get any sleep with the perpetual nose blowing that will follow! If you’re really blocked up and want to get things moving, garlic is brilliant – and it’s also good for chronic catarrh. Garlic supplements are also quite effective if you buy a quality brand, but please don’t get the odourless kinds. It would be like drinking alcohol-free beer and wondering why you weren’t getting drunk – all bulk and no punch! Beyond its cold-fighting properties, garlic is an absolute powerhouse of health benefits, so unless you’ve got a date with a vampire, it’s probably a great idea to eat it!
I think this is quite long enough now for one post, so join me again in Part Two where I'll list more things you can try, as well as things you should avoid, if you feel you're starting with a cold.
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