Cold season is upon us and, sooner or later, most of us will succumb to a nasty bug: achy body, sore throat, sneezes and coughs galore. I caught my first cold of the season already (traveling is really helpful like that) and it left me wondering: what can be done to prevent this?!
Well, I looked into it and found that there are a lot of scientifically proven (and time-tested) natural remedies that can help boost immunity to fight against the common cold, both as a preventative measure and to help your body rebound quickly if you do catch one.
What is the common cold?
The pain and misery known as “the common cold” is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat). It’s caused by a virus entering your body through your mouth, nose or eyes–often spread by an infected person’s sneeze or cough. Colds are most common in the winter because people spend more time inside in close proximity, a prime environment for pathogens spread through air.
Cold symptoms vary between people (and based on the strain of the virus), but usually include something along the lines of a sore throat, runny nose, cough and congestion. (Some people also get secondary bacterial infections in their ears or sinuses.) Even though they suck, colds are generally harmless and most people recover in a week or so.
Healthy adults can expect to have a few colds per year. Fortunately, you can reduce your chances of getting one by preparing your immune system to ward off any unwelcome viruses it may encounter. There are many proven natural methods to prevent colds, and to treat them when they rear their ugly head:
Raw honey is antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory. It soothes a sore throat and coughing by reducing inflammation and soothing irritated mucus membranes in the throat. (It’s been used in this capacity for centuries and has actually been found to be more effective than over-the-counter cough medicine.)
Take a couple tablespoons of honey plain, or add it to a cup of hot herbal tea or lemon water. Use raw honey, which has the beneficial enzymes and trace pollen that are useful medicinally. Raw honey should be somewhat murky (the syrup-like honey you’re used to seeing in the grocery store has been filtered and processed with heat, which destroys its beneficial compounds).
Lemon juice is a natural antiseptic and potent source of citric acid, which breaks up the mucus that causes a sore throat and helps kill bacteria or viruses in the throat too. Make lemon water with raw honey to soothe a sore throat: mix one tablespoon each of fresh lemon juice and raw honey in a mug, and fill with hot water.
Ginger is also antibacterial/antiviral/anti-inflammatory and helps fight against infection, as well as reduce pain and inflammation. (It’s been used to reduce pain and inflammation for centuries and some studies have shown that it’s superior to NSAIDs like Tylenol and Advil.)
Make a ginger tea by steeping a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger (thinly sliced) in boiling water. Strain and add a tablespoon or two of honey if you’d like.
Garlic is effective at preventing colds because of its antibacterial and antiviral properties (along with its many other immune-boosting health benefits!). It’s super tasty when cooked, but for medicinal use should be eaten raw. The beneficial compound for fighting colds is released after the garlic is crushed and is at its highest potency about 15 minutes later.
If you have a stomach made of steel you can munch on a plain garlic clove, but raw garlic on an empty stomach will upset most people. Try these other methods: work it into your meal with a homemade salad dressing or pesto; combine a minced clove of garlic with olive oil into a paste and add to a small bit of crackers or bread; or mix a finely minced clove of garlic with a tablespoon of honey and eat (a little weird, but hey, it’s medicine).
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar alkalizes the body, which helps it fight against viruses and bacteria. You can take a tablespoon or two plain at the on-set of a cold, mix it with water and/or honey, or add it to a salad dressing. ACV is also helpful at calming a cough. Try this easy homemade cough remedy made of ACV, honey, ginger and cayenne.
It’s no coincidence that chicken noodle soup is the go-to comfort food for sickies. Bone broth is a rich source of healing minerals that help the body fight off (and heal from) colds. The collagen in it is anti-inflammatory, which helps reduce the symptoms of a cold as well.
Broth from a can is not the same as the real thing–slow-simmered homemade bone broth like this. If you have a crockpot (or the time) to make the real thing, it’s one of the most nourishing/healing foods you can eat during times of illness. Have a cup of it several times a day–it’s full of nutrients and easy to digest, so the body’s energy can go into healing.
Oil of oregano
Known as “nature’s antibiotic,” this god-awful substance is super strong and effective at killing bacteria and viruses (so strong, in fact, it should only be taken for a couple days or so, as it can kill the good too). Take several drops a couple times a day, or use it in this cold-busting shot. It tastes like death, so definitely dilute it in water or make the recipe above.
This age-old remedy is packed full of antiviral/antibacterial ingredients and is sure to boost your immune system enough to stop a cold in its tracks. Full disclosure: it contains onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili and horseradish all in one jar, and it takes 2-4 weeks to prepare. But, if you’re willing to plan ahead you could have this superpower elixir ready for cold/flu season each year. My Darling Lemon Thyme has a good recipe for it.
This common sore throat remedy works because salt draws liquid out of mucus membranes in the throat, which helps to clear phlegm and reduce swelling (and therefore pain). Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon salt in a cup of warm water and gargle a few times a day.
Your gut is your immune system’s first line of defense. The healthier your gut microbiome is, the stronger your immune system will be. Most of us have comprised our gut health over many years of unhealthy eating, so re-populating your gut with healthy bacteria is important for overall immunity. (More info about that here and here.)
Avoid sugar and gluten
Both sugar and gluten suppress the immune system–they cause inflammation in the body, which triggers an immune response to reduce that inflammation, and therefore limits the strength of your immune system in fighting against the viruses, bacteria, etc. that can make you sick.
It’s best to only eat sugary foods in moderation anyway (like, not every day), but if you’re sick and want to feel better as soon as possible, you should avoid sugar like the plague. That also includes fruit and grains. Fruit is high in sugar and grains are quickly converted to sugar in the body, so it’s best to limit those too during illness.
This one is so obvious, but so important too. Eating a healthy, whole food, minimally processed diet will help you a) not get sick in the first place, and b) rebound quicker if a bug does get you. Check out this post and this post for more details on what “good nutrition” actually entails. But you can’t go wrong with eating lots of vegetables and cutting out processed foods (and excessive sugar and grains). Start there.
When you’re sick, your body needs proper nutrition to heal. Even if you don’t have much of an appetite, make an effort to eat smart. Avoid high-carb, starchy and sugary foods, which are inflammatory and hinder healing. Keep in mind that fibrous foods take a lot of digestive energy that could be better used fighting off the cold, so avoid those too. Focus on nutrient-dense, easy-to-digest foods like broth and green juice.
Reduce stress, think positive
Sounds a little oohey-gooey, but it’s scientific. High levels of mental stress and negativity puts physical stress on the body, depleting your minerals, lowering your immune defense, and making you more susceptible to illness. I know that during more stressful periods of my life I’ve tended to get sick more–and stay sick longer. Check out this article and this article for stress-reducing techniques.
Get enough vitamin D
I wrote more about vitamin D in this post, but it’s incredibly important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Many Americans are vitamin D deficient because we spend way too much of our lives inside, and the Standard American Diet (appropriate acronym SAD) doesn’t include many high-vitamin D foods like pasture-raised eggs and dairy, and oily fish like sardines, salmon and cod.
Many natural health experts recommend daily supplements of fish oil (typically cod liver oil) to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. You can ask your doctor for a vitamin D test if you’re interested in knowing where you stand. If your levels are really low you can take vitamin D3 supplements (more info here).
Also, spend time outside in the sunlight. It’s good for you!
Drink lots of fluids
You’ve heard this before, and for good reason. Clear liquids (water, broth, herbal tea) help keep your body hydrated to fight infection, as well as replace fluids lost through fever and mucus production. Definitely avoid caffeine and alcohol, which dehydrate you.
When you’re sick, your body needs several extra hours of rest per day to heal. If you want to recover quickly, take this to heart and don’t push yourself too much. If you’re feeling tired, it’s your body telling you to slow down and close your eyes!
This one is more of a prevention tool than a treatment. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the number of times a person gets sick each year. There are several theories for why this is, but it’s safe to say that regular physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, and the better your overall health, the better you can fight against illness. Avoid vigorous exercise if you do have a cold, as it will delay your healing.