Winter is about to wrap its chilly arms around us. For many of us that means more time spent in stuffy, enclosed spaces with minimal ventilation or natural light. Frequently we share those spaces with other people, and we tend not to be particularly active when we are inside. In addition, we often consume an excess of rich foods and beverages as we celebrate holidays, watch football games or just enjoy companionship indoors. All these ingredients, seasoned with a little viral activity, can be a recipe for major discomfort in the winter months in the form of colds, flu, and stomach upsets. Throw in some snow shoveling, slip-sliding on icy pavements or too much vigor on the ski slopes and you can end up with strained muscles too.
No matter how good your insurance plan may be, there is little that doctors can do when you come down with the common cold or flu—there simply is no cure, only treatment of symptoms. Viruses cause colds, and their more severe cousins, influenza. Once your body has been exposed to a virus, you should develop some immunity to it, at least until the bug mutates. Unfortunately, there are well over 100 different known cold viruses and almost as many that cause flu, and they all mutate frequently, so the odds are pretty good that everyone will catch something at least occasionally. A strong immune system can help keep you on your feet, though, and making a few lifestyle adjustments to that end could save you several days of misery.
A healthy immune system is on duty 24/7 and many aspects of the average American lifestyle cause extra wear and tear. We work too many long, sedentary hours, or we play too much and in the wrong ways. Exercise is good, but not if it consists only of cheering your favorite team from the sidelines. Eating lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables is very important to maintaining a healthy system; too much junk food, tobacco, alcohol or other recreational drugs make the immune system work harder. Our bodies need several hours of sound sleep every day; we need sunlight; we need stress reduction.
For many Co-op members, eating healthy, seasonal foods is a way of life. Traditional winter foods such as root vegetables made into soups and stews and eaten with cooked grains help to keep our bodies warm. Too many cooling foods eaten in the winter may put us out of balance and many are thought to increase mucus production. Warming spices like garlic, ginger, chilies and mustard help thin mucus and relieve congestion. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurvedic practices have been using these various properties of food to treat illness for thousands of years.
In general, to keep the immune system in optimal condition, choose a variety of fruits and vegetables of many colors, especially red, orange and dark green vegetables along with citrus fruits and berries. Eat mushrooms for their health benefits as well as the taste. Most mushrooms contain anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties, especially varieties like shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms. (Reishi mushrooms are most commonly available as an extract, tea or capsule.) Select whole-grain products rather than refined grains and include beans in your diet often. These high-fiber foods benefit the immune system by binding to toxins and helping remove them from our bodies. Naturally fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut keep us supplied with the friendly bacteria important for healthy digestion—it is especially important to eat fermented foods to replace these bacteria after taking antibiotic medication. Reduce sugar and caffeine in your diet as much as you can. Drink plenty of water each day to keep hydrated and to help remove waste from your body. Many experts recommend an ounce of water per every two pounds of body weight, so if you weigh 100 pounds drink 50 ounces of water daily and if you weigh 200 pounds, you need 100 ounces. Black or green tea provides the body with antioxidants and increases the body’s production of interferon, a potent virus-fighting substance.
Stress management is an important tool for maintaining a strong immune system. Different things work for different people so try breathing exercises, meditation, massage, and gentle exercise like moderate walking, yoga, tai chi, or qi gong. Laughter is a great stress reliever—practice it often!
In addition to helping with stress, exercise keeps the immune system strong and balanced. Studies have shown that both very vigorous competitive exercise and very little exercise have negative effects on our bodies. It is not uncommon for marathon runners to fall sick within several hours of finishing a race, for example. David C. Nieman of Appalachian State University has studied the effects of moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, on the immune response. According to the book Healing Moves, he likens the cells of the immune system to a molecular police force and suggests, “...moderate exercise is like giving the molecular cops some coffee. They get a caffeine-like buzz and start circulating at a greater rate than normal, which increases their chance of running into bad guys. Doing excessive exercise is like giving the police force a keg of beer. The immune system cops become confused by the barrage of demands for fuel and repair from the body’s exhausted muscles, so they are too befuddled to do their job well.”
Many symptoms of colds and flu are the same, so how do you tell which sort of bug you’ve acquired? Did you get sick all at once or more gradually? Generally flu comes on with that classic “hit by a truck” suddenness and symptoms intensify quickly, but colds will tease you for a couple of days with a scratchy throat, maybe some sneezing until you have a full-blown, classic head cold. Fever is common with the flu and can run at 102-104° for a few days, but body temperature usually stays close to normal with a cold. The flu is normally accompanied by a rather nasty headache, but this is not common with a cold. Body aches, sometimes severe, are part of the flu, but not a cold. Extreme fatigue is a hallmark of the flu, but not a major component of a cold. Sneezing, a runny nose, and a stuffy head characterize colds; the flu tends to produce discomfort in the chest and includes a dry, hacking cough. A cold takes about three days to develop and may last another three to 10 days; you are most contagious the first few days after you develop symptoms. The flu comes on very quickly—you literally may feel fine now and terrible in an hour! Most flu symptoms disappear after about a week, but the fatigue and cough often hang on for several more weeks. The flu is insidious in that you are most contagious for the 24 hours before symptoms develop, but you will continue to infect others for the next seven days. Keep in mind that the flu can morph into pneumonia or cause other complications like dehydration. People with chronic illness, the elderly and very young are most likely to develop complications. In the US, over 300,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related illness each year and 40,000 people die.
Obviously one of the best ways to avoid getting sick is to avoid sick people. Viruses are spread through airborne droplets when we sneeze or cough. The virus can be inhaled directly by its next host or it can live for several hours on a surface until the next victim touches it and inadvertently transfers the virus to their mouth, nose or eyes. That is why mom was always reminding you to cover your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing and that’s also why she bugged you incessantly to wash your hands—well, it’s one of the reasons she wanted you to wash! So, if you are sick, stay home and rest. If you are well, wash often and avoid touching your face.
There are some other things you can do to help prevent a catching a virus that will ruin your weekend. Garlic has been used medicinally since at least 3000 BC. It has been called Russian penicillin, due to its popularity with that country’s military. Garlic has potent antibacterial and antiviral properties among its qualities and is strongest when used raw and crushed or chopped. At my house, garlic is included in almost every savory dish I make and we each eat a raw clove most days of the year. This is easiest to do by chopping the garlic finely and then just swallowing it down with a mouthful of liquid. Take it at the very start of a meal and it shouldn’t bother your stomach. At the first hint of any viral symptoms, I also crush an extra clove of garlic into a bowl of soup, scrambled eggs or anything warm and comforting a few times each day. I can’t guarantee garlic will keep you well, but we have not had any colds or flu at our house for several years!
Another possible way to prevent viral illness is to use astragalus. Astragalus is an herb that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) since about 100 AD. TCM practitioners commonly employ it as a preventative for upper respiratory tract viruses; Western herbalists sometimes recommend it for recovery from those viruses as well, though TCM does not use astragalus this way. Astragalus is not taken when symptoms are acute. Astragalus counts antioxidants, flavonoids, isoflavones and polysaccharides among its many active compounds and research is still underway to unlock all its potential. Dosage is usually about one-half teaspoon dried root boiled in a quart of water until reduced in volume to one cup. Drink one cup three times per day. Since this procedure is a little time consuming, many people prefer to use a commercially prepared form of astragalus and take it according to package directions. If you are being treated for high blood pressure, diabetes, immune conditions, or are pregnant or nursing, please consult a health professional before trying astragalus. The Co-op carries astragalus tinctures and capsules; bulk astragalus root is available next door at Red Sage.
Some sources recommend raw honey as a preventative for viruses. It’s a pretty straightforward process: stir one tablespoon raw honey into tea three times per day, or just eat it off a spoon. Presumably it would work the same way if added to a smoothie or a bowl of yogurt or hot cereal. Raw honey eaten straight from the spoon is very soothing to a scratchy or sore throat and many proponents say it will kill any viral or bacterial invaders that it encounters in the throat. Raw honey should not be given to children under two as food or medicine.
So, you didn’t succeed in preventing an illness? There are some old-fashioned remedies that may help to kick it a little faster. Here are some common—and not so common—ideas to try.
Ginger has long been used to help with many ailments. It is a very warming herb and the roots are commonly used in tea to help break a fever. Ginger thins mucus and is a pain reliever, cough suppressant and immune booster as well, making it an excellent choice to fight the flu or a cold. You can eat foods made with generous amounts of ginger or try this: slice or grate about an inch of fresh ginger root into a quart of water, bring to a boil and then simmer about five minutes. Strain and sip as is or sweeten with a bit a raw honey. Bundle up warmly and rest. Do this three to five times a day. To put extra muscle into the tea, add two cloves of crushed garlic, two tablespoons lemon juice and one to four teaspoons cayenne pepper; bundle up and prepare to sweat! This doesn’t taste the best, but does seem to help with congestion and fever. Ginger tea will also help relieve an upset stomach.
Co-op staff member Vanessa Tortolano suggests another way to use ginger. “One of my faves for flu and fever is to simmer two fingers of grated ginger in water for 15 minutes, add to a hot bath and soak for one-half hour, sweating in the hot tub. Get out, immediately dry and wrap your naked body up in lots of sheets and blankets and go directly to bed. You should sweat throughout the night and by morning the fever should be broken.”
Our Health and Wellness Manager Lisa Stag-Tout provided an herbal recipe for relieving a sore throat. She says, “I have never really measured this out before, so this is approximate. You can concoct your own recipe by adding or subtracting tinctures. I’ve never made the same one twice. The first time I only added one dropper of St. John’s Wort to one tablespoon of honey. Recently one of my teenagers asked me to make a batch for her sore throat. This is surprising as it does not taste very good and my advice is to swallow half a teaspoon very slowly so it can coat the throat.”
In a small jar mix:
2-3 tablespoons honey or agave
1 dropper each (or any) of the following herbal tinctures: St John’s Wort, Usnea, Oregon Grape Root or Goldenseal, Oregano, Thyme, Licorice, Olive Leaf
According to Lisa, all the above have anti-viral and/or antibacterial properties. She also recommends adding elecampane, ginger or mullein if you want a cough syrup with expectorant properties, or adding chamomile, catnip, or skullcap if you need to sleep.
Wellness staffer Justin Rassner suggests this juice to knock out your cold or flu fast: “Juice the following fresh ingredients: habanero peppers, onions, garlic, and horseradish and then combine this crazy juice with apple cider vinegar. Gargle with this mixture and feel the burn and your ailments are gone.”
Justin says that if that sounds like too much work (or excitement?) “then use the sore throat spray, vitamin c and oil of oregano and ginger/lemon/cayenne tea and don’t forget the premium-blend echinacea!”
Chicken soup has a long reputation of being therapeutic and research by the University of Nebraska Medical Center confirmed this several years ago. Whether homemade or commercial, chicken soup containing vegetables was found to reduce inflammation and sinus congestion—I would recommend adding at least a few cloves of garlic too!
Folk medicine throughout the Americas has used onions to fight viral illness for centuries. Onions are used in many forms—as a cooked or raw food, in tea and as a poultice for chest colds. According to Folk Remedies: Healing Wisdom, to make a poultice, simply slice three large onions, cover them with water and simmer 20 minutes. Strain off the water and layer the hot onions between two layers of cloth. Place on the chest for 20 to 30 minutes.
Mustard plasters have also been used since ancient times for chest colds and bronchitis. Mix a half-cup dry mustard with one cup flour and add enough warm water to make a paste. Spread the paste on a piece of cotton fabric that has been soaked in hot water and wrung out. Cover with a dry cotton cloth and then lay the plaster, wet side down, on the chest or upper back of the sick person. Leave on for 20 to 30 minutes, but check carefully every five minutes or so to be sure there is no skin irritation—mustard plasters have been known to cause blisters or even burning.
Steam is very soothing when you are congested and is easy to do. Place a few tablespoons of dried eucalyptus or sage leaves in a large non-reactive bowl. Pour in eight to twelve cups of boiling water. Holding a large towel over your head to form a tent, lean over the bowl and inhale the vapors until the fragrance and steam are gone. You can use a few drops of essential oil instead of dried herbs if you prefer, or a combination of herbs. Soaking in a hot bath with these herbs helps relieve congestion and muscle aches.
Nasal rinsing is another good, ancient way to relieve or even help prevent sinus congestion from colds, allergies or chronic sinus infections. You can purchase a neti pot or use a clean teacup or even your cupped hand to irrigate your nasal passages. Vanessa Tortolano is an herbalist who works in our General Merchandise department and she suggests using this method: “Take one cup of body temperature water, (if it’s too hot it will burn the mucus membranes and too cold will not be effective) add one tablespoon of SEA salt, not any other kind. Mix well, pour into hand and snort up the nose, letting it come out of the mouth. Do this a couple times till the cup of salt water is gone. Lean over the sink and let the nose drain, you may also then blow the nose, but do it very gently. The neti pot doesn’t quite get as deep as this for really bad infections. You will cough and sputter a bit and your nose will drain like crazy, but if you can psyche yourself up to do it, it will get it out in two days for sure. Do this two or three times a day for two to three days, sometimes less. The discharge may start coming out a fluorescent yellow or green, this is good, meaning that the infection is coming out.”
Vanessa points out that this is an extra-strength saline solution to be used only for acute infections. For routine and preventative nasal rinsing most sources recommend using a saline solution made with only a half-teaspoon salt to a pint of water; this approximates the body’s normal ph levels and most people feel it is quite comfortable.
The Juice Bar is a great place to stop when you are in need of relief from any winter ills or blahs. Juice Bar Coordinator Becky Jamieson says, “My favorite home remedy (that we also carry in the Juice Bar) is the Hot Toddy or ginger juice, lemon juice, honey and hot water. If someone wants to make this in a juicer at home, I’d suggest using about an inch-and-a-half long piece of ginger, half a lemon, about one to two tablespoons honey, and hot water. This makes one 12 or 16 ounce serving, depending on how strong you like it. If you don’t have a juicer, I’d suggest steeping slices of lemon and ginger in hot water and adding honey. Or, of course, you can always get this in the Juice Bar!” Becky points out that the lemon and ginger have high amounts of vitamin C, the ginger stimulates the immune system and creates a warming effect in your body, the honey has antibacterial properties and soothes a sore throat and the lemon juice also helps cut phlegm.
If you have an upset stomach from indulging in too much rich food or too many non-medicinal toddies, try a little ginger tea. Chamomile, peppermint and fennel also do the trick for many people. Drink plenty of water before, during and after alcohol consumption to lessen the dehydration that causes those nasty hangover symptoms. Vitamin C may also help to prevent or reduce hangover. Moderate consumption is the best preventative whether you are talking about food or alcohol.
Oh, and for those aching muscles caused by too much snow shoveling (or playing) I recommend a nice warm bath, followed by a back rub—or you can always rely on arnica gel or Tiger Balm if you don’t have a personal massage artist!
Staffer Haley Hunsicker offers this easy, slushy ice pack you can keep in your freezer to apply to those aching muscles: “In a sealed plastic bag add one part water and one part rubbing alcohol. Freeze. It’s nice because it doesn’t totally freeze and it molds easily to the body. If you want the ice pack more solid add water, if you want the pack more slushy add alcohol. Just remember to put a barrier cloth between your skin and the ice pack.”