Updated: Jan 28
Achoo! Cold and flu season is upon us; sniffly noses and chesty coughs are rife. It’s an almost unavoidable consequence if you live in colder climates but what should you do once the dreaded sniffles start? Well, unfortunately there is no cure for the common cold but there are many ways you can help to support your body's natural defenses to help combat it once symptoms set in:
Sleep is the most important process when it comes to immune function and recovery. If you are not sleeping, you are not recovering from anything. Sleep is when the body performs its reparative processes and sleep deprivation increases cortisol levels which, in turn, can suppress the immune system (1). When you are fighting an infection, sleep as much as you can - 10 hours or more per night is ideal.
Avoid stress. Practice stress management techniques and be conscious of times when you are more stressed than normal such as after a difficult workout or when hungover and or sleep deprived as you are more susceptible to infection at that time (2).
Avoid smoke and alcohol to ensure the immune system is fully prepared to combat an infection. Alcohol suppresses the immune system (3) and tobacco smoke raises the risk of pneumonia and bronchitis (4).
Keep warm to help the immune system fight infection. One response the body has to infection is to raise its core temperature. Make it easier for your body to stay warm by wrapping up, taking hot, steamy showers or visiting the sauna as most viruses thrive at 37C - the body’s core temperature (5).
Essential oils such as eucalyptus, tea tree and camphor can have a positive effect on flu symptoms. Use in an oil diffuser or apply to skin for benefits. Alternatively purchase over-the-counter rubs such as Vick’s vaporub and inhale in a steam bath (6) (7) (8).
A balanced diet is the most important nutritional step towards supporting a healthy functioning immune system. Highly nutritious foods are vital to provide the body with adequate minerals and vitamins required for healthy living. Check out our articles on 'What Should We Be Eating?' and our Evolved Food series for more information. In addition to following a balanced diet rich in highly nutritious food, try adding these foods to your diet when you are suffering from a cold:
Bone broth contains a large dose of healthy minerals and vitamins vital to the body's immune defences. A good bone broth should also contain bone marrow which plays an important role in the immune system (9). Add plenty of spices and pepper to your bone broth as well as a whole bulb of minced garlic to it, which leads us to our next point…
Garlic is a superfood for the immune system. It is a broad spectrum anti-microbial, -viral and -fungal and its medicinal qualities have been known and used for centuries (10). Its beneficial properties come from the formation of allicin which then breaks down into organosulfur compounds. Get as much raw garlic as possible as heat can inhibit its medicinal qualities. Chopping or crushing garlic and letting it stand for 10 minutes allows for adequate allicin to form.
Ginger is a common ingredient in traditional Chinese remedies for the common cold (11). While there isn’t any hard evidence demonstrating a conclusive effect on the rhinovirus or the common cold, there does exist evidence that a compound in ginger root (sesquiterpenes) has antiviral properties and is effective in combating a similar virus - HRSV, human respiratory syncytial virus (12). It also increases the absorption of supplements such as curcumin and Ashwagandha for faster healing (13).
Liver is one of the most nutrient dense foods. It contains high levels of vitamins B12, A, B2, B9, iron, copper, choline and some vitamin C which the body requires for optimal function.
Eggs are another potent superfood thanks to high levels of vitamins A, B12 and more importantly vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a huge role in the immune system and eggs are one of only a few foods which provide us with vitamin D.
Herbs and spices contain high concentrations of minerals and vitamins and should always be added to your food. When you are ill, however, there are a few that should take priority:
Cayenne pepper - capsaicin is the compound responsible for giving chili its heat. Studies have shown capsaicin can help clear up sinus problems (14).
Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) - may help with upper respiratory tract conditions. It is also a powerful adaptogen which helps to regulate stress levels (17).
Warm drinks (and two cold ones) and teas can help to relieve symptoms of a common cold and also provide nutritional support for the body's natural defences:
Golden milk is a traditional Ayurvedic remedy made by combining turmeric and milk . Turmeric is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which can help stave off a flu, whereas milk contains compounds - whey protein and lactoferrin - which may reduce the incidence of flu. Opt for raw milk as it contains more of the compounds and preserve them by drinking it cold (18).
Green tea is a powerful adaptogen - substances that help the body restore and repair in response to stress - which is important when you consider that elevated stress leads to lowered immune function. Green tea has also been shown to increase the number of regulatory T cells which play a part in the initial immunological response to pathogens (19). It is worth noting, however, that those suffering from a Th2 dominant autoimmune condition, such as hayfever, seasonal allergies and eczema to name a few, should avoid green tea as it could worsen the condition (20).
Ginger and lemon tea combines the benefits of ginger mentioned above with a good dose of vitamin C to help boost the immune system.
Echinacea and elderberry tea can be used to reduce inflammation and may be useful in supporting the immune system (21).
Warm honey, water and lemon is one of the most common home remedies for alleviating a sore throat. Honey contains powerful antimicrobial and antibacterial properties which can help fight infection (22). Lemon contains vitamin C which is also important to the immune system.
Vitamin C - There is some confusion as to whether or not vitamin C is effective at supporting the immune system or fighting off infection. This stems from the difference between nutritional doses and pharmalogical doses. Pharmalogical doses required to have a therapeutic effect are much higher and frequent than normal nutritional doses. In other words, one would need to consume vitamin C supplements to the point of bowel intolerance to elicit any potential medicinal benefits (23). While we do not recommend having a megadose of vitamin C to the point of a bathroom emergency, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and helps support the body’s own production of antioxidants, especially glutathione (24).
Vitamin D, or lack thereof, is considered to be a leading factor in the prevalence of the common cold and other infections commonly found in colder climates. Vitamin D supplementation has been shown to reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections and can help to fight a common cold (25). Find out more about vitamin D here.
Digestive enzymes can support a healthy gut. 70-80% of the immune system is located in the gut and a healthy digestive tract acts as a barrier to pathogens and other unwanted substances. Most pathogens are destroyed by stomach acid and digestive enzymes and help to break down the outer layer of some viruses (not the common cold) (26) (27).
Zinc may shorten the duration of a common cold. A 2011 review demonstrated that zinc supplementation could shorten the duration of a cold, though results weren’t entirely conclusive (28). It is important to note that if supplementing with zinc, one should increase their intake of copper to maintain a healthy zinc-copper balance in the body. Oysters, shellfish and offal (such as liver mentioned above) contain good levels of copper.
Probiotics, much like digestive enzymes, can improve gut health. Aside from the benefits to the immune system obtained by maintaining a healthy gut, probiotic supplements have a marginal effect on common cold prevention (29). Probiotics such as kefir contain lactoferrin and whey protein which can reduce the incidence of flu, though they are not recommended for those with increased gut permeability, or “leaky gut” which could be the causative factor to a cold or infection, or those with severe dairy intolerances.
Although there is no cure for a common cold, there are many ways you can support and improve your body's natural defence mechanisms. Of all the points mentioned above (and there are a few of them!) the most important ones are to sleep enough to allow your body to recover, eat highly nutritious foods to provide vital vitamins and minerals and stay hydrated with warm teas and other drinks.
Related Post: Evolved Food: Garlic
Related Post: Food Awareness: Think Before You Eat
Related Post: Spend More Time Outdoors
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.