Flu was perhaps the one thing we didn’t have to worry about during the height of the pandemic. Now, while our lives are back to normal programming, flu vaccination rates are down and close contact with others is up, this year’s flu season is tipped to be a bad one.
We all have our tips and tricks for managing symptoms, from honey to vitamins, herbs or probiotics and even a bit of Vicks (which may or may not work, depending on which study you look at). But what works and what is worth spending our money on?
Home remedies for cold and flu: Some are more effective than others.Credit:Getty
“A lot of things get flouted,” says Dr Joanna Harnett, from the University of Sydney School of Pharmacy. “The first thing is not to drop your guard on the sensible things: simple things like hand hygiene and wearing a mask and staying away from people when you’re not feeling well.”
Oh, and, getting a flu vaccination, along with fluids and rest.
Still, when we feel the beginnings of an illness coming on, many of us still pillage pharmacy shelves for anything that might help.
And though there is no cure beyond time, new research has been conducted and old research reviewed to better understand which natural therapies can help us when we’re down for the count.
This is an important nutrient because it enhances immune cell function. Adults need about 45 milligrams of vitamin C daily – that’s about half an orange, a kiwi fruit or a cup of strawberries.
Although many people swear that munching on vitamin C tablets can ward off colds and flu, there is no good evidence for that.
“Studies have shown people under extreme physical stress, like athletes or people in extremely cold temperatures, do benefit from taking supplements of vitamin C,” Harnett says. For the rest of us, so long as we are eating fruit, results are marginal. “It’s likely to only reduce the duration of the cold for half to one day.”
Besides, says Harnett, because vitamin C is essentially ascorbic acid, it may not be great for our teeth.
All that chicken soup people drink when they’re sick? That’s partly for the veg, vitamins and protein, but it’s also for the bone broth, which promotes good bacterial growth in the gut. Yoghurt with live active cultures is similarly beneficial. Good gut bugs are central to a healthy immune system. “A healthy gut microbiome can send anti-inflammatory and virus-fighting signals to the immune system,” says Anna Debenham, an accredited practising dietitian.
As for the thousands of probiotic pills and powders, there is promising evidence for the role of some strains, like Lactobacillus paracasei and Bifidobacterium bifidum in shortening – or preventing – the common cold, though researchers are still nutting out optimal dose and duration.
“They may even help boost our immune response when you have your influenza vaccine,” says Dr Jennifer Hunter, a GP and director of Health Research Group.
The key? Check with your pharmacist or naturopath which strain has been studied and is backed by research.
An important mineral for immunity, a recent review – led by Hunter and the National Institute of Complementary Medicine Health Research Institute – found zinc supplements can reduce the duration of a cold or respiratory infection by about two days and may support the body against more severe illness.
Hunter explains that zinc has antiviral properties: “Even in healthy young adult males, 15 milligrams of oral zinc daily boosted their immune systems within 24 to 48 hours by activating white blood cells.”
Zinc supplements in doses higher than the recommended daily intake should only be taken for short durations. “Seven to 10 days is OK,” says Hunter, “but longer term, it requires medical supervision as it can lead to copper deficiency.”
This flowering herb may stimulate the immune system to more effectively fight infection, and a review of the evidence found it may decrease the duration and severity of acute respiratory tract infections. “Evidence suggests it might be helpful in prevention,” Harnett adds.
However not all supplements are equal, Harnett says: “A really simple thing to do is to ask ‘has this particular formulation of echinacea had a clinical trial? Has it been studied?’”
Eating raw garlic is recommended.Credit:iStock
A combination of the herbaceous plant andrographis, zinc, echinacea and olive leaf, ArmaForce was a popular supplement in the home toolkits of many during COVID-19.
“Studies around andrographis shortening symptoms of the common cold are good,” says Harnett. But there are concerns that it’s not without side effects – loss of taste can occur after about two weeks of use. For this reason, short-term use, while you have symptoms, is recommended.
A sweet remedy for sickness, sucking on a teaspoon of honey can soothe the throat and act as a gentle cough suppressant. When stirred into a lemon and ginger tea, it also helps to keep fluids up.
“It has some lovely properties, particularly Manuka for its antimicrobial properties,” Hunter says. “It’s a pretty safe thing for people to be using.”
A 2021 review Hunter was involved with also found it helpful in reducing severity of coughs, particularly for kids.
A stinky but smart approach, chewing on some raw garlic may help to ward off the flu (and keep those around you maintaining social distance).
A Cochrane review, conducted in 2021, found garlic – with its antiviral properties – had the best evidence, among natural medicines, for the prevention of influenza. It’s not clear how much raw garlic you’d need to eat, but some research suggests three to four cloves a day may be beneficial.
The active compound in garlic, allicin, starts to break down when cooked, so if you turn your nose up at eating whole garlic cloves, you could make pesto, aioli, or add it to your salad dressing. Or try a garlic supplement.
And the rest of it
Sleep, when our body heals and restores itself, is perhaps the best natural remedy there is. Exercise, provided it’s not extreme, lowers stress levels and boosts antibodies and white blood cells, thereby supporting the body to fight infection.
The third part of this health trinity is food.
“To work efficiently, your immune system relies heavily on a range of nutrients being readily available within the body,” explains Debenham. To prevent a deficiency in nutrients that support immune function – vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc, iron and vitamin A – incorporate these foods every week: garlic, berries, kiwi fruit, green leafy veggies, broccoli, oily fish (e.g. salmon, sardines), eggs, nuts, Greek yoghurt, chickpeas and oats.
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