Prevention is by far the best medicine for the common cold. Maintaining a healthy immune system helps protect against frequent colds. More than one or two colds per year may indicate a weak immune system. When we are in peak health a typical cold should usually last 3-4 days. A cold that lasts beyond this amount of time is lingering and reflective of a weakness in our natural defenses.
Let’s say you’ve tried everything – even a healthy dose of Vitamin C or Echinacea and that cold just won’t budge. You are still struggling with a lingering cough, rattling chest, sore throat, raspy voice or watery nose. Its time to go back to basics! Skim through the following checklist and give some of the suggestions a try.
- Adequate Protein
- Decreased Consumption of Refined Sugars
- Sunlight/Vitamin D
Sometimes when a cold lingers it is simply because we are dehydrated. This is particularly so if we have run a fever. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective heat burns up our vital fluids. A fever will burn up our fluids and electrolytes and leave us very thirsty. From a Western perspective our body compensates for a fever by releasing perspiration; this is another way in which we lose our fluids. When we are low in fluid and electrolytes it is difficult for the body to expel mucus or repair irritated and inflamed tissues.
Of course, it doesn’t help if we are naturally dehydrated. Are we consuming adequate water in the day? Does our consumption of natural diuretics such as alcohol, coffee or tea further deplete us of needed fluids? Do we replace the fluids lost during exercise or after a period of heavy perspiration/night sweats?
How can you tell if you are dehydrated? Take a look at your skin. Is it dry or itchy? Go to a mirror and stick out that tongue. Is it dry and red – maybe with some cracks? Check in with yourself. Do you feel stagnant and dry? It may be time to hydrate.
The best way to get electrolytes back into the body is through whole food sources such as:
- Chicken/vegetable broth
- Miso soup
- Seaweed products
- Herbal teas (nettle, mullein, alfalfa, rosehips and chamomile are some great options)
- Vegetable Juices.
- Hydrating powders such as Emergen-C or Edurolyte. Hydrating powders provide electrolytes however they have a higher content of refined sugar.
Protein plays many important roles in the body. Protein is an important structural component of muscle and connective tissue. It also facilitates biochemical reactions, hormonal actions, and storage/transportation of nutrients. Protein also plays a vital role in providing the building blocks for a healthy immune system.
If we are low in protein the immune system will suffer. The average protein requirement is roughly 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of ideal body weight per day, or 10-15% of caloric intake. However, this increases in highly active individuals, strength builders or endurance athletes up to 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight per day. Other individuals who may require increased protein includes growing children, pregnant or lactating women, the elderly, individuals with chronic disease, illness or severe stress.
This means that if you have been sick for a long time or if you are continuing to stress your body while you are ill you simply may not have enough protein for the immune system to overcome the cold. Are you still going for that 10km jog or heading out for a heavy session of body building while you are ill? Your body is busy using your protein to restore muscle/connective tissue or for other vital metabolic functions. It doesn’t have enough supply to build antibodies or play its other important roles in immune function.
The strategy? …
- Take a break. Sometimes a cold is the body’s way of telling you to take a rest. If this seems unrealistic remember that chronic illness has a way of slowing you down till you get the message.
- Increase your protein. One strategy I have used with competitive athletes who can’t take that time out is to have them consume a little bit of protein for breakfast 2-3 days per week until they recover. Its dinner for breakfast! After recovery we take a closer look at their body mass and protein intake to ensure that they are getting adequate protein on a daily basis to help prevent those colds or infections. You can recycle last night’s leftovers or try a good quality chicken or beef taken with green leafy vegetables such as steamed spinach, kale or broccoli.
Decreased Consumption of Refined Sugars
Do you love your sweets? So do viruses or any other microbe. Glucose is fuel for many organisms. Furthermore, it has been observed that glucose and vitamin C (due to their similar chemical structure) compete for uptake into the cell. When we are ill or even in times of health it is preferable that Vitamin C be the nutrient getting into the cell. In addition, the consumption of refined sugar alters the pH of extracellular fluid and compromises optimal immune function. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective sugar is mucus forming. As if you needed any more while you are trying to expel your own! There are a multitude of reasons for this old but pretty helpful approach to beating a cold: cut out the sugar!!
A cold represents a break down in the body’s natural defenses. This can happen because we are too busy, too over-worked, or too stressed to nourish ourselves and take a break. And then we get sick. Instead of viewing your cold as another hassle try to view it as a gift. A chance to rest, detoxify and rejuvenate. It may not feel that way while you are shivering and sniffling away under the covers but the body is taking its time to get rid of unwanted toxins. Going along with it and nourishing the system through its struggle will help you recover quicker than continuing to challenge the body and mind with the rigors of everyday life.
Find a good book you’ve been meaning to read, get out your crossword puzzle or write in your journal. This may be good reflective time to gain perspective on daily matters. And most importantly, get some sleep!
Sleep deprivation impairs the function of our immune system, our neural and nervous system and our natural ability to repair damaged tissue. Repair of bodily tissues has been observed to be most active during stage 3 and 4 of sleep. If you haven’t been getting enough sleep your immune system has been compromised, your mood, memory and cognition have most likely been affected and your body has not been able to perform the necessary repairs. So get into bed and allow yourself to fall into that deep, needed and well-deserved sleep.
For more information on the importance of adequate sleep please visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for a great article: www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm
Stress impairs our immune functions on a primary biochemical level and on a secondary lifestyle level where we fail to nourish ourselves. On a biochemical level, the secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol impairs optimal immune function and makes us susceptible to microbial invasion or other forms of chronic disease. Furthermore, stress in the body prevents optimal metabolism including the production of immune cells and the repair and building of tissues (hence the requirement for higher amounts of protein when under intense stress). There is a great deal of research out on this topic of ‘psychoneuroimmunology’. A good resource that collaborates on the scientific literature is: Mind Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships (Karen, Hafen, Smith & Frandsen, 2006, 3rd Ed.)
On a secondary level, when we are stressed we tend to ignore the basics of self nourishment: eating, hydrating, breathing, sleeping, relaxing and the practice of gratitude and self love. These are all elements that help us build a healthy immune system.
Do you remember as a child being told to put that hat on or bundle up? There is a method to that madness. Temperature is a key aspect to most bodily functions. Put simply, when we are cold the body is more susceptible to microbial invasion as the immune system is not functioning under ideal conditions. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, walking out in the cold without your neck properly covered allows for ‘cold wind invasion’. This most likely reflects the fact that the neck and head are the areas that we lose most heat from and that are most likely to remain uncovered. Other areas where we lose heat from rapidly include the armpits and flanks, creases of the knees and elbows, the low back, abdomen and groin. Here are some ways to keep warm:
- Invest in some warm and cozy winter gear. A long jacket that comes down to the knees. A warm winter hat that covers the ears and base of the neck. Some lined winter boots.
- Keep the head and neck covered when out in the cold. Particularly be conscious of covering the back of your neck right up to the back of the skull.
- Try a ‘Haramaki’ Belly Band. A traditional Haramaki was a component of the samurai class attire in 16th century Japan. It was a piece of armor that protected the belly. However, it has been modified in more modern times to keep the body ‘warm to the core’. This was a trick I learnt during seasons spent skiing in the mountains. If you are out for a day in the back-country… or any cold environment nothing will keep you warm like a Haramaki. These are easily made at home or check out: www.haramakilove.com.
Humans depend on sun exposure to satisfy their requirements for vitamin D. Solar UVB photons are absorbed into the skin, leading to a series of biochemical reactions that produce Vitamin D3. Season, latitude, time of day, skin pigmentation, aging, sunscreen use, and glass all influence the production of vitamin D3. It is know that Vitamin D3 is important in regulating cell growth and modulating immune function amongst many other roles in health and well-being. A deficiency in Vitamin D is linked to colds, flus, infections and other forms of immune compromise. It is estimated that children need at least 400-1000 IU of vitamin D a day while teenagers and adults need at least 2000 IU of vitamin D a day to satisfy their body’s vitamin D requirement. Some resources suggest that up to 4000IU is required to correct deficiency. It is estimated that 1 billion people worldwide are vitamin D deficient.
So if you are one of the millions of people enjoying winter north of the 35th parallel you aren’t getting adequate Vitamin D November through March. This time frame widens the further north you live. Sensible sun exposure is defined by some as 5–10 minutes of exposure of the arms and legs or the hands, arms, and face, 2 or 3 times per week along with increased dietary and supplemental vitamin D. Although these are certainly ‘reasonable approaches’ the timing is probably more around 20 minutes of as much bare skin as possible with increasing requirements for darker skin pigmentation. The problem is that this must be done without sunscreen and we must balance the cost:benefit ratio of excessive exposure to UV Rays. The bottom line is that Vitamin D supplementation in the winter is a sensible approach to supporting the immune system and preventing or eliminating colds.
For some articles on Vitamin D and Immune Function Please Read:
Holick, MF. Vitamin D: Evolutionary, physiological and Health Perspectives. Current Drug Targets, 2001; 12(1): 4-18.
Schwalfenberg, G. A review of the critical role of vitamin D in the functioning of the immune system and the clinical implications of vitamin D deficiency. Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, 2011;55: 96-108