Cold and Flu Prevention: The Most Reliable Naturopathic Strategies (Including the Herbal Tincture that NDs Give Their Own Families)
It might seem a little early to be thinking about cold and flu prevention, but in order for prevention to be effective, it has to happen BEFORE you get a cold or flu… otherwise you’re dealing with treatment and prevention… and very often playing catch-up for a whole season!
Now that I’ve been in practice for several years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the efficacy (or not) of many Naturopathic strategies for immune boosting. Here are the ones that I’ve seen work the best.
Disclaimer: Please remember that this blog post is for informative purposes only and should not be taken as advice. Changes to health and lifestyle should always be overseen by a professional who understands you and your body. To find an ND near you, visit www.cand.ca. This post contains affiliate links meaning I receive a commission if you purchase from amazon.ca or well.ca after clicking one of the links.
People with immune system disorders should always consult a professional before using any immune boosting strategies. This includes HIV/AIDS, auto-immune disorders, Lyme, cancer and others.
A Naturopathic Concept of Immunity
Boosting your immune system sounds like a simple concept, but when considered holistically it has many different nuances. When I’m putting together a patient's immune-boosting program, I look at immunity from the following angles:
1) Gut health. Are you eating AND absorbing all the nutrients that you need to create a healthy immune system. Do you have healthy gut bacteria to support your immune system? How strong is your spleen qi?
2) Lung health. Have your lungs been damaged by past infection? Are they burdened by current disease? How strong is your lung qi?
3) Liver health. Your liver is a surprisingly important immune organ. If you’re one of those people who want to know why, check out this excellent paper on Liver Immunobiology.
4) Stress and cortisol. It’s well known that acute stress lowers immune function and makes you more susceptible to viral infections (like colds and flus). What are your stress levels like? How is your body handling stress? How well is your HPA axis functioning?
5) Diet and lifestyle. Do you shift your diet and lifestyle appropriately for winter? It's a time when you need more warming foods and extra sleep. Do you get enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants? What is the balance of inflammatory vs anti-inflammatory foods in your diet? Did you get enough sunshine this summer? How is your circadian rhythm? Are you sleeping enough? Drinking enough water?
6) Spiritual metaphors. Sometimes our physical symptoms echo issues we’re having in the greater scheme of our lives. In the case of the immune system, we’re often looking at boundaries. Do you have good boundaries? How do you react when someone crosses your boundaries? Do you have a strong sense of self? Who are you?
7) Secondary benefit. Something that I talk to my patients about a lot is the secondary benefit to illness. That means something that the illness gives to you. Occasionally, people who have a hard time saying no or taking time to themselves are suddenly gifted that time by a cold or flu that forces them to isolate themselves and/or accept care and help from others.
8) Constitutional type. This means your unique way of being in the world and reacting to stresses (like illnesses). It governs the way you heal and informs the optimal treatments
It’s a lot to think about, but that’s why first appointments with me are over an hour long!
With those angles in mind, I’m going to present to you the strategies that I’ve found most effective over my years in practice. Most of these strategies address more than one of the above angles- which is what makes them so effective!
ND Strategy 1: Probiotics
There is evidence that probiotic supplementation can benefit everything from blood sugar control, to weight, to asthma and allergies, to mood, to digestion, and yes… your chances of getting a cold or flu.
One study, examining children aged 3-5 found that daily probiotic supplementation was a safe and effective way to reduce fever, rhinorrhea (aka runny nose), and cough, AND decrease the number of times antibiotics were prescribed, AND decrease the number of missed school days. There’s evidence it helps teens and adults too.
As a single mother and entrepreneur, giving my little one probiotics makes sense- not only for her wellbeing- but also for my bottom line. Mamma needs to work and if I can avoid even one missed day of work this winter, I’ve more than paid for the probiotics.
At my house we use HMF child (yes, for me too). It’s a delicious, black currant flavored probiotic with a good therapeutic dose.
It’s important to note that probiotics are generally well tolerated- but they can cause side effects for some people. For example, if you have a dairy allergy- probiotics grown on a dairy medium can cause allergy symptoms. Some lower quality probiotics can also be contaminated with gluten and other additives. In addition, if the bacterial population of your gut isn’t ideal, probiotics can cause or worsen digestive problems, especially if they also contain prebiotics. If you find that you get digestive problems (like diarrhea, bloating, constipation, cramps, etc) when you try probiotics, make sure you see an ND to investigate any underlying issues.
ND Strategy 2: Herbal Medicine
If I had to guess the most popular immune tonic among Naturopathic Doctors, Deep Immune from St. Francis Herbal would be at the top of my list. Throughout the years, whenever my colleagues chat about favorite products for our clinics and families, Deep Immune comes up. If you want to do it like an ND mommy (or daddy), keep this one stocked!
[Edit: I did a little poll in one of my ND mommy groups to see how many people use Deep Immune... it's by no means 100% but I was right: the majority of us love it!]
In addition to strengthening our immune systems, these herbs are traditionally used to fortify the body overall. If you take a look at the secondary actions of these herbs, you’ll notice a whole host of benefits beyond the immune system.
Astragalus (Also in kids formula) – Benefits: lowers cortisol, immune modulating, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, spleen qi tonic.
Codonopsis (Also in kids formula) – Benefits: anti-oxidant, anti-stress, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulary, anti-microbial.
Reishi (Ganoderma) – Benefits: Calming, antioxidant, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic.
Eleutherococcus - Benefits: Immunomodulatory, hypoglycemic, antioxidant.
Ligustrum - Benefits: immunomodulatory, antioxidant, antiviral, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic.
Schisandra - Benefits: Adrenal tonic, lung tonic, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, mild anti-depressant.
White Atractylodes - Benfits: diuretic, hypoglycemic, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective.
Licorice - Benfits: Adrenal tonic, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, detoxifier, hepatoprotective, anti-depressant.
This is just a superficial (and incomplete) list of the benefits of these herbs. Each plant has a unique genius that can't be described by a handful of medical actions. At the end of the day, I love how this tincture makes me feel, and I think that's why it is such a popular choice among people in the know!
Though Deep Immune is definitely my number one choice for herbal immune support, there are many others that work well. For instance, chai tea, Echinacea, Elder, Ribes Nigrum (gemmotherapy extract), Rosa Canina (gemmotherapy extract), and even Cold FX (derived from panax quinqefolium) have featured in my prevention protocols.
It’s important to note that prevention requires a different strategy than treatment. Many herbs that are effective at preventing illness are not effective at treating it. Most NDs recommend that their patients stop taking Deep Immune at the first sign of a cold or flu and switch to a different formula (eg. anti-viral) instead.
ND Strategy 3: The Best Multivitamin for Immunity
I hate to be Dr. Obvious, but: we need vitamins and minerals in order for all the enzymatic functions in our body to work… including the ones involved in keeping infections at bay.
At the beginning of my practice, I rarely used multi-vitamins for immune boosting. Usually I relied upon vitamins A, C, D, zinc and the B-complex vitamins because those were the ones with the best research-backed evidence at the time. However, as winters passed, I noticed that those were somewhat helpful, but underwhelming compared to a different group of patients who I gave a formula called Metabolic Nutrition. The Metabolic Nutrition patients almost NEVER got a cold or flu! (Even though Metabolic Nutrition was NOT designed as an immune supplement).
I imagine that those patients did so well for a couple reasons:
Firstly, Metabolic Nutrition includes a decent dose of vitamins A, C, D and zinc, plus a high dose of the B-complex vitamins in their active forms. In addition, it contains a nice complement of other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients- many of which have been implicated in immune system health.
Secondly, Metabolic Nutrition is a supplement that I prescribe to many patients who I’m treating for hormone/adrenal/liver/metabolic dysfunction. That means that the majority of the patients who I’ve given this to were going into the winter with their livers and/or adrenals in the best shape they had been in for years! (Remember factors 3 and 4 above?)
ND Strategy 4: Contrast Shower Hydrotherapy for Immune Boosting
No list of Naturopathic Strategies to improve immune function would be complete without mentioning hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy is one of the foundations of Naturopathic Medicine and is a staple for immune health in particular. It is hard to believe that something as simple as the strategic application of hot and cold water can have much of an impact on health, but in my life and in my practice, I’ve found time and again it accelerates healing when done properly and consistently.
However, you don’t just have to take my word for it!
Here are the amazing results: ending a daily hot shower with cold (30, 60, or 90 second duration) decreased the number of days that people were home sick from work by a whopping 29%!
Even better, for the people who added daily physical activity to their routine, it reduced sick days by 54% (compared to people who did neither).
Unfortunately not everyone can benefit from contrast showers and people with the following symptoms should not attempt it: seizure disorders, pregnancy, cardiovascular problems, extreme frailty, loss of sensation, advanced kidney disease, under the influence of drugs/alcohol/painkillers. In addition, some professionals believe it should be avoided in cancer.
ND Strategy 5: Breathing Exercises
The best way to strengthen your lungs: breathing of course!
Getting outside and moving your body is foundational to good health. In the hydrotherapy study that I mentioned above, people who had daily physical activity decreased their sick days by an impressive 35% (even without the use of hydrotherapy). If everybody reading this blog got outside for a 20 minute walk per day, the benefits would ripple much further than your immune system!
Breathing exercises can also be helpful. The American Lung Association recommends both the pursed lip breath and diaphragmatic breathing for people who need to strengthen their lungs (videos in link). In addition to those breathing exercises, I’ve personally found the kundalini technique, breath of fire, to be helpful in keeping my lungs strong and clear.
Breathing exercises truly have to be demonstrated to be understood, so I’m inserting a helpful video for you!
Breath of Fire is something that should be tried for 5 minutes per day for 1-2 weeks before you know if it will be helpful for you. If it doesn’t feel good- stop. Listen to your body!
ND Strategy 6: Sleep 7-8 hours per Night
We all know that when we’re not sleeping well, it seems like we’re more likely to get sick. A 2015 study showed just that. Participants who slept 7-8 hours per night had the least incidence of cold, while those sleeping less than 6 or more than 9 got more colds.
If you’re chronically not sleeping well, seeing a Naturopathic Doctor can help.
The most frequent causes of poor sleep that I see are:
In these cases, the symptom of poor sleep can be masked with sedatives (for a while), but the underlying cause needs to be addressed in order to get healthy, refreshing sleep. If waking up refreshed is a distant memory… find an ND!
ND Strategy 7: Diet & Hydration
Reading about diet online is the worst, isn’t it? Everything is so contradictory!
However, there are a couple of basic guidelines that everyone seems to agree on for improved immunity and better health overall.
Eat a variety of real foods (avoid processed foods and additives).
Aim for local, in season foods.
Avoid food allergens.
Try to include the following Super Foods when possible:
Bone broth soup. Believe the hype. Bone broth soup is a nourishing, easy to absorb source of nutrients needed to keep the immune system functioning. Bone broth gets bonus immune boosting points for it’s impact on gut health.
Blueberries. There are so many reasons to eat this smoothie favorite- in addition to tasting delicious, they are great for your brain, heart, eyes, etc . And now there is (unsurprising) evidence that they help your immune system too.
Sauerkraut Sauerkraut and other fermented foods contain healthy bacteria that boost your immunity (in addition to the nutrition that cabbage gives you).
Tea. There are a number of herbal teas that help boost the immune system, but there’s evidence that plain old black/green/white tea (from the leaves of camellia sinensis) can influence your immune system and help prevent colds and flus.
In addition to those basic food guidelines, I often give people more specific diet plans based on their constitutional type. For example, someone with Lung Qi deficiency would have different dietary recommendations than someone with Spleen Dampness.
The above strategies focus on the physical body, without paying much attention to the spiritual aspects (like metaphors and secondary benefits). That’s because for many people, a cold is just a cold and simply strengthening the immune system is enough.
However, I believe that it is always helpful to consider the question: “In what way is this illness helping me?” When my first ND asked me that question over a decade ago, I responded with anger. I felt insulted. It seemed as though she was blaming me for my illness, which was literally crippling me. However, as the weeks passed (and my symptoms started to lessen) I began to soften towards that question. Eventually, considering that question helped me make life changes which I believe were instrumental in my healing, and which were undeniably valuable for my own personal growth.
Now, whenever I’m sick (even with a passing headache or tummy bug), I ask the question: “What is this illness bringing me?” Sometimes the answer is obvious, and other times I haven’t a clue. But there is value in sitting with an unanswered question. It loosens the hold of the unconscious over the body and makes space for healing.
If the question “What is this illness bringing me?” is too antagonistic to sit with, try wondering “Could this illness be bringing any benefit into my life?” instead. You might be surprised at what comes up.
Gabor Mate explores the way that your body interacts with your life in the beautiful book, When the Body Says No. I recommend it to many of my patients with chronic disease and have had only great feedback about it.
If the issue of poor boundaries resonates with you, you might love the book: The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie. It’s a daily meditation book aimed towards people with codependent tendencies, but really it can be helpful for anyone who struggles with boundaries.
These are my best Naturopathic tips to help you prepare for cold and flu season:
If your diet doesn’t contain many fermented foods, consider a probiotic.
Use herbal medicine to strengthen your immune system.
Make sure that you’re getting a high-quality vitamin.
Get any underlying liver, HPA, digestion, and respiratory issues addressed
End your showers with a blast of cold water.
Get daily activity. Outside if possible.
Think about breathing exercises.
Get refreshing sleep.
Stay hydrated and eat a diet of minimally processed foods.
Get curious about your relationship with illness.
I hope these tips help you avoid some sick days this winter! If you usually have more than one or two infections per season, I recommend getting a personalized immune boosting plan. You know where to find me if you’re in Revelstoke. If you’re not lucky enough to live in this particular mountain paradise, find an ND online at www.cand.ca.
In good health,
PS. I’ll be writing about Seasonal Affective Depressive Disorder (SADD) very soon. Sign up below if you’d like me to give you a heads-up when it’s published. (No spam- just blog posts!)
Bifidobacterium bifidum R0071 results in a greater proportion of healthy days and a lower percentage of academically stressed students reporting a day of cold/flu: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.