8 Natural Remedies for Cold and Flu
From a western scientific perspective, flu and cold are caused by viruses that attach themselves to the mucous membrane of the nose, throat, eyes, and mouth. Once the virus finds a gap, it takes over the cells and replicates more virus cells. There are over 200 different strains of the common cold virus, which makes it difficult to not only cure but also to make a successful vaccine.
In Chinese medicine, we view common cold and flu differently. Chinese medicine sees cold and flu as an invasion of wind, cold, heat and/or dampness. I know it sounds a little crazy, but I can assure you it’s not. Ancient Chinese doctors would observe the interactions between humans and the environment to understand how these forces can create illness in the body. Along with this they developed treatment modalities that help expel these from the body, and generally strengthen the protective qi of the body.
Personally I have an even more radical take on common cold and flu. I think that the occasional cold or flu can actually be very beneficial, albeit unpleasant. It is a forced period of rest and reset for the body. I like to think that it’s a time when things close down to upgrade and reset. Think of those often annoying updates we have to do to our computer operating systems or anti-virus software. It slows things down, or stops things altogether, for a period of time, only to start back up stronger, faster and running the latest and greatest operating system. It’s also a time of cleansing for the body. All that mucus that we expel is another way in which the body rids itself of toxins and impurities.
If it’s happening more frequently than it should, it can also be a sign from our body that we aren’t doing enough to rest it and take care of it. So these are good reminders and opportunities to revamp our diet, exercise, sleep, and self-care habits.
When symptoms like coughing and sneezing, show up, it’s a sign that the body is busy fighting the virus, or expelling the wind, cold, heat, or damp in Chinese medicine terms. Symptoms are part of the natural healing process. For instance, a fever aims to kill the virus with its hot environment, while coughing seeks to clear the breathing passages of thick mucus that would carry germs to the lungs.
Essentially, there is no cure for a cold or flu. Your body’s natural immune system is the only thing that can fight the illness. But how we support the immune system, and the body in general, can make a big difference in how long and severe and cold or flu is, as well as how often they happen. These remedies are aimed to support the body in fighting off the invading cold as well as ease the uncomfortable symptoms while the immune system is busy doing its expelling and upgrading process.
Differences between a Cold and Flu
A cold is milder than a flu and usually lasts for only a few days to a week. It usually starts with a sore throat, then moves on to a runny nose, congestion, and a cough. Children may also have a fever. The nose will have a watery secretion for the first few days, after which it will become thicker and darker.
Flu is more severe and can haunt you from a few days to weeks. It may result in a series of health issues such as pneumonia and even hospitalization. Flu usually comes on quickly. You may experience a sore throat, fever, headache, muscle ache, congestion, and a cough. Pneumonia usually targets the young and elderly, and people with lung and heart problems.
Treatment of a Cold and Flu
Since there are no magic cures, it’s best to support the body in its cleansing process, as well as treat symptoms to make your body as comfortable as possible while your immune system does all the work. Here are some natural remedies that will help ease the process and get you back to health as soon as possible:
- Remove White Foods
White foods, like refined grains, sugar and sweeteners, dairy products, and soda suppress the immune function of the body, slowing down its healing power. Cut them out of your diet as soon as you feel the symptoms coming on. In general these should really be occasional treats, not daily staples.
- Drink Hot Liquids and Soups
Hot liquids are good for hydration. Choose hot herbal teas like hot lemon water with some slices of fresh ginger at the first sign of symptoms. This will boost your immune system and help to fight the infection. Hot liquids also help open the nasal and sinus passages, and loosen phlegm and congestion. In Chinese medicine warm cooked liquids make the Spleen happy, which will give you more energy to fight off the cold or flu.
- Steam or Irrigate Your Nasal Passages
Steam congestion out from your nasal passages with a homemade concoction: Boil 2 cups of water and add 2 tablespoons of thyme, rosemary, and oregano each to the water. Cover the pot for five minutes so that the steam can build up. Remove the lid and hold your face over the bowl with a towel covering your head to trap the steam. Breathe the steam in for about fifteen minutes. This will loosen the congestion and kill the viruses and bacteria. Alternatively, add essential oils to the water, like eucalyptus, tea tree, and peppermint oil.
Another excellent treatment is the Ayurvedic practice of neti, or nasal irrigation. This helps clear out nasal passages and improves breathing. Of course sometimes the nose is so totally blocked that it’s not feasible.
- Hydrate and Rest
This is the most important thing of all. Your body is asking for rest and whether you listen or not is probably the largest determinant of how long and severe your cold or flu will be. This is what sick days are for. Take time off work, and take naps as often as possible. This means both staying home from work AND not working! If you stay home from the office but are still on your computer all day, you aren’t helping yourself get better faster. Give your immune system the rest it needs so it can focus on doing its work internally. If you have a fever it increases the risk of dehydrating, so keep hydrated with soups, broths, water and herbal teas.
Chinese herbal medicine excels at treating cold and flu. Herbs are excellent agents to help fight flu and cold and support your immune system. In Chinese medicine we use herbs that are said to “releases the exterior”, meaning they help facilitate the expulsion of the wind and cold and damp that are often present. Scientifically we know that these herbs have strong antiviral and antibiotic properties. Here are a few common examples of herbs we use in herbal formulas for colds and flus:
- Cinnamon twig
- Shiso/Perilla Leaf
- Ginger: Ginger helps with the nausea and vomiting that comes with high fever. It lessens inflammation, decreases high fever, and soothes headaches. You can take it in capsule form or make a tea with fresh ginger root to relieve congestion.
- Angelica root: Especially helpful at unblocking the nose.
- Magnolia flower
- Mint leaf
- Spring onion
- Chrysanthemum flower
- Mulberry leaf
- Kudzu root
- Black cohosh root
- Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is high in lauric acid and is thought to have antibacterial properties. Some studies suggest that it may dissolve the lipid coating around some viruses, which makes it more susceptible to be attacked by the immune system. As an added benefit it helps curb sugar cravings for those that are trying to get off sugar.
- Blow Your Nose the Right Way
Blow your nose clean often – don’t sniff the mucus back as that will just delay the healing process. Cold and flu is a cleansing process so we want to get that toxin and germ-containing mucus out of the body as quickly as possible. Also, don’t blow too hard as the pressure can carry germ-carrying phlegm back into the ear passages, causing earache. Gently press one nostril down while blowing softly to clear the other nostril. I prefer to use cloth handkerchiefs washed regularly since they are much softer than most paper products, and aren’t as irritating to the nostrils after frequent use. As an added bonus, they are cheaper and better for the environment!
Often people don’t think of acupuncture for cold and flus, but it can be an excellent treatment to help get better faster, and minimize the uncomfortable symptoms during the process. It is like a jump start for the immune system, and helps clear out the nasal passages to improve breathing. It also helps improve sleep, which is important for healing but can often be illusive during a cold or flu.
There are many great preformulated Chinese herbal cold remedies out there. Most health food stores have at least a couple. The most well known are Gan Mao Ling and Yin Qiao San/Pian. Of course the best herbal treatment is a custom made formula from an experienced professional.
Need Help with Natural Remedies for Your Cold or Flu?
Different treatments work for different people. Try out a few options and stick with the ones that work for you. I’d love to hear what remedies work for you.
If you need help identifying whether you have a cold or flu, or need help with the best alternative remedies for cold and flu, visit my Chinese medicine clinic in San Francisco so we can work out the best treatment for you.