We don’t like to admit it, but even doctors get sick. And many of us are terrible patients, so we often elect to treat ourselves. It’s not a good idea in cases of serious illness, but it’s often appropriate during colds and flu, when the best thing to do is stay home. Colds and flu are upper respiratory infections caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics aren’t effective. Instead, I use home remedies and natural interventions to treat symptoms, speed recovery, and minimize discomfort. This is how I care for myself and my family during colds and flu.
While we are sleeping, our brains are secreting the hormone melatonin. Melatonin plays a key role in many essential functions in the body including immunity. It helps regulate the development and function of white blood cells, specifically helper T-cells and natural killer cells that destroy viruses and virus-infected cells. When I’m sick, I sleep as much as I can until I feel better. When my family is sick, I put them straight to bed. Sleep not only helps us heal; it also helps prevent us from getting sick again. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that healthy adults who slept less than seven hours per night were almost three times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept at least eight hours per night.1
Spicy Ginger Tonic
It’s important to drink plenty of fluids during upper respiratory infections because frequent fluid consumption prevents dehydration and soothes and moistens sore throats. When I’m sick I drink mostly water, bone broth, and unsweetened herbal teas or those sweetened with a small amount of honey, which can soothe sore throats. I make sure there’s a batch of my Spicy Ginger Tonic in the fridge for sipping throughout the day, hot or cold.
Dr. Sarah’s Spicy Ginger Tonic
2 inches fresh ginger root, thinly sliced to maximize surface area
10 dried chili peppers
4 cups filtered water to a saucepan
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon honey (to taste)
- Add the ginger, chilies, and water to a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to sit for 10 more minutes.
- Strain the mixture.
- Stir in the lemon juice and honey until fully incorporated.
- Drink immediately or cool to room temperature and store in a clean airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
I drink a lot of fluids when I’m sick, but I only eat when I’m hungry. A loss of appetite indicates that the body’s energy is better spent fighting infection than digesting food. When I do have an appetite, I choose foods that are nutritious and easy to digest like slow-cooked soups made with bone broth and green vegetables. I steam green vegetables like zucchini, green beans, and celery until tender and purée them with a handful of parsley, cooked chickpeas or white beans, several cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, sea salt, a splash of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and enough bone broth to achieve my desired consistency.
Salt Water Gargle
Gargling with salt water can soothe sore throats and prevent complications. Most upper respiratory infections are initiated by viruses, but bacteria in the mouth and throat can cause secondary infections when tissues are inflamed and especially susceptible. Salt water kills bacteria by osmosis, creating a hypertonic environment in which their cell walls rupture. To make a salty solution for gargling, I stir a half teaspoon of salt into a half cup of warm water. Taking small sips, I gargle with the solution and allow it to coat the back of my throat before I spit it out. I repeat this until all of the salt water has been used, twice per day or more as needed.
Steam inhalation moistens mucus membranes in the nose, mouth, and respiratory passages, combating dryness that causes pain and makes these tissues more susceptible to secondary infection. Steam inhalation also helps loosen mucus in the nasal passages and phlegm in the throat, making them easier to eliminate. I usually add pure organic essential oils because they can kill microbes and clear congestion. (Perfume oils and essential oils of poor quality will not have the same therapeutic effects.) To set up a steam inhalation I bring four cups of filtered water to a boil then pour it into a large bowl. I place the bowl on a heat-proof surface where I can sit comfortably with my face about six inches above it. I add four to six drops of essential oil (usually eucalyptus) to the water before draping a large towel over my head and the bowl to contain the vapors. I stay under the towel as long as I comfortably can, or until the water cools. Between steam inhalations and overnight I use a humidifier.
At the first sign of a cold or flu, I take probiotics, vitamins A and D, zinc lozenges, and botanical medicines specific to my symptoms. Botanical medicines are extracted from plants and they can have many different actions in the body. Some act as expectorants to help clear phlegm. Others have anti-spasmodic properties to reduce coughing. And some can make the immune system more active against viruses, like elderberry. One study found that elderberry was effective against the H1N1 virus and compared its anti-viral activity to pharmaceutical flu medicines like Tamiflu.2
As a doctor I know there are certain cases in which a visit to the doctor is in order: if cold and flu symptoms aren’t improving after a week, if there is vomiting, or if a fever develops in a baby less than three months old or in anyone who is immune-compromised for any reason. Because I’m an otherwise healthy adult, I don’t worry about fevers. While fevers that have been artificially induced can be dangerous (like heatstroke from sitting in a hot car with the windows closed), fevers mounted by the body are part of healing. At higher internal temperatures, the enzymes used by the body to fight infection are more effective and viruses and bacteria are less active. Fevers may make us uncomfortable, but they’re a sign of an active immune response to infection. And there’s nothing more natural than that.
1 Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, and Turner RB. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold.Archives of Internal Medicines. 2009;169(1):62-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19139325
2 Roschek B Jr. et al. 2009. Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 70(10):1255-61. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19682714
Sarah Cimperman, ND is the author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. She graduated from NCNM in 2002 and has a private practice in New York City. Her expertise has been featured on Fox News and Huffington Post and in Natural Health magazine, Whole Living magazine, and the Well Being Journal, among other publications. Dr. Cimperman also writes two blogs, A Different Kind Of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet.