Alternative therapies to prevent and treat colds and flu

Forget about starving the cold and feeding the fever. Ayurveda, naturopathic medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine can stop a sickness at first sniffle. We all seem to face colds and flu, what can we do to protect ourselves?


The centuries-old Indian healing practice of ayurveda views colds and flus as signs of an imbalance in your dosha, or biological energy. Autumn and winter increase vata, the dosha associated with wind and cooler weather. Ayurvedic practitioners believe the change from hot to cold weather weakens your digestive fire or agni and, with it, your immune system, leaving your body with an excess of toxins called ama (that filmy, white gunk coating your tongue). This “sticky” environment makes the body more susceptible to illness-causing viruses.

As if that weren’t enough, too much ama can bring on an excess of kapha, the dosha associated with cold and wetness (known in cold-speak as phlegm and mucus). A kapha imbalance will leave you feeling heavy and sluggish with lots of congestion and thick, heavy nasal discharge. A cold caused by a vata dosha imbalance, on the other hand, shows up as fatigue and sleeplessness and is usually accompanied by a dry cough, a sore throat, and a watery, runny nose.

Rx for Prevention

  • Keep your body temperature up. At the first sign of a sniffle or cough, begin a morning ritual of abhyanga, a head-to-toe heated sesame oil massage. (Fill a glass jar with oil, and run it under comfortably warm water.) Follow with a warm bath or shower. This added warmth helps stimulate your digestive fire so your body has an easier time “burning off ” phlegm and mucus.
  • Take herbs. Try any (or all) of these ayurvedic herbs: ashwaganda (600 to 1,000 mg daily, divided into two or three capsules); amalaki (250 to 500 mg twice a day); and gotu kola (500 to 1,000 mg daily). “All these build up resistance to stress and other external invaders that can weaken your immune system,” says Mark Toomey, PhD, director of health science at The Raj, a Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center in Fairfield, Iowa.

Rx for Treatment

  • Cut back on all dairy, like yogurt, cheese, and milk, and foods made with sugar and oils, all of which tend to increase kapha and mucus. Up your intake of warming herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, pippali (known in the US as long pepper), basil, cloves, and mint to soothe kapha and vata. Toss them into warming vegetable soups and stews.
  • Drink plenty of warm water, and sip herbal teas. Try mixing hot water with a half teaspoon of tulsi and a pinch of ginger, the juice of a fully squeezed lemon, and honey to taste. “The tea’s mixture of pungent, dry, and sour flavors reduces vata and kapha,” says Toomey. Another cold- and flu-fighting trick: Make a paste with a half teaspoon each of turmeric, licorice powder, and cardamom (all anti-inflammatory, anti-mucous spices) and two teaspoons of honey. Eat a spoonful with the tea three times a day.

Naturopathic Medicine for Treating Colds and Flu

The body can heal itself when given the chance, according to naturopathy. “Naturopaths find the underlying obstacles that prevent the body from healing and then prescribe remedies to clear the path,” says Nick Buratovich, NMD, a professor of naturopathic medicine at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. To help you fight colds and flus, a naturopathic physician may blend conventional medical practices (such as conducting a physical exam) with natural treatment strategies (like prescribing herbs or vitamins).

Rx for Prevention

  • Wash your hands often to shield against germy surfaces and unhealthy handshakes. “Keep the weeds down, and you won’t get so many fires,” says Buratovich.
  • Add more herbs, foods, and supplements to kick-start your immune system. These include the herb echinacea (take 100 to 150 mg three times daily at the first symptoms of a cold), fresh garlic (toss into every meal possible), gingerroot (slip a thumbnail-size piece into your tea), zinc (30 to 60 mg daily), vitamin C (500 to 2,000 mg daily in divided doses), and medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake or reishi (100 to 150 mg three times a day). Recent research also suggests that taking AHCC, an extract from medicinal mushrooms, can prevent the flu if you take 500 mg a day.
  • Give your body plenty of TLC. “Extra sleep and sufficient hydration get overlooked in cold and flu season—until after you get sick,” says Buratovich. Drink half your weight in ounces of water daily—that’s about nine 8-ounce glasses for a 150-pound person.

Rx for Treatment

  • Chest cough and congestion? Begin with a simple humidifier to steam clean the lungs.
  • Stuffy or runny nose? Mix one part apple cider vinegar, an astringent that shrinks swollen tissues, with three parts water, and use as a nasal spray.
  • Stuffed up head? Try the “wet sock” treatment at bedtime. Soak a pair of socks in cold water, and ring out. Put them on under a pair of wool socks. As you sleep, your body creates heat to warm your feet and moves blood away from your head, thus relieving congestion.

Traditional Chinese Medicine for Treating Colds and Flu

In TCM, good health requires free flowing qi, or life-force energy. Illness results when one of the body’s qi pathways (called meridians) becomes blocked. Colds and flu result from a “Wind” attack that affects the lung meridian. Depending on your symptoms, the attack can either be Wind-Cold (common cold) or Wind-Heat (flu). If you’re experiencing chills, dry cough, a headache, body aches, and have clear nasal discharge, a TCM practitioner would say you have Wind-Cold. A Wind-Heat illness, on the other hand, comes with fever, constant thirst, sore throat, sweating, and yellow or green nasal discharge.

Rx for Prevention

  • Build up your resistance. Many Chinese herbal formulas can strengthen your immune system. Try Gejie Ta Bu Wan (take three to fi ve capsules three times daily) and Bu Zhong Yi Qi Wan (take eight to 10 tiny pellets three times daily.)

Rx for Treatment

  • Get acupuncture at the first sign of a cold or flu. “Points along the lung and large intestine meridians activate the immune function,” says Donald Phillips, MSTOM, LAc, of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego.
  • Perform a self-massage on the following key acupressure points: Li4 (located below the fleshy part between your right thumb and forefinger; gently press the area with your other thumb for one minute), Lu7 (two finger-widths up from the wrist crease, on the in- side of the forearm, in line with the thumb; gently press for one minute), and Li20 (the middle of the groove on the outside edge of each nostril; press into each point for one minute).
  • Try a herbal formula. Gan Mao Qing Re Chong Ji for Wind-Cold (take four tablets three times daily) and Yin Qiao Jie Du Pian for Wind-Heat (four to six pills three or four times a day, and only during the first three days of a cold or flu).
  • Drink five glasses of hot lemon water daily (squeeze one fresh lemon per cup). This replaces lost fluid and gives your immune system a jolt of vitamin C. Another food cure: Combine six green onions (white parts only) with one-quarter cup of brown sugar and two cups of water. Bring to a boil; discard onions, add an egg white, and stir. Divide into three dosages: morning, afternoon, and evening. The green onions help move congestion up and away from the lungs.

By Matthew Solan

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