Not long ago, I almost did myself in. I spent hours wandering around Los Angeles with a dear friend, despite the soggy Kleenexes pouring from his pockets. I told myself the social stimulation and fresh air would keep me safe from his cold. Hah! Less than a week later I was trapped on the sofa, head stuffed up, nostrils flooding, and the rest of me unable to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. For ten long days I lay flat on my back, barely able to rise dealing with a common cold.
When I finally wobbled back to life, I decided enough was enough. I would not go through another cold season playing host to every viral particle that happened my way. I vowed to strengthen my immune system, figuring I’d stock up on echinacea, vitamin C, goldenseal, and zinc…right?
Not exactly. In fact, digging through the latest findings on colds made me rethink my arsenal; turns out my ideas about how to use these remedies were dead wrong. What’s more, I was completely unaware of a couple of powerful herbal treatments, and had been neglecting a crucial—and pleasurable—way to protect my health.
Echinacea and vitamin C can ease the symptoms and duration of a cold, according to the latest studies, but not keep it at bay. And goldenseal kills intestinal pathogens beautifully, but it’s useless against the germs that infect the upper respiratory tract. As for zinc, every study that shows it can shorten a cold has been countered by an equally valid study finding that it can’t.
The real bright spots turned out to be remedies I hadn’t even considered: astragalus root, for instance, also known as huang qi. The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia postively gushes over this herb’s “seemingly remarkable ability” to restore immune system activity. Another intriguing contender, Andrographis paniculata, popular in Asia and Scandinavia but new to many Americans, is winning a reputation as an excellent infection fighter.
I wasn’t pleased to discover, however, that even the most promising herbs probably aren’t enough to get the job done. I’d need to address the stress in my life, as well. A week into the Long Cold, certain that such record-breaking bed rest was the first sign of permanent, debilitating disease, I dragged myself into my doctor’s office. She drew a picture of a big oil barrel. The container was supposed to represent my body coping with lack of sleep, too much sugar, high-pressure deadlines, and the prospect of an upcoming family gathering—all the stresses of an overly busy life. My overworked immune system had decided the only solution was to knock me flat so it could take care of business.
On reflection, this seemed self-evident—haven’t we heard for years that stress makes us susceptible to infections? But recent research by Australian psychologist Peter Drummond takes this notion a step further, showing that people who practice relaxation techniques find that colds don’t hit them as hard. In a series of studies with schoolchildren and college students, he taught calming techniques to half the participants, then watched what happened during cold season.
The little ones who’d been taught to de-stress had much shorter colds—a trend that continued even a full year later. Likewise, the college students who’d learned to relax endured fewer days of misery than their counterparts who hadn’t. Drummond suspects that when people calm down, their respiratory passages and saliva secrete more of an antibody called sIgA, which blocks viruses from latching onto cells.
Often, however, there can be a boomerang effect. “Students muddle through their exams, then they get sick during their holidays,” he says. “You’re most vulnerable after the stress finishes.” Drummond thinks this is because the stress-induced hormone cortisol, an anti-inflammatory, temporarily staves off coughs and sneezes even if a bug has managed to creep in.
What I needed to do, it seemed, was find ways to keep my stress from reaching crisis proportions so as to avoid the overload-and-collapse syndrome. Margherita Pagni, who teaches stress reduction at the Osher Clinic for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told me my thrice-weekly yoga practice was a good start. But if I really wanted to exert some control over my life, she said firmly, I’d have to commit some time every day to doing mindful activities. She suggested meditation; even five to ten minutes a day spent sitting quietly, focusing on my breath or a mantra, she said, would make a real difference in my body’s stress load. “You need to practice wisdom and kindness toward yourself,” she said. “It’s about contentment.”
I liked that idea. So as this cold season gets into gear, I’m going to shoot for at least ten minutes every day of either meditation or yoga. I’ve booked a few massages, and I’m going to try not to overload my schedule, particularly during the holidays. Someday, when I get really good at this, I hope to let contentment cure the common cold.
In the meantime, I’ll keep my medicine cabinet stocked with the right herbs and supplements. (It’s fine to mix and match these remedies.) Here’s how to use them for maximum protection.
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Your best bet for prevention
This botanical is believed to goad white blood cells into producing extra interferon, which is an antiviral protein. In a study involving 1,000 people in China, the herb both prevented colds and shortened their misery. Try it when you’re worried about getting a cold—you’re flying cross-country for Thanksgiving, say—or when you’re sure one has taken hold. Take it for three to four days as a powder mixed with liquids, in three to four doses a day, for a total of 9 to 30 grams.
Take at the first sniffle
A recent and well-publicized study at the University of Wisconsin is what crushed many people’s enthusiasm about this popular herb’s ability to beat back a runny nose. The 148 participants were asked to come in as soon as they felt poorly, whereupon they were given capsules of either a dried mix of Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea or a dummy pill. Either way, symptoms turned out to be just as severe and the colds lasted about as long.
But hold on to your supplements. Many of the students didn’t take their first dose until three days into their illness. And, as the study authors admit, echinacea may not be all that helpful for healthy young folks anyway. It’s best for people whose immune systems need a boost and who are bombarded by one cold after another.
“If you look at the majority of studies on echinacea—21 in all—you’ll see that most come out favorably for treating upper respiratory symptoms,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. The trick is to take it the moment your throat starts to feel scratchy or you begin to sniffle.
Blumenthal suggests taking a tincture of E. purpurea, which is typically made in Germany from aboveground parts of the plant. Use a dose of one dropperful every three to four hours. Or try taking tablets containing 900 mg of the dried root of the varietals E. purpurea, E. pallida, or E. angustifolia three times a day. (All these versions of echinacea are likely to be sold at health food stores.) Don’t take it for more than seven weeks at a time, as it will become less effective. And avoid it if you’re allergic to the plants’ relatives in the daisy family (Asteraceae).
Take early and often
Linus Pauling’s zeal notwithstanding, vitamin C still stirs fights among scientists. To sort things out, I turned to Harri Hemilä of Finland’s Department of Health, who has reviewed the best placebo-controlled trials on the supplement. In the six largest studies, involving more than 3,000 people in several countries, vitamin C didn’t do anything to prevent colds, Hemilä said. But more than two dozen studies offered strong evidence that it could ease misery and shorten their duration. People with a low dietary intake of C benefited the most.
Doses from 1 to 6 grams per day offered the most value, especially when taken within 24 hours of the first sign of illness. (If high doses upset your stomach, cut back. In any case, you’ll absorb the vitamin better if you take no more than 1,000 mg at a time.)
New kid on the block
Andrographis paniculata, also known as Kan Jang, has a long track record as an infection fighter in Scandinavia, India, Thailand, and China. It seems to stimulate immune system cells and encourage them to proliferate. Last year, a randomized, double-blind Swedish study evaluated the treatment in 200 cold-stricken patients. The herb beat the placebo hands down—especially in quelling headaches, nasal and throat symptoms, and general malaise. Several other pilot studies have also shown good results.
“It’s definitely an up-and-coming herb,” says Blumenthal. As soon as symptoms come on, start taking four 85-mg tablets of the standardized extract three times a day. Traditional Chinese herbalists carry it.
By Sally Lehrman