Saturday, November 6, 2010

Preventing Colds and the Flu ~ Part 1

The following is an excerpt from my ebook  Herbal Remedies for Colds and the Flu. You can download the entire ebook at
Our Immune System

Have you ever noticed that some people tend to be sick all the time? Others are seemingly superhuman, never succumbing to the latest bug. The difference between these people lies in their immune system. This complex set of organs and glands in our bodies help to keep us strong and healthy. It’s made up of our connective tissue, our lymph glands, various organs such as bone marrow, thymus, spleen, and various cells including white blood cells, T cells, and B cells to name a few. Each of these different systems have specialized jobs to keep us working well. Anytime there is a “hole” in the system, opportunistic bacteria and viruses can move in. Please understand that there are “germs” around us all the time; the difference of whether or not we get sick lies in our immune system strength. 

The best defense against a cold or flu is a pro-active offense to ensure that all systems in the body are operating at their optimum levels. 
Solutions for strengthening the immune system

Vitamin D
It might seem strange that I am beginning an ebook on herbal remedies with vitamin D. However, we are now beginning to understand not only the incredibly important role that vitamin D plays in our immune system function but also how many people are deficient in this important hormone. That’s right, Vitamin D is actually a hormone produced in the body and used extensively by almost every cell in our body.  Research scientists are pouring out studies linking vitamin D3 deficiencies with immune system dysfunction, resulting in many ailments from the common cold to cancer. Some vitamin D researchers are hypothesizing that the “cold and flu season” is a result of sub-optimal immune system function due to low vitamin D levels. 

Luckily, for many people vitamin D is readily available by just stepping out their front door to soak up the sunshine. However, in order for your body to produce vitamin D the sun needs to be at least 45 degrees high in the sky and there needs to be a considerable amount of exposed skin. This means that, for many people in the world, Vitamin D levels fall below optimal levels during late fall to early spring, depending on their latitude. 

In my own practice I recommend that clients get their vitamin D levels checked. This can be done by seeing a physician or by ordering a Vitamin D test from the Vitamin D Council. ( 25-hydroxyvitamin D test) I have seen countless vitamin D results through various seasons and from people living at all different latitudes and I have yet to see one result come back normal, instead all are deficient.  

Knowing your actual Vitamin D level can help to determine how much vitamin D will be best. If someone is severely deficient taking 1,000 - 2,000 IUs will not be especially helpful. However, someone who is moderately deficient does not need to take high levels of Vitamin D. 

Currently the western medical world has normal levels of Vitamin D anywhere from 30ng/mL-50ng/mL. The most recent research however indicates that higher levels are more optimal. Using the latest research and my own clinical experience I generally like to see people testing above 50ng/mL.  The Vitamin D council suggests from 50ng/mL - 80ng/mL

I generally recommend that people get their levels checked three times a year until they are able to stabilize their numbers through appropriate sun exposure and/or supplementation so they are maintaining ideal numbers. 

Vitamin D can be found naturally in abundance in eggs, liver, and cod liver oil. In case some of you have horrid memories of cod liver oil, there are many naturally flavored cod liver oils out there that actually don’t taste all that bad. When high levels of vitamin D are necessary it must be taken in pill form. Also it’s important that you use vitamin D3, not vitamin D2

Nourishing Herbal Infusions
A nourishing herbal infusion is a strong tea made from plants high in vitamins and minerals. I consider my daily quart of nourishing herbal infusions a delicious and potent brew of dense nutrition. Nourishing herbal infusions can be jam packed with essential vitamins and minerals for tonifying effects on the respiratory system, urinary system, liver and gallbladder, and nourishing to the heart. Herbs I frequently use as an infusion are nettle, red raspberry, oatstraw, and red clover. To learn more about this foundation of herbal health, see my ebook entitled, Nourishing Herbal Infusions: Our Superfood found on 

Astragalus Root (Astragalus membranaceus)

Astragalus root is an herb that originally came to us from China. It has been used as a tonic herb for thousands of years to support the immune system, strengthen weak lungs, and regulate fluid metabolism. 

Astragalus root is the most commonly used Chinese plant here in the American West.  Referred to as an adaptogen, it has the ability to gently but effectively support our immune system, resulting in better overall health, even throughout the cold and flu season. 

Astragalus root is sweet and mild tasting. Simply add it to bone broth (see recipe below), chai tea, when cooking rice or other grains, or simply simmer it in water for twenty minutes and enjoy it as you would a tea or infusion. 

I generally recommend astragalus root in high doses, 1-2 ounces a day, especially for people who are chronically deficient. 

Because astragalus root is considered a tonic herb, it is not recommended to take it during an acute illness. 

Nourishing Bone Broth
Grandmothers knew best by spoon-feeding us chicken soup made from scratch. This incredibly rich brew supports our immune system and provides nourishment that is easy to digest. 

Science has now validated this time-honored tradition by verifying this is high in many vitamins and minerals that are readily absorbable by the body. Bone broth soup is high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur, trace minerals, chondroitin sulphates, and glucosamine. It is also high in gelatin, which is released into the water with extended boiling times. I know I have made an especially rich broth when the liquid hardens slightly when cooled.  Besides nourishing the immune system, gelatin has been found to be useful in the treatment of a long list of diseases including peptic ulcers, tuberculosis, diabetes, muscle diseases, infectious diseases, jaundice, and cancer (Weston Price Foundation). 

The following recipe can be made without the use of burdock, dandelion, and astragalus, but I highly suggest making the effort to include all of them or as many as you can. All help the body maintain health and overcome illness. Astragalus especially supports the immune system – using this herb in our broth is one of the main ways we support our immune system and stay healthy. Omit the astragalus if you are already ill. 

You can’t really go wrong with soup. Basically fill a pot with the ingredients and follow the directions. There really isn’t a set amount of how many onions or how much burdock to include. The following is a rough guideline, but please feel free to follow your own intuition (and ingredients on hand) to create delicious bone broth soup. 

Bone Broth Soup Recipe

Several bones from poultry or beef (preferably bones that have marrow). To give you an idea of how many bones, I like to have enough bones to fill half the cooking pot. 
1 T apple cider vinegar (helps to draw out the calcium)
1 onion coarsely chopped
2 carrots coarsely chopped
2 big pieces of burdock root coarsely chopped or a handful of dried root 
Several dandelion roots coarsely chopped or a handful of dried root 
15 - 20 slices of dried astragalus root
2 celery ribs coarsely chopped
A handful of herbs such as rosemary, thyme, or oregano

Place everything in a large pot except for the handful of herbs. Fill the pot with water and bring to a boil slowly. Once it is boiling reduce to a simmer. After a while you will see some foam forming at the top. Gently skim this off every couple minutes until the broth runs clear. Add the handful of herbs and simmer for 8 to 12 hours. When ready, strain off the broth and discard the leftover materials. 

Store the broth in the fridge or freezer until ready to use for soups, roasts, chilies, etc. Some people like to freeze the broth in ice cube trays. Once frozen these can be stored in a ziplock bag in the freezer and used as individual servings when needed. 

Eating whole, fresh, organic foods
Shop your local farmers’ markets and the periphery of your grocery store to find whole, organic, and unprocessed foods to fill your belly. A body that is stressed from eating processed junk will undoubtedly fall more ill than the body given the best nutrients for optimal function. I highly recommend the book Metabolic Typing as a way of customizing your food to your body. All of us are different and all of us need different foods to keep us in health. Metabolic Typing by William Wolcott offers simple ways to finding out which foods your body needs. 

Avoiding sugar (a.k.a. white death
It’s no surprise to me that the “cold and flu season” is the season when we are culturally eating the most sugar. Nothing suppresses the immune system like sugar. In fact research has shown that 8 tsp of sugar, or the amount found in one soda, inhibits your immune system by 40% for a minimum of 5 hours. It also depletes important vitamins and minerals that are needed for immune function, notably vitamin C. Cutting out sugar from your diet is one of the best things you can do to prevent sickness. 

Besides increasing your vulnerability to illness, regular consumption of sugar also leads to insulin resistance and diabetes, chronic fatigue, obesity, and tooth decay. If cutting sugar out of your diet seems impossible, instead focus on adding healthy treats to your life. Berries are sweet, have less of an impact on your blood sugar, and are extremely high in antioxidants that protect your eyesight, cardiovascular system, and youthful vigor. This may seem to be difficult but over time, little by little, you will notice that the sweetness of berries and fruits is more satisfying than the “sugar fixes” of candies, sodas, and doughnuts.

Support your immune system by getting enough sleep. Sleep requirements vary from person to person. You probably know how much you need to feel well. Consistently stressing your body by not getting enough sleep is a great way to ensure you’ll get sick! Prioritizing your life so that you can be in bed by 10:00 pm is a great start. If you have trouble falling asleep on a regular basis then consult with a holistic health practitioner to help your body get the rest it needs. 

Reduce Stress Levels
Scientifically proven, ongoing levels of high stress will undoubtably land you more illness. In our culture we tend to think that prolonged stress is simply a way of life. I encourage people to really examine their lives to find a better way to live. Solutions to dealing with high stress can range from herbal support to drastic life changes to yoga to breathing exercises. 

Exercise (or playing vigorously) 
Our bodies function best when they are active. Frankly I find exercising boring, but I love gardening, walking around the neighborhood, swimming in lakes and rivers and dancing till you drop kind of parties. What do you love? Find it and then hop to it! Our immune systems are proven to function better when we are regularly active. 

Wash your hands
It’s important to build up and support our immune system with the above recommendations but you can keep from throwing hardballs at yourself by washing your hands frequently, especially if you are around someone who is sick and contagious. Please avoid anti-bacterial soaps and detergents. Instead wash your hands for thirty seconds with mild soap and dry your hands with a clean towel. 

Understanding different sickness from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

Most people who tend to get sick often also tend to go through the same stages of illness each time. Using a differential diagnosis from Traditional Chinese Medicine we can ascertain which organ systems are imbalanced and in what way we can support them. 

A general pattern I often see with people who are frequently getting sick is an overall propensity to coldness. They may feel cold, have frequent urination, sore low back, loose stools and mucosal secretions that are clear. These people need to be warmed up with warming foods, spices, dressing appropriately for the season and avoiding those things that promote coldness such as cold drinks, cold foods and prolonged exposure to cold. 

Deficient Lung Patterns
People with deficient Lung patterns (or deficient Lung Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine) tend to succumb to allergies, colds and flus and frequent mucosal congestion. They may have a bright white complexion, be exhausted, and have a weak or low voice. They may have a difficulty breathing or a shortness of breath with minimal exertion. They may also have daytime sweats. Lung tonifying herbs will be helpful such as codonopsis, astragalus, cordyceps and mullein leaf as well as breathing exercises and Qi Gong.

Deficient Lung with dryness
In TCM this is Deficient Lung Yin. The main symptom here is a chronic or acute unproductive dry cough with little or no mucous. Other symptoms include a dry mouth and throat, afternoon fevers or feeling of heat, red cheeks and nose, night sweats, and dry mouth and throat. Tongue may be red with no coat and a dry appearance. The protocol here is to restore moisture to the lungs, demulcent herbs like marshmallow and violet will help as well as eating moistening foods. 

Cold Dampness in the Lungs
This person may have a pasty white complexion. Coughing will produce copious white phlegm. Breathing may be difficult especially when lying down along with a general shortness of breath. Their tongue may have a thick and greasy white coat. In this situation the cold dampness needs to be transformed. Elecampane, cottonwood buds, ginger root and arrowleaf balsam root are my go to herbs here. They will also benefit from onion poultices, or garlic oil on the feet. 

Excess Overall Dampness
Dampness throughout the whole body can be indicative of a sluggish lymphatic system (an important part of the immune system). Symptoms include edema, moist skin, a feeling of heaviness, slow movements, abdominal distension, loose stools, lethargy and foggy thinking. Tongue may be pale but overall wet in appearance with a thick coating. 

Still want more tips?

That's dedication. See my article on 7 Tips for Improving Immune System Function here.