NEW YORK, N.Y.Even if you get a flu shot this winter season, you are still at risk for colds and flu. By reducing your exposure and boosting your immunity, you increase your odds of staying healthy. But if that fails, there are still many ways to lessen your discomfort and get better faster.
Woodson Merrell, M.D., director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, attacks the problem using an integrative medical tool kit. Im a pragmatist, says Dr. Merrell, which is why I incorporate the best of Western scientific medicine and the best of complementary therapies. Everyone can add a few smart preventive measures to their routine and strengthen their natural immunity. Here are, Dr. Merrells out-of-the-box tips and tricks for cold and flu season (See related story, Keep your family healthy during cold and flu season on page B2):
1. Be more careful about hand-washing: one of the most important defense mechanisms for preventing community-acquired infections. Dont touch your face, which so many of us do unconsciously (especially hand to nose) without washing first. Never eat without hand-washing. Be aware that paper money (which changes hands many times daily), communal seats, handles (buses, trains, doors, bathroom facilities, etc.) and phones are all common sources for passing germs.
2. Wear your glasses: Contact lens wearers might want to switch to glasses during cold and flu outbreaks as they unconsciously touch their eyes with their fingers when inserting and removing their contacts many times throughout the day. This is another route for viruses to enter the body that most people dont consider.
3. Tea is key: Switch to iced or hot tea during cold and flu season. Tea contains antioxidants and polyphenols that help boost the immune system. Both black tea and green tea are good, though there are more studies on green tea. Stick to decaffeinated if you are caffeine-sensitive, especially after noon.
4. How sweet it isnt: Avoid excessive amounts of sugar during cold and flu season as it can weaken your immune system.
5. Try some mushrooms: Many species of mushroom naturally contain substances that boost the immune systemespecially maitake, reishi, and shiitake-though they all provide some benefit. This is a food you can add to your menu instead of just taking a pill.
6. Garlic is good: Add raw garlic to your salad dressing. Raw garlic has more potent immune activity than cooked, but isnt very pleasant to eat on its own. A great trick for getting more raw garlic in your diet is to crush or chop a few cloves and add it to your prepared salad dressing. Make sure you shake well before pouring so that a little garlic is contained in every serving.
7. Eat your leafy greens: In fact, eat six daily servings of dark leafy greens, yellow-orange, and red colored vegetables and fruits. These foods provide lots of vitamins useful for enhancing your immune system. Choose organic whenever possible. Use vegetables (broccoli) and fruits high in Vitamin C.
8. Some herbals work: Despite a recent report questioning the effectiveness of echinacea, there is evidence that some echinacea preparations actually work. Esberitox is a tasty, chewable product that combines two types of echinacea with the herbs baptisia and thuja, and it has been clinically proven, in both adults and children, to reduce the duration and severity of colds. If I only had one Western remedy to recommend during cold and flu season, I would choose Esberitox, comments Dr. Merrell. Earlier is always better, so the best time to boost your immune system is at the time of exposure or at the very first sign of symptoms.
9. Use a gargle early on: Listerine, and especially (diluted) hydrogen peroxide or tea tree oil work well for the early stages of sore throats.
10. Ease up on the Starbucks (coffee), power up on sleep: The bodys strongest repair mechanism is sleep, and if youre buzzed from caffeine, youre less likely to get the sleep you need. Getting to sleep at a reasonable hour is particularly important during cold and flu season, especially if you feel like youre coming down with something. During this time, try to get a few extra winks to help your body heal faster. The maxim early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise is never more important than during cold/flu season.
11. Dont sweat the small stuff: And pay attention to the big stuff. Stress and anxiety boost the amount of the adrenal hormone cortisol in your body, and cortisol can depress the immune system. This is especially a problem if a chronic condition. If you have had a recent stressful eventnew job, move to a new home, divorce, illness in a loved one, etc.take special care of yourself. Get a good nights sleep, eat a healthy diet, allow your friends and family to pamper you, or at least, pamper yourself, and try to engage in pleasurable activities. Everything from yoga to music to petting your dog or cat can reduce stress in your life. Find what works for you.
12. Integrative practitionersthat is, doctors who have additional experience with mind-body practices, acupuncture, and nutrition and dietary supplements (such as traditional Chinese medicines and homeopathy), have other options that may be right for you and your family, for both cold and flu prevention and treatment. You may want to schedule a wellness visit before cold and flu season hits to develop the health plan that is right for your family.
Even if the headlines predict heavy casualties during cold and flu season, you dont have to be one of them. If you take proper care, you can dodge getting sick altogether. But if you do get the sniffles, you can use these tips to help get better ahead of schedule.
From Woodson Merrell, M.D., Director of Beth Israels Continuum Center for Health and Healing
From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2005, issue