Life is full of natural cycles that give us a pretty good idea of what we can expect. It’s like how when the weather cools, the leaves begin to change, and a gentle wave of viruses wash across the land bestowing colds and the flu.
Both colds and influenza are caused by viruses. Colds generally come on more slowly with milder symptoms, and the flu tends to come on quickly with more systemic symptoms that are more severe.
The flu is potentially more dangerous for people with compromised immune systems because it can lead to complications such as pneumonia. Knowing the difference between a cold and the flu can help you manage symptoms and understand when you may need to take things more seriously and seek medical attention.
Fortunately, whether you are facing a cold or flu, you can take steps to support your immune system and get your body into fighting form for the pathogens ahead.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is a natural antiseptic with powerful antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Tea tree oil is extracted by steam distillation from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant native to Australia.
Several studies have shown that tea tree oil is effective against influenza. One study in the International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Research demonstrated that melaleuca alternifolia showed significant anti-influenza properties. The researchers concluded that tea tree oil (in addition to olive leaf extract) could be used preventatively in birds to prevent further outbreaks of avian flu.
Another study in the American Journal of Essential Oils and Natural Products showed that tea tree oil showed 100 percent inhibition in influenza type A. In addition, 30-minute exposure of type A virus to tea tree oil vapor also caused 100 percent inhibition, meaning the vapor’s medicinal actions had a lasting effect.
A study from the journal Molecules published in 2022 studied the antiviral activity of several essential oils using vapor instead of liquid oil. It found that tea tree oil strongly reduced the viral cytopathic effect of host cells. The cytopathic effect refers to structural changes in host cells caused by a viral invasion. The study also concluded that the most abundant components of the essential oils’ vapor might directly interfere with the influenza virus envelope or mask viral structures necessary for the early stages of viral infection.
How to Use it
One way to maximize tea tree oil’s antiviral benefits is to diffuse it. Essential oil diffusers use various methods to emit essential oils into the air.
Influenza particles can spread through the air, through close contact with an infected person, or through surfaces or objects contaminated by the virus. Influenza particles can remain active on objects for up to 48 hours according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so sterilizing surfaces is a good idea to reduce its spread. Diffusing tea tree oil is a good way to give your living space a “deep cleaning” without having to resort to harsh chemical cleaners. Diffusing also allows the oils to be inhaled, so your body is able to reap their antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal benefits.
Essential oil diffusers come in four types—nebulizing, ultrasonic, heat, and evaporative—and can be found at most health food stores or on Amazon. Always make sure to use high-quality, organic essential oils.
You can also make a natural household cleaner by adding 5 to 10 drops of tea tree oil to a spray bottle of water and using it on surfaces to disinfect your home, reducing the spread of viruses and other microbes.
Supplement With Vitamins to Boost Immune System
Because of our hectic lifestyles, it can be difficult to regularly sit down and have a healthy home-cooked meal. So intentionally adding vitamin-rich foods to our diet or taking a good, high-quality supplement will ensure that we get the vitamins we need so that our bodies function optimally and can fight off invaders.
Getting vitamins from eating whole foods is always preferable to taking supplements because of the synergistic effects found within the complex biochemistry of plants, animals, and mushrooms. These foods contain various compounds, minerals, and vitamins in intricate structures and perfect ratios that offer a benefit to the body that’s greater than the sum of their molecular parts. These foods are also perfect for our body and we’re able to absorb them readily. A high-quality supplement is a good option if you feel as though you aren’t getting enough of these critical vitamins in the foods you eat, but it isn’t a replacement for real food. That said, sometimes you need a boost, and supplements can offer you an edge over colds and the flu.
Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, is one of the best vitamins you can take to boost your immune system. The human body can’t create its own vitamin C, but our bodies need it to function properly, which is why we need to get it through the foods we eat or by taking supplements. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that the body can’t store—another reason we need to make sure we’re getting enough of it every day, especially if we feel a cold or flu coming on.
Vitamin C is necessary to help our bodies fight infections, heal wounds, and stimulate the production of white blood cells—a vital component of our immune systems. It’s also a powerful antioxidant, reducing inflammation and fighting free radicals that can impair health and accelerate aging.
Here are some of the best foods to eat for vitamin C:
- rose hips
- chili pepper
- black currants
- snow peas
- bell peppers
- Camu camu
- acerola cherry
- Chinese red dates
Recommended Daily Intake
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults older than 19 years of age is 90 milligrams (mg) for men and 75 mg for women. Pregnant women need 85 mg, and for lactating women, the RDA is 120 mg daily. Smoking depletes vitamin C levels in the body, so keep this in mind if you’re a smoker and adjust accordingly.
During cold and flu season, some people recommend taking up to 1,000 mg (1 gram) of vitamin C daily. Because it’s a water-soluble vitamin, it’s not stored by the body and any extra that the body can’t use is passed through the urine. If you want to take these larger amounts of vitamin C that exceed the RDA guidelines, increase gradually and track your tolerance.
Our best source of vitamin D is the sun, which we should try to get a little of every day to stay healthy and maintain a strong immune system. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that promotes calcium absorption and helps maintain the body’s calcium and phosphate levels, which are needed to build new bones. Vitamin D helps to reduce inflammation and modulates cell growth, glucose metabolism, and immune function.
Below are some excellent food sources of vitamin D:
- cod liver oil
- orange juice fortified with vitamin D
- dairy and plant milk fortified with vitamin D
- beef liver
- cheddar cheese
- crimini mushrooms (and some other mushrooms)
- pork chops
Recommended Daily Intake
Adults (19 yearsor older): Men–15 micrograms (mcg) (600 international units [IU])/Women–15 mcg (600 IU)
Pregnant Women: 15 mcg (600 IU)/Lactation–15 mcg (600 IU)
Adults (70 years or older): 20 mcg (800 IU)
Note: Most people are vitamin D deficient because of the generational shift toward indoor, sedentary lifestyles. Many experts suggest that a higher intake of vitamin D is necessary, especially for those who are already deficient.
Vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin, is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight the free radicals that cause damage to DNA and accelerate aging. Vitamin E helps to reduce inflammation and supports and strengthens immune function. This essential vitamin also dilates blood vessels and makes blood less “sticky,” preventing dangerous clots.
Below are some excellent foods for vitamin E:
- wheat germ oil
- peanuts and peanut butter
- beet and collard greens
- sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil
- sunflower seeds
- red bell pepper
Recommended Daily Intake
Adults (14 years or older): Men–15 mg/Women–15 mg
Pregnant Women: 15 mg /Lactation–19 mg
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin and plays a vital role in making white blood cells that fight infections in the body. Vitamin A regulates the immune system, increasing protection from bacterial and viral infections. It’s essential for cellular communication, growth and development, and male and female reproduction. Vitamin A is also vital for eye health and can help to prevent eye disorders such as age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss.
Vitamin A is also essential for healthy surface linings of the eyes, mucus membranes, respiratory, urinary, and intestinal tracts, which are important barriers that help protect the body against infection. Acquiring vitamin A from food sources has also been shown to lower the risk of many types of cancer.
Foods high in vitamin A include:
- sweet potato
- winter and summer squash
- beef liver
- fish oils
- red bell peppers
- butternut squash
- pink grapefruit
Recommended Daily Intake
Adults (19 years and older): Men–900 mcg/Women–700 mcg
Pregnant Women: 770 mcg/Lactation–1,300 mcg
Zinc is an essential mineral with functions in the body that include wound healing, immune system function, building proteins and DNA, fertility in adults, and growth in children. Zinc is also needed to maintain our sense of smell and taste.
Zinc is available in lozenges, syrups, and over-the-counter cold remedies. Animal products are the most bioavailable forms of zinc, with oysters containing more zinc per serving than any other food.
Below are some of the best food sources of zinc:
- chicken leg
- firm tofu
- lean pork chops
- pumpkin seeds
- low-fat yogurt
- shiitake mushrooms
Recommended Daily Intake
Adults (19 years and older): Men–11 mg/Women–8 mg
Pregnant Women: 11 mg/Lactation–12 mg
Eat Chicken Soup
Chicken soup has been a remedy for colds and the flu for hundreds of years—and for good reason. Soups are full of healthy ingredients and are well-cooked so that everything is broken down, making it less work for the body to digest. The body needs all of its resources to fight the illness when you’re sick. Soups and stews are a great way to get good nutrition while not taxing the body’s energy, which it needs to fight invading pathogens.
Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), a Jewish philosopher and physician, apparently knew the benefits of chicken soup nearly 800 years ago when he recommended it to his patients for a wide variety of ailments and wrote about it in his book “On the Causes of Symptoms.”
A study in the journal The American College of Chest Physicians corroborates this ancient wisdom. The study found that chicken soup increases mucus flow and helps eliminate the cold virus.
Chicken is high in the amino acid cysteine, which helps to loosen mucus and other secretions. Cooking chicken into a soup releases the cysteine into the broth. Adding spices such as pepper and garlic increases cysteine’s mucus loosening effect. Using chicken and a variety of vegetables that are high in nutrients, such as parsnips which are high in potassium, and carrots, and onions, which are rich in antioxidants, add to the soup’s therapeutic effects and help to replenish electrolytes, which are often lost in body fluids when we get sick.
In Eastern medicine, the spleen and stomach are the organs that are most vital to digestion, as well as the role they play in creating qi, the vital energy needed to fuel the body’s processes, including maintaining a strong immune system. The spleen and stomach require a lot of energy to digest and process the food we eat, and we can reduce this burden if we eat soups that are already well-cooked, allowing more energy to go to fortifying the immune system or fighting that nasty cold or flu that you just caught.
Keep Warm and Wear a Scarf
Not being warm enough puts unnecessary stress on our immune systems, which is why keeping warm is especially important in cold and flu season, when our bodies are under constant assault by external invaders.
We tend to get more viral infections in colder months because we spend more time inside and get less vitamin D from the sun, which is an essential component of our immune systems. We also tend to gather indoors to avoid the weather, making infections easier to transmit because of close contact between people.
In Eastern medicine, fall is the season associated with wind, considered the master of 100 diseases. The place where wind (and cold) most easily enter the body is through the neck. Wearing a scarf, especially in the fall, when the seasons are changing and there’s often a chill in the air, is an excellent way to ensure that you stay warm and that your vulnerable neck is protected. Another great thing about a scarf is that it’s highly portable and available in almost any color and pattern imaginable, so you can take care of your health and express your personal style in the process.
Dressing warmly enough for the time of year isn’t always easy, especially in the transitional seasons of fall and spring. Because the weather is so changeable, having a scarf, an extra sweater, or a pair of socks with you is an excellent way to ensure that you can be warm enough no matter what the weather may do and increases your odds of avoiding a cold or flu.
Practice Good Hygiene
As an acupuncturist, washing my hands has become an almost Pavlovian activity, something I do a thousand times each day without even thinking about it. But to most people, it isn’t something we usually think about unless in an obvious situation, such as using the bathroom.
Because microbes thrive everywhere in our environments and on every surface, washing our hands often and being mindful of the things we’re touching just takes a little practice. The other part of this is developing an awareness of our compulsion to touch our faces, which allows all those microbes some pretty direct avenues into the body (the mouth, nose, and eyes), which is how they can make us sick.
A way to extend this practice further is by washing your hands immediately after returning home from being anywhere in public. Depending on how vigilant you want to get, you can also change your clothing to ensure that you aren’t bringing unwanted microbes into your home. If you happen to be in a densely populated place with a lot of “high-touch” areas or you have a compromised immune system, this might be a good preventative practice.
If you have small children, after returning from somewhere such as a playground, where many other children play and touch surfaces, changing your children’s clothes when they get home and showering them can help keep infectious agents to a minimum.
The arrival of fall doesn’t need to induce anxiety because of the potential barrage of viruses that seem to accompany the changing of the seasons. There are numerous ways we can all keep ourselves built up, such as eating our vitamins and minerals, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and staying warm to name a few. Rather than relying on medications, it’s far better for the body and spirit to live preventatively to keep ourselves healthy year round so viruses and other microbes never come to visit.