Making it through the flu & cold season is always a daunting task, but add in a pandemic and it can feel impossible to make it out unscathed. Many drug companies claim to have the best remedy, and desperate customers will buy anything that promises to help them feel better faster- but when it comes to boosting our immune health, what really works and what is a waste of money?
Initial data on the effectiveness of elderberry at alleviating flu symptoms was promising, reporting that patients who took a large amount of elderberry syrup recovered from the flu a whopping 4 days faster than those who hadn’t! Unfortunately, these results have not been confirmed in larger studies, and many studies have shown no significant improvement in symptoms. Based on the data we have so far, taking elderberry syrup is unlikely to cause a noticeable difference in your immunity.
Zinc lozenges, powders and nasal sprays are all marketed as ways to quickly and easily boost our immunity. Using these products have shown only questionable benefit in studies, and they can cause some alarming side effects. At best, the studies on these products show that they may shorten your duration of cold symptoms by 1-2 days if use begins within 24 hours of symptom onset. When it comes to zinc, more is not necessarily better. High doses can cause nausea, bad aftertaste, permanent loss of sense of smell, anemia, and damage to the nervous system. The recommended daily allowance of zinc ranges from 3mg/day for children up to 13mg/day for lactating women. This amount can easily be obtained from a well balanced diet.
Curcumin is what gives Turmeric its classic golden color, and what is responsible for its impressive list of health benefits. Curcumin has been shown to have a role in fighting everything from inflammation to Alzheimer’s disease via its ability to modulate our immune response. One big problem with commercial preparations of turmeric powder is that they frequently contain fillers like flour and cassava starch or even more toxic ingredients. In high doses, Turmeric can also cause nausea, diarrhea and kidney stones. Small amounts of daily Turmeric from a reliable source may be a safer way to go.
Vitamin C is one of the biggest power players when it comes to immune health and protecting our cells from oxidative stress (think of all the face serums!). This is a water soluble vitamin, which means instead of our body storing extra Vitamin C for when an illness hits, we need to take or consume it daily. The RDA of Vitamin C ranges from 15-45 mg/day in children, to 75 mg/day for women, and up to 120 mg/day for pregnant or lactating women and older adults. Taking larger doses of 1,000-2,000 mg/day has been shown to decrease severity and length of illnesses, but you can have too much of a good thing. Megadoses of Vitamin C can cause diarrhea, insomnia, hair loss, kidney stones, and even rectal bleeding!
Vitamin D is a crucial fat soluble vitamin that plays a major role in modulating immune responses and inflammation. Infants & children should have at least 400 IU daily and adults at least 800 IU (20mcg) daily to maintain normal Vitamin D levels. The best way to get adequate Vitamin D is through food or by taking a D3 supplement. Natural food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms (D2). Many other foods are fortified with Vitamin D such as cereals and dairy products. Exposure to the sun is not recommended as a source of vitamin D due to the potential long-term risks of skin cancer. Remember that Vitamin D and Calcium work together in our bodies so it is important to have adequate amounts of both, especially for women.
Ok – so now that we’ve established there are no quick fixes, what CAN you do?
Vaccines against viruses such as Influenza and Covid 19 reduce the risk of infection and death and decrease severity of symptoms. The most important thing you can do this winter is prepare your immune system with these roadmaps to recovery.
Washing hands, wearing protective face covering such as masks, and staying home when you are sick will all help prevent the spread of illness. Most viruses are spread through respiratory droplets – which means if someone is close enough to kiss, cough or sneeze on you, you are in danger of catching whatever they have.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
This includes staying hydrated, eating a well balanced diet, getting good quality sleep, exercising daily, avoiding smoking, alcohol and other drugs, and reducing stress. When our bodies are already run down and weak, it leaves us more susceptible to illness and takes us much longer to recover.
Consult your doctor
Every illness and every person is unique. Although these general recommendations apply to most situations, it is important to seek personalized advice based on your symptoms, lifestyle and medical history.
I am a board certified pediatrician practicing in Beverly Hills, CA. I love helping kids grow into healthy, confident, independent young adults. I have served as a principal investigator on numerous clinical trials to further advancements in pediatric medicine, as well as extensive volunteer work and curriculum development for hospitals and medical training programs both locally and globally. I love having the opportunity to educate and empower young adults & especially young women to take control of their own health and wellness.