“I never get sick!” These are the famous words I often exclaim right before getting sick. The viral culprits hang out in invisible droplets in the air we breathe and in the things we touch. With over 200 strains out there, they can make you miserable on a scale of a drippy nose to phlegm-coming-out-of-your-eyes. Between the office and kids in preschool, exposure is pretty much inevitable, and the best offense is usually a good defense.
My first job at 14 was in natural food and supplement retail, so I have a long history of experimenting with any remedy that dodges antibiotics and sugary lozenges. During the height of some winter viral exposure, I took three weeks to implement a regimen using these first seven items, which worked to keep me snot-free. The last two can be broken out if you are stuck with symptoms. Disclaimer 1: Links are for your convenience — I’m not an affiliate. Disclaimer 2: I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on the internet; these findings are based on my self-experimentation. Here are my favorites:
- Echinacea/Golden Seal Echinacea is extracted from the Eastern Purple Coneflower, found in North America. It is used to both prevent and reduce symptoms of colds and flu. It was commonly used by Native Americans and even adopted by early settlers before the boom of pharmaceuticals. Echinacea raises the body’s natural immune function by increasing white blood cell activity. This increases interferon and stimulates blood cells to take out the invading microbes. It’s often paired with Golden Seal, another Native American favorite used to boost the immune system and fight infection. Golden Seal can also be diluted and used as a gargling tincture to help soothe inflamed mucous membranes and facilitate healing. I prefer the liquid suspension in alcohol, but you can get it without it. I don’t mind the taste, but it sends some people into conniptions, so you might want to dilute it in a little juice. I would do lower doses when exposed to lots of bugs and amp it up if I had symptoms.
- Ascorbic Acid Yup, this is good old vitamin C, the oldest cold remedy on the block and the active ingredient in many products like Emergen-C. However, with pure, high-quality ascorbic acid, you bypass all the sugar, binders, and artificial flavors that often come with chewable and other powdered versions. This antioxidant helps protect cells from damage caused by free radicals and bolsters the immune system. Because it is a water-soluble vitamin, it is possible to mega-dose when starting to come down something at 1,000mg several times a day. There’s a lot of recent pushback as to its efficacy, but it's one that I feel helps — especially in the early stages. If you take 1,000mg in plain water, be prepared to make an award-winning bitter face. This is a good one for preventative measures after contracting something. If you don’t mind a bit of the sweetener, Emergen-C tastes far better, and Airborne makes the best chewable I’ve had.
- Garlic Another immune-booster, this superfood has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal effects. As always, whole fresh foods are the best form to ingest. However, pounding half a dozen crushed cloves a day might end in divorce, losing your job, or both. There are some good odorless garlic tablets out there that will still leave a bit of an aftertaste or funky burp, but nothing close to the ensuing dragon breath of the raw or cooked variety.
- Zinc Most cold symptoms derive from the rhinovirus that likes to hang out in your upper respiratory system. When taken as a lozenge or syrup, zinc can help prevent the virus from multiplying. Avoid the ones that are just candy with some zinc added in. Zinc is also used as a fire-retardant in lumber, but keep using your fireproof suit when doing any stunts, regardless of how much you take for your cold.
- Bone Broth Not only is this delicious and great for your joints, but a homemade stock contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, and tons of trace minerals — a.k.a. sickness-fighting awesomeness. Primarily using pasture-raised chicken bones will also ensure a good dose of cysteine, which helps to thin mucus so that you can get rid of it easier. Add some pepper and spice to increase the snot expiatory effect. Here’s a link on how to make it yourself, in massive quantities nonetheless.
- Apple Cider Vinegar is one of those cure-all products that I can’t recommend enough. It’s a very powerful detoxifying and alkalizing food that helps steer the body away from the acidic state that cold viruses thrive. Like many of these other liquids, you probably want to dilute it. Shooting a straight tablespoon will stop most people in their tracks. If your friends think they are tough when throwing back Jaegermeister or whisky, give them a shot glass of ACV and see how they fare.
- Lots of Water Being sick does all sorts of things to your body to cause dehydration. Fever, coughing, and sneezing are some less gross things that increase your need for more fluids. When your tank runs low, your immune system will be further compromised, so keep the water coming. I’ve found the best defense against dehydration is convenience, so get yourself a BPA-free container to keep the fluids coming.
- Sinus Rinse This is so old school, and so effective. A sinus rinse usually involves mixing a prepackaged saline powder with distilled water and using a delivery system to blast it in one nostril and out the other. If you are congested, this will surely loosen everything from your nose, ears and throat. Not only will this help mend a sinus infection when avoiding antibiotics, but it will do wonders for avoiding one in the first place. The cold and dry winter air often dehydrates your nasal passages, making them more vulnerable to allergens and other nasties that can sit there and eventually cause infection. If they are already impacted with snot, getting that stuff moving will reduce the chance of an infection and make you feel much better in the process. I prefer the squeeze tube variety of delivery systems over the pot because it is easier to clean. The last thing you want to do is squirt mold into your already infected or dry sinuses. Pro-tip: It’s kind of gross and doesn’t make for a good first-date activity. Pro-tip 2: Do it over a sink, not your silk couch.
- Oregano Oil This powerful antiviral contains carvacrol and thymol to help ward off many micro-organisms that are out to do you harm. It improves sinus congestion and will also help relieve a sore throat. Warning: if you put that liquid dropper right into your mouth, it will burn like the devil. If you dilute it in some juice, it is much more bearable but won’t taste anything like the marinara sauce you might expect. The mere suggestion of this remedy has instantly cured my daughter’s sore throat. Talk about a powerful placebo!
- An Evaporative Humidifier Winter is drier than other months, and this is only compounded by cooking the moisture out of the air with indoor heat running 24/7. This is especially noticeable and miserable when dealing with a cold and even more so when living in an already-dry climate such as UT or AZ. When there is an increase in air moisture, it will usually reduce nasal congestion related to colds and flu. However, not all humidifiers are created equally. After installing an air quality sensor, I kept getting warnings of crazy high levels of PM2.5 whenever I’d turn on the ultrasonic humidifier. I did some digging, and here’s what I found out: when the instructions say to fill them with distilled water, it’s for the health of your body, not the humidifier. The minerals present in tap water get obliterated into tiny particles by the ultrasonic frequency of the humidifier, and then you breathe them in. Brutal. However, if you run them in a few bedrooms every night, that’s a LOT of distilled water. I found out that evaporative humidifiers that wick the water from a reservoir into a filter, where a fan then blows the moisture into the air. You can use tap water with no risk of breathing in particulates. The fan is pretty loud at high speeds, but we use white noise machines anyhow, so no biggie. We have both sizes on this link, and they make a huge difference. As long as it says “evaporative” and not “ultrasonic,” you’re good to use tap water, and this brand has a ton of sizes for various rooms.