Q+A: How can I prevent and recover from flu?

Our experts answer real-life questions


Posted: 9 September 2000
by Jennifer Harper

Q Every winter, my training and racing is interrupted by bouts of colds and flu. What can I do to prevent illness in the first place and, other than the medicines available from the chemist, is there anything that will help me recover quickly?

A The best defence against colds and flu is a strong and healthy immune system. A wealth of natural remedies is available that can both alleviate symptoms and strengthen your natural immunity.

Essential oils are one possibility. Cinnamon leaf essential oil has antibiotic, antiseptic and antiviral properties and is also an immune system stimulant. The essential oils of lavender and myrrh are effective against viruses, and others, like eucalyptus and pine, can help clear congestion. You can burn these oils, put a few drops in the bath and even use them for massage.

Herbs can also be powerful immune-system boosters. Echinacea can strengthen the system by stimulating white blood cell production, for instance. Try this for a few weeks in the winter either as a preventative or to help recovery from a bout of cold or flu. Research has also shown that patients recovered three times faster when they took 150-300mg of elderberry extract four times a day, while nasturtium fights upper respiratory tract infections and breaks up catarrh. For coughs, try aniseed, marshmallow or thyme, and a sore throat can benefit from the use of sage or myrrh.

As a basic rule, take supplements of vitamin C (3000mg daily) and zinc (15-25mg daily), at the first sign of a cold or flu, along with a dose of echinacea (15 drops three times per day). You can then add in the relevant herbs or use the essential oils.

Good old-fashioned rest, conserving all your energies to fight the infection, is also an important part of the recovery process. If you stop training and start resting at the first sign of symptoms, you are likely to be up and about and fighting fit again much more quickly!

Jennifer Harper, registered naturopathic doctor and author of Nine Ways to Body Wisdom


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How many of the claims in this article have been empirically evaluated?

Please point me to the studies - proper double-blind ones please - which back up these claims. Otherwise keep this New Age tosh out of the magazine.

See www.quackwatch.com
Posted: 21/10/2002 at 13:43

I agree, Dan. This was published
before I started reading RW, but I would be incandescent if I thought my subscription money had been used to fund someone to promote the lunatic fringe of the alternative health industry.

Having said that, I'm not averse to a bit of anecdotal evidence - after all, that's what most advice on training is based on! But "lack of evidence of efficacy" is not the same as "evidence of lack of efficacy" - and echinacea and marshmallow root and suchlike have bucketloads of the latter to their names.
Posted: 21/10/2002 at 14:19

You might both enjoy an article I read in today's Moscow Times:
http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2002/10/21/008.html

The one that drives me beserk is the column in the weekend Guardian magazine - called "Ask Emma" if I remember right - which seems to involve people writing in to ask what to do about their advanced leprosy and being told to cut out citrus fruit and wheat products. Sadly, I'm exagerating only a little.
Posted: 21/10/2002 at 15:17

Oh dear, essential oils? I agree with you entirely Dan. I live in a former convent which is now home to 27 students and 3 nuns, and I find the only defense against colds that I use (and I'm sure this has been scientifically proven) is to wash my hands in warm water and soap after cooking or going to the loo.
Posted: 21/10/2002 at 16:56

As the ex-spouse of someone who fell in with a weirdo New Age cult and went onto militant veganism and macrobiotics (and beyond) under its influence, I agree absolutely. Many laugh at this stuff, but when someone gets carried away with it, the consequences to the family can be nasty. And please don't let me start on the way the divorce laws screw blokes over a barrel.

That said, Eschinacea (spelling?) is good stuff.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 09:16


OB
Hey, steady on folks! I missed this thread until this morning but can't let it pass without comment. From my experience on this forum, the above views may be in the minority and therefore publication of the article was valid.

Its invalid to dismiss it as new age rubbish as much of what is suggested comes from a form of medicine older than Western medicine itself.

Show me the empirical evidence that taking these supplements is harmful and I will shut up but as a lot of people here believe they are of use, even if only because of the placebo effect then why be so condemnatory?
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 09:17

It's certainly harmful to the wallet. There's a whole industry peddling this stuff. Some of these ancient remedies are, granted, beneficial, but most of what's being pushed now is to do with commercial enrichment. There was a study recently (I forget the exact reference, V-rap must know it) that showed that vitamin pill etc are just a plain ole waste of money.

The problem is how to suss out the useful stuff (Eschinacea, etc) from the dross.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 09:21

Oldbones,
I think one of the problems is that there haven't been studies involving the majority of these remedies, so there is no strict evidence, just hearsay. Another thing is that here in the West, people seem to self-medicate quite freely with these remedies which, and I'm guessing here, probably wouldn't be the case where they are indiginous.
Anyway, I think the article could have at least contained some more 'scientific' info, such as getting a flu shot, or hand washing.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 10:06

Presumably one of the reasons why a runner might want to avoid medicines from the chemist is that you're not sure what might be in it. Athletes have been embarrassed in the past by failing a drugs test because they took a "cold cure".

As a matter of interest, does anyone know if any of these natural "remedies" might cause a similiar embarassment?
(not that I'm in a position to ever be drgus tested...)
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 10:17


OB
I just wanted to point out the difference between the use of supplements such as echinacea and zinc, which in my experience many people on these fora support, and of "wacky new age" stuff, which the article was being condemned for but wasn't actually promoting.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 10:20

I don't think age is sufficient reason to accord respect to an alleged remedy or theory. If something has been used as a medication for thousands of years and hasn't managed, over that time, to produce a scrap of decent quality evidence that it treats or prevents a real illness, as is the case for virtually all the alternativist theories and products (although many are in fact "New Age" in the sense of having been "invented", along with an impressive-sounding "tradition", by the multinational conglomerates which happen to have a toe in this lucrative market), then it should be allowed to fizzle out with its dignity intact.

Nor do I accept the suggestion that the fact that many people use these things (although in surveys it's not the majority - more like 25%) validates them. Most people without a science GCSE to their name, if asked, instinctively "know" that echinacea and vitamin C will cure a cold - just as they "know" that the MMR will make your child autistic and depleted uranium will give you cancer and sitting on cold doorsteps or warm radiators will give you piles.

Nor do we always know what is in these alternative "remedies". You can probably be confident that what you buy in Boots or Holland and Barrett is what the label says it is - but a recent study in a local hospital showed that over 9 out of 10 "herbal" preparations sold for childhood eczema in the "traditional Chinese medicine" shops that are springing up all over Birmingham contained potent steroids - the very stuff parents thought they were AVOIDING by buying the little unlabelled pots from the TCM "doctor".

Nor is "natural" always safer. Kerala and bush tea will probably reduce your blood sugar if you have diabetes, and lots of my patients use them because the next door neighbour's budgerigar's granny is always a more credible source of medical information than a mere doctor, but they'll destroy your liver very effectively too.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 10:39


OB
v-rap - its dodgy ground for me to debate science with a scientist and I fully accept your point about the dangers of being uninformed and bandwagon merchants capitalising on this. But when you say that people instinctively "know" that so and so will cure this or cause that, what we don't know of course is that echinacea and zinc won't cure a cold or that MMR doesn't cause autism. There is a lack of empirical evidence both ways.

I should take note of my opening comment and throw the shovel away even before I get to the hole!!
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 11:52

The point that immediately springs to mind is that you can equally argue that (to reverse your statement) there's no evidence that echinacea and zinc don't cause autism, or that MMR doesn't cure a cold...

OK, I'm being slightly facetious, but there's a big difference between proving a positive and proving a negative. But I'm not getting involved in this one any further :-)
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 12:01

Yeah, I'm outta here too. Deeply held beliefs are never altered by randomised controlled trials.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 12:19

As an ex-immunologist, my belief in these remedies is non-existent until proved otherwise, but I'll still give vitC and echinathingy a go if I'm worried about coming down with a cold before a race I've tried hard for. I like to hedge my bets!
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 13:01

Trouble is, the manufacturers of these supplements can't afford the same scale of trials that a major drug company could. The medical establishment in this country doesn't seem too interested in funding trials either, possible because of close ties to a pharmaceutical industry that is no doubt be horrifed at the prospect of natural remedies denting their profit margins.
And the loser in all of this is, of course, the confused consumer...
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 13:11

I'm all in favour of anecdotal beliefs and "what works for me".

My annoyance with this article is that it is presenting as fact remedies that have not been subjected to any testing worthy of the description. In fact, worse than that, some HAVE been tested and found to have no positive effect.

No drug company would dare market a "cold cure" - for fear of falling foul of the Trades Description Act. Why should we let alternative medicine get away with it?

And mega-doses of Vitamin C? This sucker just won't die! OK, Linus Pauling was an exceptional 20th century human being. OK, it was he who promoted this belief. Unfortunately the scientific evidence does not support his claims. They are tosh. The person who wrote this article must have known about the controversy, yet chooses to make a recommendation rejected by most scientists who have investigated it. This characterises alternative medicine: why let the evidence get in the way of prejudice and profit.

And, just to prove I'm a hypocrite .... Avoiding and curing colds, by Dan:
1. Avoid people with colds.
2. Eat well. Sleep well. Drink lots.
3. Be fit. Exercise in the fresh air. Try to get some sunshine every day.
4. Make sure there's always a source of fresh air in the room you're in.
5. Be your own expert. Know when to run and when to take a day off.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 15:52

Can you name one single alternative remedy that is actually marketed as a "cold cure"?

I fully agree that natural remedies need much more testing and that there should be more guidance on how to use them safely, but if you're taking the stance that "all natural remedies are worthless and all prescription drugs are good" then you're really no more constructive than people who take the opposite view.
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 16:23

You are so right - skinny whippet.

There have been many studies done on Echinacea
which suggest that it is beneficial for some athletes ;-see
http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0897.htm


Strikes me that 'modern drugs' have been around for less than a lifetime - so their long term side-effects are really not known at all.

Yet in the 10's of 1000's of years that we've evolved - we - like other animals - have previously used a range of natural plants to help when ill - instinctively - its just that our Western instincts have suddenly been lost in the last 100 years. Think of dogs eating grass & horses which will seek out a range of herbs in the hedgerows - according to the time of year - and they're not all 'sweet' food stuffs - and they don't eat much of them - but their instinct tells them they need them.

Native people around the world without access to medicinal drugs still use 'alternative' remedies - they have no choice - and they base this on folklore handed down through the generations. Some of these cures are being investigated by drug companies - anxious to exploit the same product. They wouldn't be doing this if it was all bunkum - but of course as soon as the companies produce a 'modern' drug based on the plant - their research - which they have to do to get a licence - will show how effective it is, and the origins of the drug - and its natural form - will de facto be played down - if you can pick it for free would you really buy it? And for the doctor - they know that the patient has a nice measured dose - with a nice explanatory label.

Why should our Western folklore be ridiculed so intensely by people trained only in a modern system that's only been around for such a short time? I guess because it doesn't need licensing - so there's been no incentive for research on a lot of 'natural remedies'- they've been taken for granted - and now some doctors are being made to think by drug companies that there is no alternative to their profitable products.

I can not for the life of me see why any medic genuinely interested in the wellbeing of his / her patients would totally and irrationally discount any source of potential cure for their client - except of course that there's a wealth of PR about modern drugs which makes them far easier to prescribe - and also which provide the comfort blanket of indemnity in case anything goes wrong (you know - the ever increasing list of possible adverse side effects included with every drug these days...'well didn't you read the leaflet - you were warned').



Posted: 22/10/2002 at 19:49

I know I know but what about Bach Flower remedies. What a hoot!!!!
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 22:08

SS,

I understand your point of view, but you seem to be just as distrustful of modern drugs. As for the effects of these drugs - just look at how, for example, infant/child mortality has dramatically changed. Ever needed anti-biotics? I have - and if I hadn't had them, I would have died last year. Personally, I'd rather have my doctor prescribe an exact dose of, for example, digitalis than go out and pick some foxglove and hope that it might work.

Sure, we can explore some of the 'folklore' to see if it works, but scientifically, not through a blind sense of false nostalgia.

Hild
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 22:50

As a chiropractic student I feel I must comment on the web site that Dan Hughes mentioned in starting this thread. "www.quackwhatch" was started in the states and does its best to pour scorn on any remidy that is not part of the mainstream system. This include now more estblished complimentary medicines such as homeopathy and chiropractic to name but two. Many of the facts that it states are the result of some very disputed testing. One of the main contributers in the past being a Dr Katz who has been discredited in the states for unethical behaviour. My point is that many of the facts in sites like this are no more proven fact than those in the article of which at least there is some anecdotal evidence. I'm not going to comment on the article as I think most people have already voiced the arguments for and against.

Jim
Posted: 22/10/2002 at 22:51

And to think that I've been laying around, moaning and groaning, dosing myself up with cold remedies, drinking water and generally feeling sorry for myself for the last 3 days when I could have simply got some essential oils and felt better right away....yeah right...I'd only feel better that way if George Clooney was the one rubbing them in...atishoo.

Posted: 23/10/2002 at 07:27

SS - thanks for the link - very interesting.
Posted: 23/10/2002 at 11:18

Time for me to bale out, but before I go ...

OK. OK. Yes there’s a whole lot of wisdom in traditional medicine. Trouble is, there’s a whole lot of dross there too. Dock leaf maybe excellent for nettle stings (and it’s certainly harmless); rhino horn does not cure impotence (and it results in a dead rhino). All knowledge starts off as anecdote and hunches. The next step is to formulate hypotheses and test them. If alternative/traditional medicine wants to make claims for itself then it has to be subject to the rigours of science.

I’d be mad to put all my faith in conventional Western medicine. It has had numerous failures. For years I was prescribed a drug for my hay fever that has subsequently been shown to be completely useless. I’d also hate for doctors to be pure scientists – if patient presents with symptom X then I prescribe drug Y. Might as well rely on a computer. Also, the successes of Western medicine encourage us to see it as a cure-all, causing doctors to over-prescribe and over-intervene on the off chance that there might be a slight benefit and with great fear of litigation if things go wrong.

But Western medicine is founded on rationalism and science, and I believe in and have faith in these approaches. None of us would want airplanes to be built according to any other principles, why should we vary from them when it comes to our own bodies?

My approach to drugs and doctors is to stay away from them as much as possible and believe in my own powers of recuperation. This certainly holds good for colds and flu. They take six days to clear what ever drugs you take, and half-a-dozen days if you take nothing at all.

Anyway, assuming I can keep the sniffles at bay, I’ll be in Stroud on Sunday. May be see you there :)



Posted: 23/10/2002 at 11:57

...unfortunately whilst Western medicine is indeed founded on rationalism and science it's practitioners are generally not scientists and may know less about science than many of their well-read patients.
Whatsmore the prevailing Scientific paradigm (aaarrgh) espoused often precludes even cursory consideration of "alternative" approaches

Mind you I have been a bit annoyed myself by hoardings advertising pro-biotic yogurts as a defense against winter colds so maybe you're right Dan

To be fair to Runners World, the article's author does describe themself as a naturopathic Dr - perhaps that's enough to warn readers to make of it what they wish
Posted: 23/10/2002 at 12:31

Interesting reading and obviously there's a sharp dichotomy here whether you're for or against trad folklore medicines. I won't presume to argue with any experts, but here in Germany a lot of credence is placed in herbal remedies and teas. I think it's like a lot of things, if you believe in something it works for you. It's like that old saying - if it helps to turn your hat around during a card game, then it helps.
Posted: 23/10/2002 at 13:54

My whole approach to medicine changed about three years ago when I was at a barbecue and got talking to a really nice bloke who'd been a highly respected GP for many years. He told me that none of his three children (all grown up by them) had ever had antibiotics. That says an awful lot about pharmaceutical medicine when the practitioners don't even trust it.

I know I'll be dismissed as a crank for saying this but take painkillers for headaches and you'll probably get more headaches.

I swear by echinacea and a healthy diet. If you have a strong immune system you can cope with most illnesses and you probably will avoid most
Posted: 23/10/2002 at 14:39

Those countries which prescribe more antibiotics have less heart disease.
Posted: 23/10/2002 at 15:11

Freaky, that's an interesting fact, but is there a connection at all? The factors that cause heart disease are reasonable well known and the apparent correlation with antibiotic usage could well be because of other factors (like the telephones per household/lung cancer correlation).

General medical practice has shifted against the widespread use of antibotics except where necessary. This is because of the dual problem of contributing to the resistance of the bacteria involved plus the harm caused by hammering natural bacteria that make an important contribution to the bodies natural systems.

The term conventional seems to get used almost as an insult about medical practice. All it means in this context is "evidence based". Maybe I'm odd, but I would expect all medical opinions to be evidence based. Any other opinion, come to that.
Posted: 23/10/2002 at 15:31

I`ve only just come across this thread, but thought i`d share with you a very interesting conversation I had with a paramedic about 4 years ago. We were talking about why it is you generally get colds/flu only in the winter. He said that when it`s cold we as people tend to over heat our houses, cars, offices etc and also wear to many clothes and create a warm, woist atmosphere which is a perfect breeding ground for bugs. In summer we drive with the windows down and have better ventilation at home and wear far less clothes. He suggested wearing/heating the least you can tolerate and ensuring proper ventilation in winter. It made sense so I tried it and have only had 1 or 2 colds since (in 4 years). I used to suffer far more.
Posted: 26/10/2002 at 21:32

What gets me is the people who have a little sniffle and say "I've got a touch of flu".

There is a lot of evidence suggesting echinacea works to boost the immune system and wards off colds.
Posted: 26/10/2002 at 21:56

Glenn, yes actually there is a correlation gum disease is linked to heart disease research seems to suggest that increased antibiotic usage decreases those bacteria that cause gum disease, thesebacteria are also linked to heart disease, increased resistance is linked to misuse but i think that this country is following the wrong line of logic.
Posted: 27/10/2002 at 16:09

I've been boosting my pretty lousy immune system with double the recommended dose of vitamin C and taking echinacea too for the last few weeks. I've been juicing daily, eating my 5 fruit & veg, having regular rest days & seeing a reflexologist monthly to try and remain healthy. I caught a cold, recovered far more quickly than usual (apparently), left it a few days than did a slow, short run yesterday. This afternoon the sniffs returned and I can feel the beginnings of a cough. This happened all through last winter and I only ran in fits and starts for months. I want to run the marathon in April but don't know what else I can do to stay healthy.
Posted: 04/10/2004 at 22:19


LOK
i've figured out you have to
avoid tubes/packed trains
avoid young kids
avoid air conditioning systems
don't touch door handles

etc
in other words not really possible to avoid it without missing out on most things involved in life and turning into hermit

it's a pain in the a***

i have a cold at the mo

but i have had great success with echinacea and this is my first cold this year
Posted: 05/10/2004 at 00:30


LOK
supe
sorry meant to say am sympathetic..
probably did not sound it !

(i am really pd off myself with this heavy cold/sore throat cause only just got back to running after layoff due to calf tear)


Posted: 05/10/2004 at 00:33

Gosh, this is an oldy!

< cough cough cough >
Posted: 05/10/2004 at 08:04

My tuppence worth:-

When folks are desperate, they will try anything that may help. Unfortunately, quacks do jump on the bandwagon and make a lot of money out of it. I've been very sceptical of alternative/complementary therapies in the past, but when you're in dire straits, you'll try 'em.
Posted: 05/10/2004 at 08:51

lady of kent
you sound as pd off as me! I've really been looking after myself these last few months but it seems to have made no difference. Unfortunately I work with small children - so there's always plenty of bugs around me!
But I am desperate so will try the essential oils, the nutritionist and any other pearls of wisdom that come my way! I usually play hockey as well as run but I've also got tennis elbow so can't do either!
Posted: 05/10/2004 at 15:37

I found some supplements in ASDA, it is basicly Vit C, Zinc and Garlic, I tink it was called Immune.

I have used it in the past with good results I tend to take when I first feel a cold coming and keep taking for a week.

I took my last one, last Wednesday when I thought I was getting a cold it stopped it and I ran the l1310k on Sunday in a reasonable time (for me).

By the way the cold arrived on Monday but is neally gone.

I will have to go and get some more next time I am in ASDA.

I also think not all these remidies work for all people.

Hope this may be of use

BigNige


Posted: 12/10/2004 at 19:27

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