Natural Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t
Practically everyone will battle colds and the flu at some point in time. The average adult is sick with the common cold (with symptoms like sore throats, coughs, and mild fevers) two to four times each year. Another 15% to 20% get the flu. Since these illnesses are caused by a virus, they can’t be stopped completely. But you can relieve your symptoms. And since these are such common ailments, there is no shortage of remedies meant to relieve them.
The big question remains—which natural treatments work, and which are a waste of time? Our medical experts review many popular home remedies from zinc and garlic to Echinacea and saline drops, and they offer useful, factual information you can use to keep yourself and your family healthy.
Does Echinacea Work?
In America, the herbal supplement Echinacea has been surging in popularity. In 2009 alone, US consumers purchased $132 million worth of the stuff. It is commonly touted as a natural health supplement that is thought to reduce the duration of respiratory infections and ease their symptoms. But does it really work?
Echinacea is a traditional medicine used by some Native American tribes for a variety of ailments, including scarlet fever and syphilis. The herb has been used for more than 400 years in this way, according to archaeological evidence. In the 19th century, a dubious salesman named H.C.F. Meyer began to make claims that the herb could cure just about anything Its popularity declined in the US in the early 20th century, but surged in Germany, where most clinical trials of the herb are still conducted today.
Overall, the results of Echinacea trials seeking to verify its use as a cold or flu remedy have been discouraging. The trials have suffered from weak analysis, with many of the best-controlled and most robust studies showing negative results. In addition, this supplement may interact with ongoing medication, which means its use should be discussed with your doctor. The National Institute of Health warns that in one large trial, Echinacea seemed to increase the risk of allergic rashes in children.
Does Zinc Work?
Zinc is another popular, natural remedy for colds and the flu. In 2014, American consumers spent about $108 million on zinc supplements. But there is real reason to exercise caution when it comes to zinc.
A study out of Great Britain found that zinc supplements in high doses may shorten a cold by almost three days. While other research has not been able to produce the same results, that certainly does sound impressive. In addition, zinc seems to have an antiviral effect, at least in laboratory conditions.
But before you rush out for zinc at the start of your next cold, consider some of the potential drawbacks of consuming zinc in high doses. Zinc comes in two basic forms. It can either be taken orally as a lozenge, syrup, or tablet, or it can be swabbed in the nose (intranasal zinc). The intranasal form is often discouraged because of a scary side-effect—it can cause you to lose your sense of smell, potentially permanently. The Food and Drug Administration outlawed several zinc nasal products after 130 consumers reported a loss of their sense of smell after use.
When taken orally, zinc has several other potential drawbacks. Too much of it can cause copper deficiency, reduce HDL (good) cholesterol from the bloodstream, increase the risk of , and interact with other medications in potentially dangerous ways. Perhaps most hazardous of all, some oral zinc products contain cadmium, which at high doses can lead to kidney failure.
Do Vitamins Prevent Cold and Flu?
When it comes to upper respiratory infections, can vitamins make a difference? It may depend on what you’re taking.
Two vitamins have come to the forefront as possible cold- and flu-stoppers. Both vitamin C and vitamin D have been studied as potentially preventative treatments to these diseases. Both seem to have some effectiveness in certain ways. Whether they improve the immune system’s ability to fight disease is still being studied, but here’s what we’ve learned so far.
On its surface, vitamin C has a lot going for it. It is a necessary nutrient found in lots of the foods we eat on a regular basis. Those foods include oranges, red bell peppers, kale, and broccoli for starters. It’s found in orange juice, which is also a relatively gentle food for digestive discomfort.
The research for this nutrient as a remedy for respiratory infections splits along two lines. One line of research attempts to understand whether high doses taken on a regular basis can prevent colds. The second line of research tries to answer whether high doses taken during a respiratory infection may decrease the duration of the disease.
On the first question—whether daily, high doses can prevent colds—has come up negative. There seems to be no solid, scientific evidence that this nutrient can keep a cold from developing. One possible exception is in the case of those who experience brief episodes of severe physical exercise or frigid environments—they may benefit from regular, high doses.
On the second question—whether high doses can reduce the duration of an illness—is inconclusive, but what evidence is available suggests it may have some benefit.
Different people seem to respond differently. For some, 1,000 mg seems to be helpful. For others, it takes 2,000 mg. Be careful: at these high doses, some people will experience diarrhea and nausea.
Vitamin D supplements have been tested to discover if they can prevent colds and the flu. Three large trials have come to contradictory conclusions.
In the first trial, scientists from the University of Otago in New Zealand followed 322 otherwise healthy adults for a year and a half. The study found that people who took supplements got sick about as often as people who didn’t. A second trial of more than 2,000 adults ages 45-75 also found no significant results from taking supplements.
However, a third trial performed by scientists from McMaster University found more promising results for those taking supplements. In this study, 600 students were tested. Some were given vitamin D, while others weren’t. The students given the extra nutrients were significantly less likely to contract an upper respiratory tract infection.
You’ll need to work a little harder to find natural food sources for your “daily D,” though some foods are fortified with this nutrient, making it easier to get it into your diet. Fortified foods include milk and some orange juices. Natural sources include fatty fish like mackerel and tuna, and swordfish and salmon have particularly high levels. Unfortunately, these fish may also contain high levels of mercury.