We have all been there; you wake up and feel a little scratchiness in the back of the throat that just doesn’t go away with a warm cup of (insert your preference here). You have a busy day at work and can’t afford to get sick. Your mind races as to what to grab out of your medicine cabinet to remedy the situation. With cold and flu season upon us in full swing, it is appropriate to examine what might give us an edge in getting us through the season.
The thought occurred to me that we need to lay down a definition of “healthy immunity”. What is a healthy immune system? Well, one that turns on with immune challenge, and then once the threat has been neutralized goes back to “stand-bye” mode. More succinctly put, one that doesn’t over function or under function. Sounds over simplistic I know, but having a healthy immune system doesn’t necessarily mean you never get sick, it means it can quickly annihilate the threat and return to normal levels of activity in a short period of time. If you get sick with the common cold or flu and return to normal in 7-10 days, your immune system worked perfectly. If a cold lingers on for more than a couple weeks or turns into “something else” that requires antibiotics to remedy, your immune system may be under-functioning.
With this in mind, I wish to reinforce the idea that immunity is a system, and this implies that it is made of many different parts. Immunity is quite complex, and to function well as a system means every part is in balance with the rest. I find that people tend to become worried about just a single aspect of immunity, like white blood cells, cytokines, lymphocytes, immunoglobulins, etc, but these are just one aspect of immunity, and are only part of the whole body system. If you believe in the holistic perspective of the human body, then you must begin to understand the body as one interconnected working system, and not a mechanistic collection of isolated parts. If you wish to strengthen immune function, you must strengthen the other body systems along with it. This is constitutional medicine and why being healthy is a whole body experience. Since many people see the immune response as an isolated system then it makes sense to think one could simply turn on or boost certain aspects of their immune system when they get sick. This is where we start downing the range of “immune boosters” in a desperate attempt to quickly rid ourselves of the newly acquired virus even though the rest of the year we are eating less then wholesome diets!
In my experience, once a person perceives the first symptoms of a cold, the immune response has engaged and must run its course. Taking 8000 mg of vitamin C every 20 minutes for 3-4 hours at the moment you perceive cold symptoms as one website advises, will most likely give you some otherworldly diarrhea. This represents the curse of western mentality that if a little is good, then more must be better. If a nutrient deficiency is a reason for an under-functioning immune system, then it remains something to remedy long before a cold or flu hits. You don’t start digging a well when you become thirsty! Taking mega-doses of vitamins or minerals can throw your body further from homeostasis and can even put more strain on the immune system. A rain shower nurtures crops, but a flood destroys them. It is much better to replace micronutrients slowly over months.
From my experience as a Chinese herbalist, a reliable way to incorporate herbs is to use them when you may be susceptible to infections following a cold or flu, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infection, etc. In these cases, the “something else” that follows initial infection from a cold virus can be reliably alleviated with herbs. I would also advise that if you do seem to follow a pattern of dealing with these kind of secondary bacterial infections then you should start on them soon after acquiring a cold or flu. Many people get into an unnecessary cycle of having to take multiple rounds of antibiotics every time they catch a cold.
I apologize for not providing a list of herbs or a review of the latest vitamin C and Zinc lozenges on the market. In most cases these things are not one size fits all. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take them, but just keep in mind that the cold and flu are self limiting (resolve on their own) in 7-10 days. The major complaints that occur with getting sick are the lingering complications people experience after the cold or flu virus has already resolved. This is when you want to choose carefully what natural remedy you go for, because a correct choice will make a big difference in resolving your symptoms. As for herbs, there are specific choices depending on where the lingering infection resides. If you want to use herbs, consult with a trained herbalist as herb choice and dose are important to get right. You will be much happier with the result! In the mean time, eat a well balanced diet with whole-foods (foods you could find directly from mother nature), and decrease refined foods and sugars. This will keep a lot of stress off the immune system so it can work for you much more efficiently.