When you're in the grips of a serious head cold or even worse, the flu, you want one thing and one thing only: to feel better. That fact has given rise to a multibillion dollar industry of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs targeting sinus congestion, cough, fever, body aches, headaches, as well as the unholy trio of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Unfortunately, many of these products, when used too often or improperly, can have side effects that are as big—or bigger—than your current illness.

In natural medicine, the focus is more on natural products that boost the immune system and have antiviral effects. Here are a few to think about the next time you start to feel under the weather:

1. Elderberry

A unique form of elderberry called Haschberg (or Austrian elderberry) has key compounds that help prevent illness and speed recovery. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Australian study, 312 air travelers flew a minimum of seven hours and stayed four days at their destination. Before, during, and after their travel, cold episodes, duration, and symptoms were tracked via surveys. The Haschberg elderberry group had far fewer illnesses as a group, and if they did become ill, it was for a shorter duration and their symptoms were significantly less intense. Elderberry can be found as standardized capsules, and also as a syrup.

2. Propolis

You may never have heard of propolis (Greek for "defender of the city"), which is a product of bees. Propolis is collected from trees and processed by bees, who mix it with wax to seal the hive from disease-causing invaders. It has very strong antiviral and antibacterial activity. A study at the University of Heidelberg tested GH2002 (a specific form of propolis) against a variety of disease-causing bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. Within six hours, it stopped the activity of both, which is very promising news. Propolis is available in many different forms.

3. Echinacea

A review of treatments for colds and flus found that Echinacea purpurea was consistently an effective choice for stimulating the immune system. Researchers found that symptom severity was reduced in four out of six trials. Out of the four trials that measured the duration of cold symptoms, the reduction due to echinacea was significant—in some cases three or four days. Tea is a great way to get your dose of Echinacea and is almost always a main ingredient in immune boosting teas and herbal blends.

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4. Andrographis

This herb is not as well-known in the United States, but it's a cold and flu powerhouse. In one study, andrographis relieved the intensity of key symptoms in just two days, including fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, and sleeplessness. In another clinical study, 223 patients with upper-respiratory infections received andrographis or a placebo. By the third day, there was a dramatic difference in cough, headache, sore throat, and disturbed sleep. People in the placebo group noticed no improvement; in fact, some of their symptoms got worse while those in the andrographis group saw a major improvement.

5. Vitamin D

Because vitamin D is responsible for so many different health factors, deficiencies in this nutrient usually contribute to an increased susceptibility to allergies, flus, and respiratory ailments. For example, a long-term British study found that each increase of vitamin D3 corresponded with a 7 percent lower risk of infection. An American medical survey also found that low vitamin D correlated with sneezing and sinus infections, even after averaging out the differences for age, gender, race, and other factors. So proper vitamin D intake isn't just about preventing respiratory problems during the cold and flu season—it's important all the time. There are a lot of ways to boost vitamin D, one is to make sure you get your daily dose of sunlight and another is to eat vitamin D-rich foods. You can also take a traditional supplement.

Why the natural option is often the best option

When we really look at the side effects of common OTC cold and flu remedies, we understand why these natural alternatives are so important. For example, the ibuprofen family of products is responsible for 16,500 deaths per year from adverse effects. And although they are widely available, when used too often or incorrectly, drugs like ibuprofen have the potential to damage the lining of the stomach and intestines, cause bleeding and ulcers, and have even been linked to an increased incidence of heart attack and stroke.

Decongestants can also be problematic. Nondrowsy decongestants are generally based on pseudoephedrine, an ingredient that works by constricting blood vessels, which can be good for congestion but is not always a good thing. Side effects can include irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, restlessness, insomnia, nervousness, or in rare instances, seizures and hallucinations. Other decongestants are antihistamines, the most popular of which is diphenhydramine. Unfortunately, we are now learning that long-term use of diphenhydramine and drugs in the same class significantly increases the risk of dementia.

The take home message? You don't have to take any risks to find relief from your cold or flu. Natural products can make a real difference in how you feel and how quickly you heal.


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