Fighting Colds and Flu in the Depths of Winter

Steve Kroening, ND
January 22, 2020


We’re getting a double dose of the flu this winter. First, it started with influenza B, now they’re saying influenza A is hitting us.

If you’re like most people, you usually suffer through two or three bouts of some kind of bug in between October and March. But you don’t have to!

Take my friend Harriet, for instance.

She called me a few weeks before Thanksgiving lamenting the approaching holidays. Oh, it’s not that she’s a Scrooge; far from it. Her celebrations are legendary. Her family always says it’s hard to choose which is the most unforgettable, the fabulous meal or the beautiful table. Or the thoughtful little gifts she always bestows on everyone this time of year.

No, she loves the season, what she dreads is how many times she gets sick. It seems that every time she tries to plan anything, she comes down with something. And it takes weeks to get over it. Then a few weeks later, she has something again.

This is why Harriet isn’t looking forward to winter. The infections that always seem to hit this time of year, take the magic right out of the season for her.

What Harriet didn’t realize was that the extra sugar and imbibing through all the special events may be leaving her a bit more vulnerable to infection (remember, sugar stuns those immune cells that combat infectious bacteria and viruses). So I suggested to her that she take it easy on sweets and cocktails this year.

I just talked to Harriet the other day. She followed my directions and has been able to avoid serious infections through the holidays. And now she feels like she’s prepared for the rest of winter. That’s because she’s doing everything she can to prevent the usual colds or flu. She’s also taken steps to strengthen the mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract, which helps protect her from respiratory problems.

My Protocol for a Healthy Winter

We all have an innate immune response that ideally is meant to detect infectious organisms and fight them off before they overtake us. Problem is, most folks are not nourished well enough to make their immunity powerful. But I’ve helped put an end to that for Harriet and now it’s your turn!

Following is my nutritional strategy for anyone who is troubled by infections during the winter or, in fact, at any time during the year. It involves using several vitamins, an amino acid, and some herbs to keep your immune cells, your lungs, and bronchial passages really resistant to infection.

Vitamin C – Start by taking an optimal amount of vitamin C. A number of small studies, in subjects under extreme physical stress, show that vitamin C decreases common cold incidence by half. Vitamin C speeds up those same immune cells that sugar stuns!

Routine vitamin C supplementation at levels at or slightly above 2,000 mg/day has consistently reduced both the incidence and duration of colds. In fact, three controlled studies have shown an 80% reduction in the incidence of pneumonia among vitamin C users!

In one study, vitamin C reduced cold and flu symptoms by 85%. This study demonstrates the possibility that higher doses of vitamin C are important to support immune function. The dose was 1,000 mg per hour for the first six hours, followed by 3,000 mg per day. I look for vitamin C combined with bioflavonoids to increase the antioxidant and healing potential of the supplement. I prefer liposomal vitamin C, as it doesn’t cause the digestive distress that regular vitamin C can cause at high doses.

Vitamin A – Then take a daily capsule of vitamin A, from fish oils or palm oil. Vitamin A keeps the mucous membranes resilient and able to fight off invading bacteria or viruses. I suggest 10,000 to 25,000 IUs daily for most people, unless you’re female and trying to become pregnant. Harriet is beyond her childbearing days, but women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy should not exceed 5,000 IU of vitamin A in a given day.

Zinc – Next, I suggest 30 mg zinc daily. You can get some of this from your multivitamin. But I recommend you also keep zinc lozenges on hand if you might be around people who are ill or start to feel symptoms.

As a possible treatment for common colds, researchers tested zinc gluconate lozenges in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial. One 23 mg zinc lozenge, or matched placebo, was dissolved in the mouth every two waking hours after an initial 46 mg dose. After seven days, 86% of 37 zinc-treated subjects were symptom free, compared with only 46% of 28 placebo-treated subjects. Side effects or complaints were minor and consisted mainly of objectionable taste and mouth irritation. Zinc lozenges shortened the average duration of common colds by about seven days.

Do not take more than 100 mg of zinc on a daily basis long term, however, or you will have immune suppression instead of immune support. High doses of zinc should be saved for times of illness only. Zinc acetate seems to be the most effective at fighting infections this time of year, and you can use a lower dose to have the same effect.

Zinc and selenium seem to work particularly well to keep seniors healthy. A recent study (randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind) found that seniors taking zinc and selenium had significantly fewer infections over a two-year period. The zinc and selenium supplement cut the number of infections by nearly two-thirds compared to the placebo. A follow-up study demonstrates that seniors supplemented with zinc and selenium show improved antibody response to the flu vaccine.

N-Acetyl Cysteine – If your lungs are congested, take NAC. N-Acetyl Cysteine is a derivative of the sulfur-containing amino acid, cysteine. It’s produced naturally in the body and is found in foods. NAC is an intermediary (along with glutamic acid and glycine) in the conversion of cysteine into glutathione, the body’s primary cellular antioxidant. Glutathione and the enzyme complexes that it forms act as detoxifying agents and antioxidants in the body. Glutathione works in the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs to protect the lungs from inhaled germs and particles of pollutants. NAC effectively thins mucus and should be taken long-term by anyone who suffers with repeat bouts of respiratory infections. NAC may even reduce the rate of recurrence by boosting glutathione levels.

Try These Herbs

Three herbs that are well documented for support of immune function are garlic, echinacea, and astragalus, although scores of herbs possess immune-stimulating activity. Keep these three in your herbal medicine chest all year long, but especially during the colder months.

Garlic – In 1858, Louis Pasteur demonstrated garlic’s antibiotic activity. The fantastic germ-killing activity of garlic has been repeatedly demonstrated against many species of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. Garlic is the only antibiotic that can actually kill infecting bacteria and at the same time protect the body from the bacterial toxins that are worsening the infection! Aged garlic extract, Kyolic-garlic, is the best researched, and in my opinion, the best garlic.

Echinacea – Hundreds of scientific studies have documented the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical applications of echinacea. The most consistently demonstrated effect of echinacea is in stimulating phagocytosis – that is encouraging white blood cells and lymphocytes to attack invading organisms. Extracts of echinacea can increase phagocytosis by 20-40%. (Again, sugar does the exact opposite!)

Echinacea remarkably increases the activity of immune system cells so they can more quickly eliminate invading organisms and foreign particles. Supplementing with extract of echinacea delivered an increase of 50-120% in immune function to study participants over a five-day period.

Echinacea causes an increase in the population of immune cells, further enhancing the overall activity of the immune system. Echinacea also stimulates the production of interferon as well as other important products of the immune system.

Astragalus is another herb that supports immune system activity. It increases the number of “stem cells” in the bone marrow and lymph tissue, and stimulates their development into active immune cells. It increases the activity of spleen cells. Astragalus stimulates the production of interferon, a key element in fighting viral infections. Interferon informs the white blood cells that bacteria or viruses are invading. White blood cells then send reinforcements to the affected area. Interferon also stimulates the production of digestive enzymes that consume invading organisms and stop their spread.

Astragalus root results not only in decreased common cold incidence, but also in shortening the course of illness. In fact, compared to controls, the duration of colds in those who used astragalus was cut in half! The usual dose for astragalus is two to three tablets or capsules or three to five ml of tincture, three times per day.

The herbs garlic, Echinacea, and astragalus are immune-system boosters with antibacterial and antiviral effects. I would use them at higher doses to treat any episode of acute cold or flu. For more chronic conditions, take garlic every day and alternate the astragalus (200 mg twice daily) and echinacea (200 mg twice daily) for as long as needed, taking each herb for a week at a time before switching to the next one.

One More Suggestion

Finally, I like to keep Sambucol, a syrup made from elderberry, around whenever the colder weather may increase our chances of being exposed to the flu. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is active against influenza and other respiratory viruses. Elderberry inactivates the enzyme that flu viruses use to penetrate cell membranes.

In a clinical trial, people with recent onset of influenza were given either placebo or elderberry extract (two tablespoons a day for children; four for adults). Among those who took elderberry, 93.3 percent were much improved after two days, compared to 25 percent of the placebo group. Complete cure occurred in nearly 90 percent of the elderberry group within two to three days vs. at least six days for the placebo group. Since there are no drugs that effectively treat the flu, I like to keep Sambucol around for peace of mind.


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