The flu is caused by an infectious family of pathogens called influenza virus. Because this virus rapidly adapts, new vaccines are developed once or twice a year to try to give you immunity to the new strains. Getting a flu shot improves your odds of acquired resistance, but there are no guarantees—and you may still get sick from a strain not covered by the current shot.
Flu symptoms will vary depending on the strain of virus affecting you, ranging from very severe body aches for two to three days to lingering fatigue for many weeks. If you come down with this illness, naturopathic medicine offers a few approaches that may decrease the severity and extent of your symptoms. (Be sure to follow any flu care instructions given by your primary care physician, and consult your physician before trying any new remedy.)
Vitamin C is almost universally recognized for its immune-boosting benefits; however, zinc can also strengthen your body’s defenses. Zinc is a potent immune modulator found in a variety of products, from chewable tablets to fizzy powder additives for water.
When choosing a zinc product, make sure you read the label. Cheaper, lower-quality products may have the less absorbable form of the vitamin, zinc oxide. To ensure that your body can metabolize the zinc, check the label for the non-oxide form of this mineral: zinc chloride or zinc sulfate.
If you’re having throat symptoms, consider zinc lozenges, which typically contain 3 to 5 milligrams per lozenge, to provide additional antimicrobial benefits for the throat. Too much of a good thing can be bad, and so can excessive zinc consumption, as too much zinc competes with copper absorption. When you’re sick, 3 to 5 milligrams of zinc per hour is adequate; however, 5 to 10 milligrams daily is all you need as a maintenance dose when you feel healthy.
Folic acid is another nutrient with powerful effects on the immune system. Most people are deficient in folic acid unless they consume dark, leafy vegetables on a daily basis. Some good sources of folic acid include spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, romaine lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts and avocados.
Although a variety of hydrotherapy techniques would be appropriate to enhance your immune system and speed your recovery, by far my favorite is the wet-sock treatment. I have witnessed this treatment drop fevers, reduce head congestion and enhance sleep in many patients suffering from the flu.
You need a pair of thin cotton socks and a pair of thick wool socks, both long enough to cover your ankles and as much of your calf muscles as possible. About 20 minutes before bedtime, wet and wring out the thin cotton socks until they are slightly damp, then place them in the freezer.
Remove the frozen socks at bedtime and place them on your feet; you may have to work them a bit until they are pliable enough to slip on your feet. Next, slip the dry, thick wool socks on over the thin, wet ones and go to sleep. In the morning, some patients find the socks are dry, fever and head congestion are gone, and that they had a restful night of sleep, often with very vivid dreams.
Although this is a very safe hydrotherapy technique, it does require that the individual have a warm constitution and not suffer from any peripheral vascular compromise, as sometimes happens in people with diabetes.
As a naturopathic physician, I have a strong affinity toward and passion for using botanical medicines. Perhaps the most common botanical patients start using when they get the flu is Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) root extract. Although echinacea is a powerful immune tonic, it is most effective taken before you get sick to keep your immune system in peak performance, rather than to improve your immune system’s function after you already feel sick.
There is a direct correlation between high stress levels and low immune function and poor health. An awareness of your stress level can help you plan for ways to mitigate the effects of stress on your health so that you are not left exposed to the flu with a weakened immune system.
Excellent ways to keep stress levels down include meditation, yoga, sports, qi gong, tai chi and—most importantly—sleep. Proper rest is critical for a strong and healthy body.
During sleep, your brain clears biochemical clutter and recharges your neurotransmitter reserves while your pituitary gland releases growth hormones to help with tissue healing and other anti-aging benefits. If you are having trouble getting into a regular and restful sleep routine, consider using a melatonin supplement (3 to 20 milligrams) or GABA supplement (100 to 800 milligrams) before bedtime.
Proper rest is most crucial when your immune system is down. If you are already sick, rest allows your body’s natural defenses to function optimally, helping speed your recovery. Many sick people are in a rush to return to work or their daily activities, so they don’t get enough rest to allow their immune system to adapt and overcome a microbe.
Homeopathic medicine is based on the philosophy of like cures like, so a remedy is selected based on how well the constellation of symptoms and effects in a healthy individual match the constellation of symptoms in someone with a condition.
Some examples of homeopathic remedies and key features to look for in the symptomology include:
- Rhus tox, when achiness predominates that is aggravated by rest or initial motion and relieved by continued motion;
- Gelsemium sempervirens, when great weakness and heaviness of the body predominates to the extreme that any motion causes exhaustion;
- Belladonna, when flushed red cheeks or face predominate and mucous membranes are reddened;
- Eupatorium perfoliatum, when achiness in the bones predominates, with a craving for cold drinks despite feeling chilly;
- Arsenicum album, when restlessness despite extreme exhaustion predominates.
Counter to the common pharmaceutical notion that higher doses of a medicine result in more powerful effects, homeopathic remedies use the energetic imprint of substances, so more dilute remedies are considered to be more potent than less dilute remedies.
Naturopathic Physical Medicine
In naturopathic medicine there is a philosophical principal called vis medicatrix naturae, which is Latin for the “healing power of nature.” Your body’s natural healing ability, what homeopaths call the vis medicatric naturae, is analogous to what is referred to in the chiropractic philosophy as the innate, which, when hindered, predisposes you to illness.
Every area of your body is connected to your spinal cord via peripheral nerves that radiate out from every level of your spine; therefore the health of your spine can impact all areas of your health. If you are fighting the flu, it is worth considering a chiropractic check to make sure your nervous system’s control is not being hindered. A quick spinal adjustment may help restore your body’s self-healing ability.
Fight the Flu with Prevention
You have just read many options to help you fight the flu—but prevention is always the best medicine. Regular self-care in the form of healthy eating, exercise and stress management will help your body’s immune system function at its peak.
Shidfar Rouhani, N.D., D.C., is a core faculty member at Bastyr University California. Rouhani utilizes all modalities of naturopathic medicine, including herbal medicine, physical medicine, clinical nutrition, traditional Chinese medicine and hydrotherapy. He received his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.