nutrition, Self Care

What to do About that Dreaded Winter Cold or Flu

Here in YYC, the weather is getting cooler, the leaves are changing, there’s a nip in the air. As much as we’d like to deny it for a few more weeks months, winter is coming.

[cue Game of Thrones reference]

I live in Canada. There is absolutely no question we get full blown, many feet of snow, frigid cold, arctic quality, winter.

I actually love winter.

I know, I know. I’m crazy. But the truth is I just love the changing of the seasons, I love all of them. The short period of each allows me to appreciate the next. If I were to live somewhere where it was always hot, I would probably get depressed because I would not be able to snuggle up in a cozy blanket by the fire and sip on hot cocoa and watch Christmas movies. That would make me sad.

What do I not love about winter?

Flu season. Cold season. General increase in communicable illness in the whole of the population.

Not fun.

You know what’s even less fun? Being sick when pregnant – you can’t take anything! You know what’s even LESS fun than that? Being sick while caring for a newborn! Downright awful! Add onto that the stress and worry that your tiny human will also get sick. It’s the literal worst.

But there are things you can do that can help you stay on the healthier side of things and give your body the best shot at avoiding, or in the very least minimizing the sniffles, sore throat, cough, body aches and general crappy feelings that go along with viral infections.

Now if you ask your friends and family, ‘how do I prevent/get rid of a cold’ you’ll probably be greeted with a myriad of ridiculous sounding suggestions, for example:

‘take a shot of whisky and wear a toque to bed’
‘rub your feet with vicks and wear socks to bed’
‘gargle salt water’
‘take garlic pills’
‘drink a hot toddy – with extra toddy’
My personal favourite – ‘put wet socks in the fridge, then before bed, put them on then cover with wool socks’ – supposedly called ‘warming socks’… Oh Lord… *eyeroll*

I mean, I’m not complaining about the fact that the majority of the suggestions involve alcohol and sleep. But they probably aren’t doing much to support your immune system (well except maybe the sleep, but we’ll get to that).

Most of these claims are based on anecdotal evidence. “Well my mom used to always do XYZ and I always felt better within a few days” or “I always take ABC supplements and I never get sick”.

Let’s look at the first one – most colds last 5-10 days. Usually most people are in denial of their illness within the first day or two, then they acknowledge it, but don’t feel too bad, then they feel worse and finally start looking for a ‘cure’, they try XYZ and miraculously they feel better! Well did XYZ cure them, or did they just happen to try XYZ right before their virus was due to run its course?

Ya, think about that one.

So what can you do to help with the cold or flu?

What does science say?

  1. Take Probiotics
    There’s a lot of information out there about probiotics and the human microbiome right now.There’s been a recent shift in thinking to ‘germs are bad’ to ‘too many of the wrong kind of germs are bad’. You see our entire body is covered and filled with germs, and the majority of those germs live within your digestive tract, and help our bodies break down the food we eat. Recent research has found that a good balance of bacteria within the body can even help support our immune system. A 2014 study showed that taking probiotics allowed participants to decrease the frequency and duration of viral illnesses. The participants reported that although they still felt sick, when they got sick, it lasted a shorter period of time, and they reported illnesses less frequently than the group that did not receive probiotic therapy.
    Now I personally take a probiotic supplement daily, and give a baby version to Nugget, there are also many dietary sources to get beneficial bacteria through the food you eat. Things like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut (make sure it’s fermented) kimchi and, little known, honey (make sure it’s unpasteurized)!
  2. Don’t fight the fever*
    Ever wonder why we get a fever when we get sick? Well it’s not what you think. The most commonly held belief is that it helps basically ‘cook’ the virus or bacteria that is causing the infection, and this is not true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have to cook your food to kill bacteria! Fever and increased body temperature actually improve your body’s immune response buy allowing certain types of your white blood cells to become more efficient at attacking the infection. Hyperthermia, while it doesn’t kill the viruses, does inhibit their replication, or ‘viral shedding’, which can help limit the duration of the cold or flu symptoms.So while it’s perfectly reasonable to take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve symptoms like aches or pains, it’s not necessary to bring down a fever just for the sake of it. Mayo Clinic suggests that a fever less than 39.5C (103F) is not worrisome in an adult, so if you’re temperature is less than that, leave it alone!

    *The exception to this is if you are pregnant – fever in pregnancy can potentially harm the developing fetus – please treat the fever with acetaminophen and speak with your care provider!
  3. Eat chicken soup
    You probably thought this one was filed up there with the ‘old wives tales’, but there is actually science behind it! One study showed that the combination of ingredients in chicken soup limited the inflammatory response of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell), which is responsible for most of the unpleasant symptoms of a cold or flu. Also, inhaling the warm vapours and drinking the warm fluids associated with chicken soup help loosen mucous in the nose and chest, making them easier to clear (which is why your nose runs when you eat soup).
  4. Eat nutrient dense foods
    It’s no surprise that our bodies require nutrients to function. Our nutrition needs to consist of more than just fats, carbohydrates and proteins. There is a plethora of micronutrients that our bodies require in order to function properly, like vitamins and minerals. The best source for these is through the food we eat, fruits and vegetables, no or low processed foods. The more a food is processed, the less nutrition it contains.
  5. Sleep
    Sleep is how our body recouperates. It kind of seems obvious that it would be even more important when our body is fighting off an infection that sleep would be even more important. Animal studies have shown that all animals engage in more sleep when they are ill, it is the natural thing to do. Sleep also helps reduce stress, which contributes to improved immune system function. So rest up!

So now you know. When you are feeling ill, and someone suggests you put on cold wet socks (still laughing about that one), you can retort with science. The actual facts about what to do when you are feeling ill, and how to minimize the likelihood that you will become sick in the first place!

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