When Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose, he might also be taking a jackhammer to your immune system. Everyone knows that winter weather is hard on your health, and the change of the season takes away easy access to health boosters like sunlight, outdoor exercise, and fresh vegetables. Add in the stress of the holiday season, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for overwhelming your immune system just in time to miss all of the festivities.
‘Tis the season for orange juice and echinacea—supermarkets and supplement stores are actively suggesting ways to give your immune system a natural boost. Researchers have been working for years to figure out which of these natural cures are best. Unfortunately, a surprising number of these immune boosters have something in common with Santa Claus—they only work because you believe in them. Here’s a guide to some of the most common natural immune strategies.
In general there are many obstacles to determine if an herbal product is effective or not. Most patients and physicians are not aware that products available under the same herbal name, for example supplements with the name Echinacea differ considerably in their composition (including different plants, e.g. Echinacea purpurea versus Echinacea angustifolia), use of variable plant parts (e.g. roots versus leaves) extraction methods (e.g. drying versus alcohol extractions) and the addition of other components. These obstacles are also seen in studies testing different things but calling it the same and then generalizing the results.
Conventional wisdom tells us that taking vitamins is good for our health. It turns out that multivitamins also affect our immune system. There is some evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies—for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E—alter immune responses in animals. However, the impact of these immune system changes on the health of animals is less clear, and the effect of similar deficiencies on the human immune response has yet to be assessed. While we don’t yet know whether a multivitamin tablet can ward off a cold, it’s simply a good health practice to take vitamins, particularly in winter. Supplements can make up for the nutrition that we often get through fresh summer food, not to mention the vitamin D we get from sunlight.
Though we often call Vitamin C the gold standard immune system helper, recent reviews show us that that this may not be true unless you’re training for the annual Antarctica Marathon. A vitamin C supplement may help you to prevent illness if you’re under a significant amount of physical stress like cold exposure or extreme exercise. But even a super-dose of vitamin C won’t stop an average person from catching a cold or flu. That said, if you’ve been enjoying a daily glass of orange juice, don’t stop—new research suggests that vitamin C is an antioxidant, and plays a role in cancer prevention.
We’ve seen evidence that topical aloe vera is helpful for minor burns, wounds, or frostbite. Researchers have started paying attention to its internal and antioxidant effects as well. Although numerous claims have been published on the internet and elsewhere about aloe’s immune system benefits, no medical studies on aloe’s cold prevention properties have yet been published. Stay tuned, though. Aloe is a promising natural remedy, and plenty of new research on this plant is being published every year. Drinking aloe juice will certainly not harm your immune system, and you may find that you enjoy it.
Echinacea is one of the most common herbal health supplements for cold fighting—it has become the banner herb for winter immune boosting. On a 2009 meta-analysis (analysis of multiple studies) comparing treatment results of Echinacea with placebo, a significant effect was reported in nine comparisons, a trend in one, and no difference in six. Interestingly on another meta-analysis of 3 studies testing prevention of cold (after inoculation with the rhino-virus) found a 55% higher risk of getting the cold when Echinacea was not taken. At this point the jury is still debating this one, more to come.
Ginseng is a well-known herb used to promote health in Asian medicine. Astragalus is an herb used in Chinese medicine to help bolster the body against disease. Like many traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, ginseng and astragalus are receiving renewed attention in Western medicine. However, that attention has not yet resulted in definitive evidence that either of these herbs helps to fight colds. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) considers there have been insufficient large studies of a high enough quality to support the claims of immune boosting with ginseng. Similarly, the quality of the existing studies demonstrating the immune-stimulating properties of astragalus are poor; some suggest that astragalus may harm as much as it helps.
Garlic lovers will happily believe that it will cure anything that ails you. Medical science is showing a lot of love for the pungent bulb, as well. In laboratory tests, researchers have seen garlic work against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. However, there haven’t been enough well-designed human studies conducted to know whether this translates into human benefits.
Probiotics are good bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which can safely dwell in your digestive tract. Thanks to a new generation of yogurt products, it is easy to incorporate a breadth of probiotics into your diet, resulting in a multitude of digestive benefits. However, though some probiotic enthusiasts claim that these wonder bacteria can help the immune system as well, it hasn’t yet been proven that probiotics directly influence immune strength. However, good health practices tend to help the immune system indirectly; probiotics may not help you to fight a cold, but they do contribute to your overall health.
If the news about supplements has been disappointing, don’t despair. Some of the best ways to avoid winter illnesses don’t involve supplements at all. Simply making basic common-sense efforts to take care of your health will go a long way toward avoiding sickness. For example, washing your hands frequently to prevent the spread of germs will prevent illnesses before they even have a chance to tax your immune system.
Perhaps the best way boost your immunity this winter is to avoid stress in the first place. Though the holidays and New Year tend to stoke our ambitions, winter is not the best time of year to work yourself to death or take on herculean projects. So, for the sake of your health, find time to have fun. Go Christmas caroling, do a good deed or take a walk. Pay attention to your emotional wellbeing as well as your physical, and enjoy your healthiest winter yet.