Catch Fewer Colds This Year
Find out what really works and what probably doesn’t.
Cold and flu season is upon us and I have a mission: I want to keep Nutrition Diva listeners healthier this year! There are a lot of urban legends out there about preventing colds. So I’m going to devote the next two shows to sorting fact from fiction and showing you the most effective things you can do to prevent colds.
Today’s quick and dirty tip is that vitamin C may help protect you but you need to take it an ongoing basis. On the other hand, the popular immune-booster Echinacea works best if you don’t take it every day.
Singers have a pathological fear of the common cold. For most people, a scratchy throat or hoarse voice is uncomfortable and inconvenient. For us, it can be a major career disaster. I’ve never known a singer who didn’t have an elaborate protocol for warding off colds. Turn a singer upside down in November and some combination of zinc lozenges, Echinacea capsules, vitamin C packets, and saline nasal spray is sure to fall out of her pockets.
But do any of these things actually reduce your risk of getting sick? Over the last ten years, a lot of researchers have been trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. If you’d like to review the research yourself, I’ll include some links in my show notes. Believe it or not, we still don’t have definitive answers on a lot of this stuff. But here’s what we do know:
Vitamin C: The Most Convincing Evidence
Of all the nutrients that are rumored to prevent colds, vitamin C is by far the most studied and also seems to have the most convincing evidence. Taking 500 mg or more of vitamin C a day throughout the cold season probably will reduce your chances of getting a cold this year. It seems to work extra well for people who engage in strenuous activity or spend time out in very cold temperatures. So if you’re planning to run the Iditarod this year, start loading up on C.
Of course, some people in these studies got colds even though they took vitamin C. But their colds tended to be shorter and their symptoms less severe than people who didn’t take any vitamin C. This was especially true in young kids. And, by the way, waiting until you get sick to start taking vitamin C isn’t nearly as effective as taking it all along.
Your body can’t store a lot of extra vitamin C, so your best bet is to get regular doses throughout the day. Here’s an idea: In addition to taking a vitamin C supplement once or twice a day, try to eat some vitamin C-rich foods at each meal and snack throughout the day.
Of course there are citrus fruits, but here are some foods that I bet you didn’t know were high in vitamin C: broccoli, potatoes, kale, and chili peppers. To find more foods high in vitamin C, you can use the nutrient search tool on nutritiondata.com.
Echinacea: Save It for When You Need It
Echinacea is a popular herbal supplement that many people take on a daily basis because they’ve heard that it boosts the immune system. Echinacea does rev up your immune response but it is not a good idea to take it for longer than a few weeks at a time. For one thing, it seems to lose its effectiveness with extended use. There are also concerns that long-term use of Echinacea can suppress other aspects of immune function.
So, unlike vitamin C, which works best when you take it every day, you’re better off saving your Echinacea for when you really need it. Use Echinacea to bolster your defenses during times when you’re particularly vulnerable to infection. These include times of unusual stress, periods when colds are going around your family or workplace, or anytime when you’ll be in close contact with a lot of new people, such as travel or family visits. But after six or eight weeks at most, you’ll want to take a couple of weeks off.
Zinc: Not as Convincing
Zinc lozenges have become quite popular as way to treat colds. There’s no doubt that zinc is very important to a healthy immune system but the evidence for zinc as a cold remedy is very mixed. Some studies have found that zinc lozenges make colds shorter and less severe but an equal number found no benefit whatsoever.
When researchers pooled the evidence from all the studies into a single analysis, they found only weak support for zinc lozenges as a way to treat the common cold. So, it’s your call.
Using zinc lozenges as directed will put you well above the recommended maximum intake for this nutrient. You’re not going to get into trouble by using zinc lozenges for a few days to treat a cold. But over time, too much zinc will cause problems. So, if you want to use them, use them only for a few days at a time.
Next Week: Three More Ways to Prevent Colds
I’m running out of time for today’s show, so tune in next week for three more tips on how to get fewer colds this year.
This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous.
Remember that these tips are not intended as medical advice. Because everyone is different, please work with your health professional to determine what’s right for you.
That’s all for today. Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me
Colds and Influenza: A Review of Diagnosis and Conventional, Botanical, and Nutritional Considerations (Alternative Medicine Review)
Foods high in vitamin C (NutritionData.com)