In addition to the colder temperatures and long hours spent on the treadmill, one of the downsides to winter is the prevalence of cold and flu. Many aspects are thought to contribute to cold and flu season (which lasts from November to February), including our propensity to stay indoors, reduced time in the sunlight, and the fact that the flu virus can survive much longer in low humidity.
Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that we’re in the midst of flu season. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to catch a cold this winter, the most effective recovery method is patience. It takes time for your body to work through its immune response as it rids itself of the infecting pathogens.
However, there are a few things you can do to help reduce the length of that time, ranging from eating garlic to increasing your intake of probiotics. Of course, in true SaltStick style, we’re not going to propose solutions without scientific evidence, so we’ve carefully documented the studies supporting each step.
Here are six steps (plus two bonus steps at the end!) to help you get over a cold fast, along with the scientific studies to back them up.
1. Decide you’ll be stinky for a few days.
Search for any “natural cure” to the common cold, and you will quickly find widespread support for garlic as an effective method to fighting off infections. In fact, garlic has been used for centuries to ward of disease, with evidence dating back to ancient China, where it was used to treat depression. Early Egyptian civilizations also used garlic for a variety of medicinal purposes, especially as a nutritional supplement. In fact, archaeologists found garlic bulbs in King Tut’s tomb, indicating its significance in Egyptian society (Pharmacology Review, 2010).
Fun fact: Does garlic protect against vampires? The ancient Egyptians believed so much in the power of garlic that they hung wreaths of garlic in their homes to protect their children from a Vampire-like ghost that would steal souls. This method of using garlic to ward off evil continued to be adopted by societies throughout history, most recently by Victorian era Christians, who believed wearing garlic bulbs would protect them against a variety of monsters, including werewolves, vampires and witches. At the height of the witch-trial era, traveling merchants capitalized on these beliefs, using fear to promote sales of garlic. They were so effective with their advertising, the myth that garlic protects against vampires is still prevalent today.
The science behind it: Turns out, vampires aren’t the only ones who should fear the power of garlic. In fact, garlic has been shown to contain several compounds that protect against infection. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health found that garlic contains anti-fungal compounds. Another study (Microbes and Infections, 1999) found that garlic is able to protect against parasites, including Giardia, and other bacterial and fungal infections, such as Candida.But perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from a 2001 study published in Advances in Therapy, in which 146 adults were divided into two groups: One group that took a daily garlic supplement and another group that received a placebo. The double-blind study took place during cold season (November through February), and during those four months, the group taking the garlic supplement suffered fewer colds than the placebo group. Also, when someone in the garlic group did get sick, their symptoms lasted fewer days than the placebo group. Thus, the adults taking the garlic supplement “were less likely to get a cold and recovered faster if infected,” the studies authors concluded.
Garlic’s powerful ability to reduce the severity of colds is likely due to a cocktail of nutrients, including vitamin C, zinc and magnesium, all of which have been shown to help boost immunity. However, garlic also contains a compound called allicin, which researchers believe to be the ultimate source of garlic’s flu-fighting abilities. A 1999 paper published in Microbes and Infection argues that allicin interrupts the metabolic processes of pathogens, which is why it is such a potent antidote to bacteria, fungus, parasites and viruses.
The drawback, of course, is the smell, potentially making it a little unpleasant for anyone near you. Allicin is a sulfur-based compound, which is why garlic’s characteristic smell is so pungent. Unfortunately for you and your close family members, that smell emanates from your body when allicin is digested — most notably through your “Garlic breath.”
Takeaway: Don’t fear the garlic! Instead, take a garlic supplement containing allicin or, better yet, eat a few cloves of crushed garlic throughout the day.
Fun Fact: Garlic has also been shown in multiple studies to protect against heart disease, Alzheimer’s (Journal of Nutrition, 2006), high blood pressure (The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 2008), high cholesterol (Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy, 2002) and cancer (Nutrition Research, 2003; International Immunopharmacology, 2003). If you don’t mind being a little stinky, we suggest adding garlic to your nutrition routine for these and other benefits.
2. Eat a variety of nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:
If you can stomach fruits and vegetables, you should try to consume as many as possible. If the idea of broccoli and Brussels sprouts sounds nauseating, you should at least try to eat some simple fruits, such as bananas, berries, or cooked carrots.
The science behind it: Fruits and vegetables are highly effective at warding off infections, due to few key nutrients:
Vitamin C: The scientific community has not come to a solid conclusion about whether Vitamin C can prevent a viral infection entirely, but there is evidence that suggests upping your Vitamin C intake can at least reduce the time you are sick (Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group, 2007). Get Vitamin C from citrus fruits, strawberries and red bell peppers.
Zinc: Similarly, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that Zinc significantly reduces the propensity to catch a cold. However, a 2013 scientific review found evidence that Zinc supplementation taken within 24 hours of symptoms could reduce the length of a cold by one day. The Mayo Clinic also lists Zinc as a possible remedy, but it suggests that patients should consult their doctor before taking Zinc supplements, out of concern for negative side effects, such as bad taste, nausea, and the potential for overdose. Get Zinc naturally from oysters, lean meats and sesame seeds.
Additionally, your body makes good use of the hundreds of antioxidants and phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds to keep its cells healthy and to repair damage from infection, inflammation and other side effects of cold and flu viruses. The important thing to remember is variety, as you cannot rely on a single food (even garlic) to remedy your cold. “If you just eat one food and expect it to act like a drug, you’re out of luck,” Dr. John La Puma, author of “Chef MD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine,” told ABC.
“Nothing is a magic bullet, as far as making a major impact in making you feel better as quickly as possible,” Kerry Neville, a Seattle dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says in the same article.
Takeaway: Keep your diet varied, keep the sugar consumption low, and keep the dark-colored fruits and vegetables high.
Fun Fact: While Vitamin C has not been proven to reduce the propensity to catch a cold in the general population, it has been shown to reduce the likelihood of a cold if a person has recently been subjected to extreme stress. “In five trials with participants exposed to short periods of extreme physical stress (including marathon runners and skiers) Vitamin C halved the common cold risk,” according to a 2007 scientific review. So after those weekend long rides and runs, don’t be afraid to load up on the oranges, strawberries and red bell peppers!
3. Add some probiotics to your diet:
Probiotics contain healthy gut bacteria that can help your body function properly. While studies of probiotics date back several years, scientists are only beginning to understand how the gut biome (the millions of bacteria living inside your digestive system) affects everything from digestion to immunity to even mood.
“We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human,” Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told The New York Times. “That’s a phenomenal insight and one that we have to take seriously when we think about human development.’’
With the gut biome affecting so many physiological processes, it is little surprise that probiotics — commonly found in fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi — can have such a strong impact on immunity.
The science behind it: A 2001 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that probiotics helped reduce inflammation by helping the body better regulate pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines. Also, a 2009 scientific review (Current Pharmaceutical Design) noted that probiotics helped relieve a variety of gut-problems, including diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.
If you are already sick, probiotics can still come to the rescue. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, a group of 30 rugby players were put through two rounds of supplementation: Half of the participants received a probiotic supplement and half received a placebo for four weeks. After a four week break, the groups were switched, so that the original half receiving the probiotic supplement was now taking the placebo, and vise-versa.
After a second four-week round of supplementation, the researchers found that the probiotics were associated with a significantly lower likelihood to contract a cold. Additionally, the athletes taking probiotics that did contract a cold were likely to recover faster than the placebo group.
Takeaway: Be sure to include probiotics in your diet. The most popular forms of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which can be found in supplements or fermented products, such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea, raw sauerkraut and kimchi. If you consume antibiotics, consider taking probiotics after completion of the treatment to help re-establish gut flora with favorable bacteria.
4. Drink water with every meal.
When you get sick, your body does everything it can to rid itself of the infecting pathogens. For example, the mucus that runs from your nose is your body’s attempt to remove the viral cells from your respiratory tract. Vomiting and diarrhea? Same deal for your digestive system. A fever is your body’s attempt to raise its internal temperature to a point that the pathogens die off from too much heat.
While these methods are effective at removing or killing the infecting virus, they require a lot of water. Mucus is between 90 and 98 percent water (Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 2009) by weight, and fevers are often accompanied by bouts of intense sweating (Ever awakened in the middle of the night to a pillow that was soaking wet?). Vomit and diarrhea also rapidly deplete water stores.
It’s little wonder that one of the most commonly prescribed antidotes to getting sick is “drink more water.” To replenish the water lost through all of these excretions, you will have to keep the fluid intake high.
4a. But don’t over-hydrate:
The science behind it: A 2004 scientific review published in the British Medical Journal questioned the logic of “drink more water!” as a be-all-end-all method to reduce cold severity, noting cases of hyponatremia in some children infected with pneumonia. Hyponatremia is a dangerous condition that occurs when blood sodium levels get too low, leading to headaches, irritability and in severe cases, even coma or death.
Additionally, mucus, while mostly water, also contains salts. In fact, about one percent of mucus is made up of mineral salts (Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 2009).
Takeaway: As we have stated for along time, whether facing dehydration from intense exercise in the heat of Ironman Kona or whether you are just stuck in bed trying to recover from the flu, proper hydration involves intake of sufficient water and electrolytes, most notably sodium.
Because SaltStick Caps are uniquely formulated to contain a broad spectrum of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride) in the same combination as is typically lost through sweat, consider taking 1 – 2 Caps per day to help maintain proper electrolyte levels as you recover from your cold or flu.
Proper hydration is especially important if your illness has migrated to your stomach. Norovirus — or “stomach flu” — is often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, which rapidly deplete your body of water and electrolytes. This is why sports drinks are commonly recommended as part of your nutritional recovery plan. However, most sports drinks do not contain magnesium and calcium — two important electrolytes. Additionally, the sugars in sports drinks may also upset your stomach, which is the last thing you want when sick with stomach flu.
SaltStick is formulated with easily digestible ingredients and contains both magnesium and calcium. Again, we recommend that you consider taking 1 – 2 Caps per day to help maintain proper electrolyte levels as you recover from your illness.
5. Rest. Relax. Take it easy. Get some Vitamin Zzzzz.
As much as our Type-A endurance athlete personalities hate to hear it, one of the most effective things we can do when sick is rest. The rule of thumb for athletes is to use the “neck test” to determine if it’s okay to exercise with a cold.
“Mild to moderate physical activity is usually okay if you have a garden-variety cold and no fever,” Dr. Edward R. Laskowski writes for the Mayo Clinic. “Exercise may even help you feel better by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving nasal congestion.”
The key here is “mild to moderate.” Also, if you have any symptoms below the neck (chest congestion, hacking cough, upset stomach, fever, muscle aches, or fatigue), do not work out, Laskowski writes.
The science behind it: A study from this past year, published in the journal Sleep, tracked 164 healthy adults with wristbands (similar to a FitBit) to monitor sleep habits. After exposing the participants to rhinovirus specimens, researchers found that participants who slept less than six hours per night during the next week were four times as likely to get sick as the adults who slept seven or more hours.
Study author Aric Prather summed it up quite nicely in the University’s press release announcing the findings: “Short sleep was more important than any other factor in predicting subjects’ likelihood of catching a cold. It didn’t matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income. It didn’t matter if they were a smoker. With all those things taken into account, statistically sleep still carried the day.”
A similar study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that people who sleep less than seven hours a night are three times as likely to develop a cold that people who sleep eight or more hours. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to reduce the effectiveness of flu immunizations (American Medical Association, 2002), and increase the amount of cytokines in the body, which contribute to inflammation (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2004).
Takeaway: Whether you are trying to recover from the flu or whether you are trying to keep from getting sick entirely, get the sleep you need — seven to eight hours a night.
6. Relax with ginger and chamomile tea:
While sleep may come easily if your body is trying to recover from illness, sometimes you need an extra boost to kickstart the Zzzz’s. Also, if you are suffering from nausea, it will be difficult to get all the fruits, vegetables and probiotics we mention above.
Luckily, a few natural ingredients — specifically ginger and chamomile tea — can come to your aid. Ginger is well-known for its ability to ease nausea, and it has been used for thousands of years for the treatment of numerous ailments, such as colds, arthritis, migraines and hypertension (Herbal Medicine, Ch. 7, 2011). Chamomile tea is a popular sleep aid and a 2010 review published in Molecular Medicine Report noted that “Chamomile is one of the oldest, most widely used and well documented medicinal plants in the world and has been recommended for a variety of healing applications … [including] as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, mild astringent and healing medicine.”
The science behind it: Ginger root is extremely dense in antioxidants; in fact, it is surpassed only by pomegranate and some types of berries (Journal of Nutrition, 2002). Antioxidants are used by the body to fight off a variety of “invaders,” including infection, but particularly free radical damage that occurs from stress and intense exercise. In other words, endurance athletes should include ginger in their daily diet — sick or not.
Many studies (Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1998; British Journal of Anaesthesia, 2000; Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 2001) have shown that ginger is effective in reducing nausea and other digestive ailments, such as bloating. In fact, ginger root is commonly recommended for preventing seasickness (Journal of Travel Medicine, 1994), and a 1982 study found ginger to be superior to Dramamine or placebo against symptoms of motion sickness. Ginger has even been recommended to combat nausea associated with chemotherapy (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 1998; Grant and Lutz, 2000).
With all of the scientific evidence supporting the claim, it’s little wonder ginger is so often prescribed as an antidote to nausea.
Chamomile tea: Despite chamomile tea’s widespread popularity as a sleep aid, few clinical trials exist that prove it’s effectiveness in warding off insomnia. An older study of cardiac patients did find that chamomile (Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1973) precipitated a 90-minute deep sleep. However, not many other sleep studies exist.
Research has indicated that chamomile has a strong ability to reduce stress, which could be why many chamomile drinkers say the tea makes them feel “relaxed” or “sleepy.” The Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology published a study in 1999 that linked the inhalation of chamomile oil vapor and lowered stress hormones. Chamomile has also been shown to lessen the severity of anxiety and seizure in some patients (Molecular Medicine Report, 2010).
In addition to functioning as a sleep aid, chamomile may also help relieve other flu-related conditions. A 1990 study (European Journal of Pharmacology) noted that cold patients found relief from their symptoms after inhaling steam with chamomile extract.
Takeaway: If you are suffering from restlessness or nausea, try brewing a pot of ginger or chamomile tea to ease your symptoms. Fun Fact: Ginger has also been shown to reduce inflammation (Medical Hypotheses, 1992; Arthritis and Rheumatism, 2001), making it an ideal component of any endurance athlete’s diet. Ginger “can modulate inflammation and reduce circulating pro-inflammatory cytokine levels in athletes, thereby possibly limiting the chances of infection and potentially reducing the effects of these cytokines in inducing fatigue-like symptoms in athletes,” reports an additional 2014 study in Central European Journal of Immunology.
“When using [ginger], peel the outer layer and grate into a saute pan if cooking a savory dish,” writes Runner’s World. “Or place a hunk in your blender or juicer. Alternatively, you can add ginger spice to your dishes or enjoy candied ginger throughout the day.”
Of course, the above “remedies” are actually just good practices in general, whether you are sick or not. At the end of the day, the process for recovery is very similar, and your body needs the nutrient-rich foods, probiotics, hydration, and rest in order to get over a hard workout just as much as it does to get over the flu.
Keep up these practices year-round, and you will be help your body recover faster from workouts too!
Of course, it would be nice if you were not slowed down by a cold in the first place. While the tips below do not necessarily help you recover from a cold or flu faster, there is some evidence that coconut oil and oregano can help your immune system ward off infection before it ever takes you down.
Try some of these bonus steps to prevent the cold and flu entirely:
Coconut Oil: About half of the fats in coconut oil come from a substance called lauric acid, and your body produces an additional substance called monolaurin when it digests the oil. Both substances have been shown to kill off bacteria, viruses and fungi (Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 1972). Additional studies have indicated that lauric acid can ward off against the bacteria and fungi that cause staph infections (Journal of Bacteriology, 2000) and Candida (Journal of Medicinal Food, 2007).
Takeaway: Replace some of your fat intake with coconut oil by using it as a substitute to cooking oils or the cream you put in your coffee.
Oregano: With an antioxidant value of 42-times that of apples (Journal of Nutrition, 2003), it is little wonder oregano has some potent immune-boosting benefits. A 2013 study in Pharmacognosy Research linked oregano consumption to boosted immunity in animals, suggesting further study be conducted in humans. Additional studies indicate that essential oil from oregano can ward off Listeria (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2005), MRSA (University of West England, 2008), and Candida (Phytomedicine, 2009).
Takeaway: Add oregano to your savory dishes for an Italian flair, as well as several immune-boosting properties.
Conclusion: How to get over a cold fast:
Give your body what it needs to recover, and you should be back at your normal 100-mile-an-hour pace in no time!
Important Note:The above should not be construed as medical advice. Contact your physician before starting any exercise program or if you are taking any medication. Individuals with high blood pressure should also consult their physician prior to taking an electrolyte supplement. Overdose of electrolytes is possible, with symptoms such as vomiting and feeling ill, and care should be taken not to overdose on any electrolyte supplement.