Sniffles, sneezes, scratchy throat, itchy eyes—we can’t seem to get away from some version of this regardless of the time of the year or season. Is it seasonal allergies, or maybe it’s just a cold, or worse maybe it’s the flu—how can you tell the difference? Many of the warning signs overlap and are quite similar, but understanding some of the main differences is imperative to helping customers choose the best approach toward feeling better. Each condition has key indicators that make them different in the manner they affect the body, recovery and the ability to feel better faster.
Retailers can do their part by suggesting certain immune boosting foods and supplements that will give their customers’ immune systems the nutrients and vitamins they need to defend against the cold, flu and allergy seasons. Prevention is key to minimizing the risk for infection; assessing nutrition, lifestyle and supplement dynamic can be imperative when attempting to be proactive, instead of reactive this cold and flu season!
What is a cold?
A cold is a virus, and there more than 100 different types of cold viruses. Symptoms and severity can vary among the various types of colds, but generally colds share many of the same characteristics. Colds can be passed through the air from coughing, sneezing and contact such as touch. Some of the more common symptoms include coughing, sore throat and having a runny or stuffy nose. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease estimates that the average duration of a cold is seven to 10 days. It is also important to note that one can get a cold any time of the year.
What is the flu?
The flu usually starts with a fever that is over 102° F. One may also experience body aches, lack of energy, a flushed face and even dizziness and vomiting. The fever can last for as little as one or two days, all the way up to five days. The flu is a virus and usually affects the whole body. The virus can settle anywhere in the respiratory tract, which can produce symptoms of a cold such as sore throat, or even lead to pneumonia, bronchitis or an ear infection. Other common symptoms include dry, hacking coughs, body chills, headaches and nasal discharge. The average duration of the flu is four to seven days.
What is an allergy?
Allergies tend to occur when the immune system is having an adverse reaction to specific and certain substances, which generally act as triggers. When exposed to these triggers, the immune system releases chemicals called histamines. Histamines are a bit of a health conundrum; their intention is to fight off the perceived intruders, but the release of histamine actually causes the common allergy symptoms.
Allergy triggers can be seasonal, or one can be allergic to certain triggers all year round. Some of the more common allergy triggers include pollen from tree, grasses and weeds, dust mites, mold and food such as tree nuts, milk, eyes, soy, dairy and wheat.
These common and familiar symptoms include sneezing, scratchy/sore throat, coughing, watery and itchy eyes, runny nose and congestion. Sore throats that are associated with allergies are often due to postnasal drip one may be experiencing. One might also experience rashes and itchy eyes.
There is no way to totally prevent any of these conditions, however, we can certainly take supplements and incorporate lifestyle changes that can bolster and support the immune system. As cold and flu season approaches, what is the best way to arm the immune system for the oncoming “assault?” For most people, striking a balance between a healthy diet, a supplement routine and regular exercise can have a significant impact on dealing with infection.
Marshmallow root: Marshmallow root is an herb that is great for respiratory health. Marshmallow root contains polysaccharides that have a soothing effect on membranes in the mouth and throat and can help the body get rid of excess fluid in the mucous membranes. It also works in the body as a mucilage, which produces a thick sticky substance that coats membranes. Marshmallow root is a natural source of beta-carotene, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. It’s an all-star player for the cold and flu season!
Vitamin C: A classic go-to for immunity needs, vitamin C is vital to immune cells. It is important to note that the human body can’t make vitamin C, so it has to be obtained from the diet or in supplement form. This dual vitamin and antioxidant is easily depleted by inflammation, stress and excessive amounts of sugar. Vitamin C is highly concentrated in the immune cells, and while it may not prevent getting a cold, it appears to have benefits in reducing the duration of cold symptoms.
Astragalus: Astragalus is a unique immunity boosting herb native to China and Mongolia. This herb has been shown to increase white blood cell count, to boost immunity, and it stimulates the growth of antibodies and elevates the body’s resistance to bacteria and viruses.
Vitamin D: A key player in overall health! Single nutrient supplements, such as vitamin D, may also be necessary, especially during the winter when exposure to sunlight is limited. Vitamin D influences nearly 2,000 different genes in your body and receptors that respond to vitamin D have been found in almost every type of human cell. Vitamin D up-regulates the body’s ability to deal with infections as it produces over 200 various peptides that deal with combating colds. Vitamin D is also responsible for producing cytokines, which are small proteins that deal with the immune response.
Probiotics: Roughly 80 percent of our immune system is found in the gut, so taking a quality probiotic can strengthen and support immune health all year long. Having enough friendly bacteria can help train the immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens, and how to respond appropriately. Having enough good bacteria is essential for the development of the immune system for producing vitamins and protecting against the overgrowth of harmful pathogens.
Zinc: Zinc is a trace element essential for cells of the immune system. Zinc also acts like an antioxidant in the body, helping to promote immune health and the ability of T-cells to function properly. Zinc is required for over 300 different enzymes in the body, which are involved in immune response, growth and development and antioxidant protection.
Stinging Nettle: Nettle inhibits the body’s ability to produce histamines. Stinging nettle is popular during allergy season and does a great job of keeping sneezes and sniffles at bay.
Butterbur: This herb is popular for use during allergy season, as it naturally acts to inhibit the body’s ability to produce histamines. It is important to note that butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if one is allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, he or she should not use butterbur. One of the active compounds in butterbur, called petasines, is said to inhibit the synthesis of leukotrienes, which are immune system chemicals responsible for many of the common allergy symptoms.
Goldenseal: Goldenseal may be helpful for seasonal allergies as it can support the immune system and allergic symptoms. It can help soothe swollen and irritated tissues. Goldenseal also contains a key ingredient called berberine, which is known for killing bacteria.
Diet: Reduce sugar intake during cold and flu season. Sugar has been shown to suppress the immune system; in fact sugar affects white blood cells’ ability to work efficiently. Excessive sugar can decrease the activity of neutrophils, a type of white blood that destroys harmful pathogens. Sugar and vitamin C are very similar in chemical structure, therefore when one eats sugar it competes with vitamin C receptors for the space in the immune cells. The more sugar in the system, the less vitamin C that is able to get into the white blood cells.
Including lean protein such as chicken, fish and lean red meat in the diet provides the protein and other essential nutrients, vitamin A and zinc, the body needs to maintain a healthy immune system.
Incorporate more fruits and vegetables, which are full of vital immune supporting nutrients and antioxidants such as vitamins C, B, A and E. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, are also a great source of beta carotene and vitamin E—two important nutrients to support a healthy immune system during cold and flu season.
Include foods that support gut health, as 80 percent of the immune system is found in the gut. Some foods that support healthy gut flora include raw honey, oregano, onions and garlic, as well as probiotic-rich foods, such as kimchi, kefir, kombucha tea and sauerkraut.
Sleep: Don’t underestimate the powerful effect of a good night sleep to keep the immune system in top shape. When the body is sleep deprived, the T-cell count decreases . T-cells are a type of white blood cell that can help increase immunity. Melatonin, which is also known as the sleep hormone, naturally acts like an antioxidant to the body. Melatonin has been found to possess 200 percent more antioxidant power than vitamin E. Melatonin can activate T-helper cells, as well as stimulate natural killer cells, monocytes and macrophage synthesis, all key players in supporting immune health.
Brianna Diorio is a clinical nutritionist with an MS in human nutrition. She is also a holistic lifestyle coach and NASM CPT. Diorio advocates a holistic and naturopathic approach toward health and wellness, placing importance on proper digestive health, gluten-free living, herbal supplementation and using food as functional medicine as information for our cells. She is the director of training and education at Vitamer Laboratories in Irvine, CA.