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Flu Season 101: Do's and Don't

Rachel O'Reilly

While getting sick is never fun for you or your children, coming down with a cold can be the body’s clear message to slow down. More often than not, we push ourselves to the limit, take care of others before ourselves, or don’t check in with our bodies, and then we get sick. Or, if it’s your child who’s getting sick, maybe they’ve been eating less than optimally, eating pre-packaged snacks and high sugar juices, or they’re being exposed to other bacteria/viruses from others kids in their classroom. Regardless of the cause, we can use signs of illness as a reminder to help our bodies come back into balance and harmony.

What NOT to eat: sugar and alcohol

Most people are very aware that commercial, processed sugar offers no benefits to health, and the same holds true with sugar’s impact on the immune system. Studies have found that sugar reduces the effectiveness of neutrophils, a type of immune cell that is one of the first to travel to the site of an infection. Sugar can also reduce lymphocytes, which is a problem because the immune system depends on large numbers of lymphocytes to create an effective immune response. Furthermore, high sugar consumption causes urinary excretion of several important minerals that are important for immune function, such as zinc. 

Remember, sugar is sneaky!


Studies of immune function in alcoholism show a profound negative impact on most parameters of immunity. For instance, alcohol directly promotes bad gut bacteria, which is important since ~70% of our immune system resides in the gut. And even acute consumption of alcohol can impair cellular immunity, leaving the immune system less prepared to deal with inflammation or infections.

Should I really stay away from dairy?

Many people suggest staying away from dairy when sick, however there is inconclusive medical evidence that dairy consumption causes an increase in mucus in the respiratory system.

Dairy is one of those “gray area” foods because people will respond to it differently. Many individuals don’t know how they truly respond to dairy unless they’ve done a strict elimination diet and then reintroduction, or have taken food intolerance/sensitivity tests (multiple tests would be good to cross check, as many are unreliable). For instance, in susceptible individuals, casein (found in cheese) can cause an immune system reaction called a histamine response. When dealing with a cold, or even when you notice the beginning symptoms of a cold, you don’t want to put any extra demand on the immune system. 

Other factors:

Many lifestyle behaviors will affect the immune system, including:

  • Smoking

  • Irregular meals

  • Simple carbohydrate consumption

  • Excess weight

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • Poor or inadequate sleep

  • Inactivity

How to Support the Immune System

When going the natural route with a cold or flu-like symptoms, do not expect a quick fix or immediate relief. You are assisting your body in doing its work, and this is going to take a little more time than the suppressing actions of a drug, which will just work to control the symptoms, not the root cause. While you may experience uncomfortable symptoms, the total length of the illness can be shorter lived when healing through natural remedies and food.

This is simple, but one of the most important things to do when dealing with a cold or flu symptoms is to prioritize rest. Go to bed earlier, sleep in if you can, ask for help with your children, or learn to say no. Prioritizing at least 7-8 hours of sleep can be one of the best things you can do for your body.

Also remember to drink enough liquids. Ideally, drink water in the amount of at least half your bodyweight in ounces. This will maintain a moist respiratory tract that can help repel a viral infection. Other liquids include bone and vegetable mineral broths, and herbal teas. Stay away from juices, even orange juice. As mentioned above, sugar can greatly reduce the white blood cells ability to kill bacteria. If you want to go for juice, keep it to 4-8oz, or dilute it by 1/2 or 1/3 water. Alternatively, opt for a juice that’s made fresh from 100% vegetables, and diluted.

Specific Immune Boosting Foods

Garlic - garlic has long been considered a medicinal plant. It is anti-viral and anti-microbial, due to many of its sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin. 

Mushrooms - Some of the most commonly used mushrooms in Chinese medicine are maitake, shiitake, reishi mushrooms. The chemical profiles of mushrooms are quite complex, and even common button and portobello mushrooms offer healing and immune boosting effects.

Jerusalem artichokes - due to their high content of inulin, Jerusalem artichokes can enhance the immune system by helping to neutralize viruses, reduce destructive bacteria, and increase movement of white blood cells to sites of infection. Medicinal herbs such as echinacea and burdock root are known for their immune enhancing effects due to inulin, and Jerusalem artichokes offers one of the richest forms of inulin.

Immune-enhancing Herbs

Any herb that enhances the body’s stress response will be a good choice. These herbs are known as adaptogenic herbs, and a couple notable examples include cat’s claw and licorice root. Here are a few more of the herbal super stars:

Echinacea - perhaps on the most popular herbs known for the common cold is echinacea. There are hundreds of scientific investigations on echinacea, specifically its polysaccharides,  and its effects on immune function. In addition to immune support, echinacea also exerts direct antiviral activity and helps prevent the spread of bacteria. The main consideration for echinacea, as well as other herbs used medicinally, is that its effect is highly dependent on quality. Any herb is only able to be effective if it can deliver an effective dosage of active compounds. Make sure you use an echinacea product from a trusted manufacturer that can guarantee the level of active ingredients.  

Astragalus - a traditional Chinese medicine used for viral infections. This herb can help reduce the duration and severity of symptoms in acute treatment of the common cold. In addition, astragalus has been shown to possess anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, adaptogenic, cardiotonic, and liver protective properties.

Elderberry - Elderberry can be traced back to ancient Greece. It has a long history of use for the common cold and flu. Elderberry extract can provide antimicrobial activity against pathogenic bacteria that cause upper respiratory infections and against certain strains of  influenza virus.

Don’t forget that culinary herbs and spices (cilantro, parsley, turmeric) also possess immune-boosting properties! Many herbs are rich in vitamin C, flavonoids, and carotenoids, which can add a helpful edge to a whole foods diet.

Immune-Boosting Soup

What’s more comforting than a warm bowl of soup when you’re feeling under the weather. This soup brings out the medicinal properties of mushrooms, so be sure  not to skip them! You can find kombu and astragalus at your natural health food store, or Asian market. To bump up the healing properties even more, I suggest using a bone broth base.

Medicinal Mushroom Soup

Makes 6 servings

  • 2 teaspoons coconut oil

  • 2 onions, thinly sliced

  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed or grated with a microplane

  • 3 tablespoons ginger, grated

  • 10 cups broth 

  • 2 cups shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced

  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal

  • 4 stalks celery, thinly sliced

  • 2 pieces astragalus root

  • 1 piece kombu (about 4 x 6 inches), rinsed

  • 2-3 tablespoons coconut aminos (coconut-based soy sauce, or use tamari)

  • 2 cups broccoli or cauliflower florets, chopped into small pieces

  • 1 small bunch dandelion greens, roughly chopped

  • ½ cup scallions, sliced on the diagonal

  1. In a large stock pot, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent.

  2. Add the garlic and ginger, constantly stirring for 30 seconds.

  3. Add the stock, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, celery, astragalus root, and kombu. Bring to a low boil, then reduce and let simmer 20-30 minutes.

  4. Add the broccoli/cauliflower florets and dandelion greens, and cook until tender, about 2-3 minutes.

  5. Remove the astragalus root and kombu and discard.

  6. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with sliced scallions.








Other sources:

Bauman, E. & Friedlander, J. (2014). Immune bandits and heroes. Therapeutic nutrition, part two. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College

Murray, M. & Pizzorno, J. (2005). The encyclopedia of healing foods. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Pizzorno, J.E. & Murray, M.T. & Joiner-Bey, H. (2008). The clinician’s handbook of natural medicine, second edition. St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone.