Whole Food Cold Remedies That Actually Work + How to Prevent a Cold in the First Place!

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14 min read
Summary

Feed a cold, and starve a fever. Or is it the other way around? It can be hard to separate fact from well-meaning fiction when it comes to preventing and recovering from colds and flu. But science has been busy, and now we have simple and powerful strategies to keep from catching a cold — and to suffer less and get better faster if we do. Here are five lifestyle strategies and seven superfoods proven to help keep you well during cold and flu season.

What do the following sayings have in common?

  • “May you live to 100!”
  • “To your health!”
  • “May God forgive you!”
  • “God bless you!”
  • “Elation!”
  • “Go away, kitten!”

If you guessed, “This is how various cultures respond to a sneeze,” (in Mandarin, German, Amharic, English, Arabic, and Serbian), then you win today’s prize, which is the rest of this article on how to prevent sneezing (and coughing and running a fever) through natural means.

(Why “Go away, kitten”? In Serbian, that phrase has an onomatopoeic similarity to the sound of a sneeze. It’s as though an English speaker responded to a sneeze with, “I choose!”)

Before we get to it, though, here’s one more cool word that I found during my research: sternutation. It means, “the act or noise of sneezing,” and if you use it in casual conversation, your friends will be extremely impressed with you (or not, depending on what they think of fancy words about sneezing).

Now that we’ve gotten the linguistics out of the way, let’s talk about the thing itself: What exactly is a cold, and how do you keep from getting one? And if you do get sick, are there natural cold remedies for shortening the duration and feeling less miserable?

What Is a Cold?

Sick mature woman wrapped blanket blowing running nose, feeling unhealthy
iStock.com/fizkes

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat (upper respiratory tract) and typically causes inflammation in these areas. There isn’t just one “common cold”: several viruses, including rhinoviruses (accounting for about 40% of all colds), parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and some of the now-infamous coronaviruses (but not the COVID-19 varieties) can all lead to the symptoms we associate with a cold.

Symptoms of a cold may include a stuffy, runny nose; a scratchy, tickly throat; watery eyes; a low-grade fever; and sneezing (“May cleanliness/purity be bestowed upon you!” — Persian).

And having a cold often means missing out on school or work and not getting to participate in social engagements. One positive to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increased awareness of how disruptive a cold or other respiratory illness can be, which means it’s become far more socially acceptable to stay home when you have symptoms so that you get better faster and don’t infect others in the process.

Treating the Common Cold

For a bad cold that persists, many people go to the doctor. And sometimes mainstream medicine is the answer, especially if the illness lasts a long time, and especially if it gets progressively more severe. The problem is, doctors sometimes prescribe antibiotics to treat illness without making an effort to diagnose the cause. And while antibiotics can be effective against bacteria, they do nothing to treat viruses.

Unwarranted prescription of antibiotics isn’t benign; it’s not just a case of a medicine not working. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics over time have led to the evolution of drug-resistant superbugs, which has rendered many of the traditional antibiotics more or less useless. (And don’t get me started on how the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in industrial meat production is turning livestock into superbug factories!)

Plus, on an individual level, antibiotics kill off many of the good bacteria in your microbiome, which can compromise not only your digestion but your immune system as well. (For more on antibiotics, see our article here.)

If antibiotics aren’t the answer, what is? Pharmacies stock entire aisles of medicines that promise to make life with a cold less miserable. Some drugs are for prevention, and others for shortening the duration of the discomfort.

But prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, as useful as they can sometimes be, may also cause unpleasant or harmful side effects. One of the most common sinus meds, oxymetazoline hydrochloride (brand names include Afrin, Dristan, and Sinex), has been documented to produce the following side effects: burning or stinging in the nose, increased nasal discharge, dryness inside your nose, nervousness, dizziness,  headache, nausea, trouble sleeping, and — wait for it — sneezing (“A good sign hopefully!” — Kurdish). Flu And Cold Medicine (DM) can bring side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, upset stomach, nausea, and nervousness — none of which sound like fun to me.

Turning to Natural Cold Remedies

ginger selling vegetables to customers
iStock.com/Beyhes Evren

So it’s no wonder more and more people are turning to natural remedies to keep themselves well or return to wellness.

While some natural remedies don’t yet have loads of scientific evidence to support them, that doesn’t mean they don’t help. Research costs money and takes time, and plants don’t have Big Pharma backing them up to fund expensive studies.

Nevertheless, a growing body of research is finding a number of herbs, spices, and foods that could help train your immune system to fight colds more effectively. Certain tweaks to your lifestyle may also give you a leg up on immunity.

So what are they? What lifestyle strategies and natural foods and ingredients can keep you from getting sick in the first place? And what non-pharmaceutical remedies are actually effective in relieving symptoms and shortening the duration of a cold if you do get infected?

How to Prevent a Cold in the First Place

Let’s begin by looking at five powerful lifestyle strategies that not only reduce your likelihood of catching a cold, but also protect your health in many other ways.

Get Enough Sleep

Shot of a young woman sleeping in her bed at home
iStock.com/LaylaBird

One of the most important healthy habits is to routinely grab at least seven hours of sleep per night. And don’t be embarrassed if you need more; for adults, “normal” sleep duration ranges from 7–9 hours of shut-eye every 24 hours.

You could fill several books with what we’re learning about the benefits of sleep, including memory consolidation, mood stabilization, and insight formation. But one thing that’s been clear for a long time is that sleep supports your immune system, and you need enough of it on a regular basis for optimal protection from pathogens.

Not sleeping leads to inflammation in the body, which increases your chances of catching a cold. A dramatic 2015 study exposed 164 healthy adults to a common-cold-causing rhinovirus and watched them for symptoms over the next five days. Those who slept fewer than six hours per night (as measured by a biometric sensor, rather than the highly unreliable self-report) were more than four times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept for seven or more.

How do you get 7–9 hours per night, especially if you have difficulty falling or staying asleep? Here are a couple of in-depth articles that will help you drift off to dreamland — and keep you well-rested:

Sleep Hacks: How to Sleep Better with Diet and Lifestyle

What to Eat (and Drink) for Better Sleep

Minimize Stress

Reduce stress level flat style design concept vector illustration.
iStock.com/Mironov Konstantin

Your body experiences stress in response to perceived threats. And that stress has a very useful evolutionary purpose — it can help you survive. The problem isn’t that your body automatically revs up to run away from a predator. It’s that our minds can see threats — and instruct our bodies to react against them — on a chronic basis.

The alarm clock going off? Stress response. An unfriendly email from a coworker? Stress response. A traffic jam on the freeway? Fight or flight, baby, even if it’s completely pointless from a survival standpoint.

Being chronically stressed wastes huge amounts of energy, and a lot of that energy comes from an immune system that’s in constant reaction mode. Over time, chronic stress can exhaust your immune system and lower immunity leading to a reduction in the number of natural killer cells in your body. This leaves you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.

We’re also learning that the link between stress and immune impairment goes beyond simple exhaustion. Under acute stress, your body responds differently to pathogens and autoimmune threats. If you’re under a lot of acute stress during a viral infection, your body is less able to marshall an effective immune response.

Exercise

2 senior Chinese men running on treadmill in gym together
iStock.com/Edwin Tan

While moderate exercise can enhance the effectiveness of the immune system (as well as enhancing metabolic health, brain health, mood, and self-control), that doesn’t necessarily mean that more is always better. It turns out that frequent rounds of high-intensity exercise can actually lower immunity. There’s a phenomenon known as “runner’s flu” which refers to the not-uncommon experience of a runner getting sick a few days after a long and grueling race, such as a marathon.

But if you keep it moderate, a regular exercise routine can trigger your immune system to produce anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects throughout your body. A 2021 meta-analysis found that higher levels of habitual physical activity — somewhere between 15 and 120 minutes, 1–5 times a week — are associated with a 31% lower risk of “community-acquired” (a fancy way of saying someone coughed on you and got you sick) infection, and even greater protection against dying from such a disease.

Wash Your Hands

iStock.com/Moyo Studio
iStock.com/Moyo Studio

I always knew it was a good idea to wash my hands, but until I started researching this article, I had no idea how often was often enough. Then I came across this 2021 meta-analysis, which found that people who washed their hands more than 10 times a day had a 41% lower risk of disease than those who washed less. The researchers concluded: “The more frequently hands were washed, the lower [the] risk of disease. So far, however, there is no high-quality evidence indicating the best range of hand washing frequency for disease prevention.” So don’t go overboard. As one such woman who did put it: “I love my new snakeskin gloves! Oh wait, that’s just my new hand skin after washing them 100 times a day.”

And by the way, by washing, I mean washing with actual soap, rather than using hand sanitizers. A 2012 study found that ethanol-based sanitizers did not kill rhinoviruses, whereas scrubbing with soap and water did the trick.

And beware: Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular ones, and have the added disadvantage of altering the skin microbiome as well as the gut microbiome. Plus, they can harm the environment.

When washing, go for a good lather, as soap tends to work mechanically rather than chemically. The lather forms pockets called micelles that trap and remove germs, harmful chemicals, and dirt from your hands.

And get in the habit of not touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands to prevent virus transmission through mucous membranes.

Eat a Diet Rich in Whole Plant Foods

healthy lifestyle good life organic food vegetables close-up portrait of happy cute
iStock.com/Povozniuk

Your immune system thrives on good nutrition, while poor eating habits can weaken it. Just like us, plants have to defend themselves against pathogens. And since they can’t run away, they rely on chemical means to repel and destroy harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. When you eat those plants, you ingest some of those compounds for your own immune system to deploy. Thus, food is one of the best types of natural cold remedies.

One class of immune-boosting plant nutrients is antioxidants, which are essential for disease prevention. While all foods contain some antioxidants, plant foods are the primary source, containing, on average, 64 times more antioxidants than animal-based foods.

Whole plant foods also contain several micronutrients that have been shown to protect against viral illness, including zinc, vitamin C, vitamin A, and others.

7 Foods and Herbs That Help with Colds

While a varied diet of whole plant foods is a great base for immune health, a few “immunity superstars” have been scientifically documented to lower the risk of infection and help the body heal after contracting a viral illness. Here are seven to include in your diet on a regular basis (and I may be biased, but I think they can all be pretty delicious as well).

Ginger

ginger root and ginger powder in the bowl
iStock.com/pilipphoto

Ginger has been used as a cold and flu remedy (among many other health benefits) for thousands of years. With powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, ginger can prevent viruses from attaching to cells, and can also suppress the growth of viruses that do manage to evade host defenses.

You can chop ginger into dishes like curries, stir-fries, and soups, as well as grate the root, steep it in hot water, and drink it as a tea.

For more on ginger, see our article here.

Garlic

Garlic powder in wooden bowl and bulb of garlic isolated on wooden table background. Top view. Flat lay.
iStock.com/Everyday better to do everything you love

Garlic and other vegetables in the allium family protect themselves with strong aromas that many pests don’t like. The compounds that produce these eye-watering smells are called organosulfur compounds. The one most responsible for the famous scent of garlic is allicin, which research shows is an effective adversary against multidrug-resistant strains of E.coli, Candida albicans, and a number of human intestinal parasites and viruses.

Garlic also helps prevent and treat a variety of viral infections. You can eat the raw cloves (bonus points for cutting them up or smashing them and then letting them sit for 10 minutes before ingesting; the damage triggers the formation of allicin). You can also use raw or cooked garlic in dips, spreads, salad dressings, pasta dishes, and so on. I have yet to discover any good garlic-based desserts, however. (No, garlic ice cream. Just, no.)

For much more about the health benefits of the entire allium family, check out our comprehensive article here.

And if you’re interested in growing your own garlic, here’s a guide for gardeners.

Honey

Honey on Burlap
iStock.com/Pannonia

Honey is antimicrobial, which is why properly stored honey never spoils (archeologists have found perfectly delicious 2,000-year-old honey in excavated Egyptian tombs). It’s also antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, making it a potent immune booster.

Despite its high sugar content, honey actually inhibits the growth and proliferation of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. This may be due in part to honey’s high polyphenol content, as well as other healthful components.

As of this writing, researchers are studying honey for its potential to deactivate viruses like COVID-19, which are typically shielded from the immune system via a protective outer layer, akin to how an envelope protects a letter.

If you choose to use honey, you can add it to teas and other warm beverages, on roasted vegetables, in smoothies, and to sweeten oatmeal.

Note: Many ethically-minded people are concerned about the treatment of bees, especially in commercial honey farms that may feed them high-fructose corn syrup, smoke them out of their hives, and engage in other ethically dubious practices. Local, small-scale, unfiltered, raw, and organic honey production is generally more sustainable and ethical. And if honey consumption doesn’t align with your ethical sensibilities — no worries. There are many other fabulous foods that can help strengthen your immunity.

Turmeric

turmeric
iStock.com/AD077

Curcumin, the main active ingredient in the turmeric root, shows antiviral activity against a broad spectrum of viruses, including COVID-19. It also has some anti-fatigue properties, which could be valuable in the management of long COVID.

Curcumin may also be effective as a treatment for symptoms of colds, flu, and other viruses — including helping to bring down coughing and inflammation of mucous membranes.

You get even greater benefits when you combine turmeric with black pepper, which can boost curcumin bioavailability substantially.

You can drink your turmeric in teas, golden milk, and smoothies; and add the spice powder to dishes such as curries, stir-fries, and roasted vegetables. It’s also a great way to add flavor and a yellow hue to scrambled tofu.

For more on the health benefits of turmeric, check out this article.

A potent curcumin supplement we like is Purality Health’s Curcumin Gold.

Tea (and other warm beverages)

Tea cup on saucer, with tea being poured,
iStock.com/WiroKlyngz

Any warm beverage can help you feel better by relieving cold symptoms, providing hydration, and helping to regulate your body temperature. Tea, in particular, (meaning beverages made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant) provides extra benefit in the quest to stay healthy in the presence of airborne pathogens. These include black, green, and white teas.

Compounds in tea called catechins (no relation to the kitties that the Serbian sneeze-witnessers try to banish) may inhibit the ability of the flu virus to stick to the cells in your mucous membranes (a process known as adsorption). The catechins also suppressed the virus’ ability to replicate and enhanced the body’s immunity to viral infection.

You don’t even have to drink tea to benefit from those catechins; they’re effective against some cold viruses in gargle form as well.

Green tea, with its high concentration of antioxidant polyphenols, has been shown to help prevent the common cold. And both white and green teas are high in a powerful antioxidant called EGCG.

If you’re not a fan of “true” tea from the tea plant, you can get many cold-fighting benefits from your favorite herbal tea as well.

For more on the different kinds of tea and their health benefits, check out this article.

For a delicious, comforting, and eclectic tea experience, I love Pique’s Immune Support Bundles, which contain several premium varieties of regular and herbal teas in a convenient and potent form.

Mushrooms

baked champignons with soy sauce top view
iStock.com/vaaseenaa

Mushrooms are high in biologically active compounds that are tough on viruses. Good old white mushrooms are great here; there’s also evidence that so-called “medicinal” mushrooms may provide additional immune support via their collection of polysaccharides, proteins, terpenes, melanins, and other potent compounds.

Regular mushroom consumption can enhance the immune system while reducing excessive inflammation. Mushrooms are also a rich source of compounds called beta-glucans, which activate the white blood cells that scour the body to fight infections. And some mushrooms exposed to UV light are a dietary source of vitamin D, which is also an immune-boosting compound.

To go deep into the wonderful world of mushroom nutrition, here’s an article for you.

If you’re a fan of the health benefits but not the taste or texture of medicinal mushrooms, we’ve got you covered. FreshCap’s Ultimate Mushroom Complex gives you the power of chaga, reishi, turkey tail, lion’s mane, maitake, and cordyceps in an easy-to-consume powder.

Elderberry

Spoon with homemade black elder syrup, with fresh elderberries
iStock.com/Madeleine_Steinbach

Elderberry is well named, considering its many health benefits: Consume it copiously to improve your chances of living long enough to become an elder!

Regarding colds and flu, there’s evidence that elderberry may be one of the few foods that can actually reduce both the severity and duration of the illnesses. A 2019 meta-analysis of studies involving 180 participants showed that elderberry supplementation substantially reduced upper respiratory symptoms.

Researchers have concluded that elderberry may be a safe option for treating viral respiratory illness, including COVID-19, because it stimulates the immune system without tipping it into a dangerous “cytokine storm.”

Raw elderberries are highly concentrated and, in fact, toxic to humans. You can safely consume cooked elderberries as jam, syrup, cordial, and in various lozenges and supplements.

Recipes for When You Have a Cold or to Prevent One

If the thought of getting sick has you running to the supplement aisle, you might want to turn your attention to these immune-supporting cold remedies instead! Each recipe is filled with antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory ingredients to support your immune system and help you fend off those unwanted colds — and to help shorten them if you do come down with a case of the Ahchoos. These plant-powered recipes may be just the trick to cure what ails you.

1. FRN’s Fire Cider

Immune-supporting ginger, turmeric, onion, garlic, and horseradish root create an invigorating, nourishing, and healing tonic to keep you in tip-top shape once cold and flu season arrives. Apples are wonderful, but an ounce or two of FRN’s Fire Cider a day might also help keep the doctor away!

2. Ocean’s Savory (Instant Pot) Oatmeal

Nearly every ingredient in this unique breakfast provides the nourishing plant power you need to help stop the cold and flu in their tracks! This morning meal boasts powerful ingredients — turmeric, kale, oats, garlic, and more! — that support optimal health. Plus, Ocean’s Savory Oatmeal is super tasty, and a fun way to use that Instant Pot!

3. The Ultimate Immune-Supporting Soup

iStock.com/StudioMikara

This savory immune-loving soup contains powerful spices and nourishing plant ingredients that are so tasty you’ll delight in the chance to kick cold and flu season to the curb. Complete with herbs and spices, cruciferous veggies, and plant-based protein, the Ultimate Immune-Supporting Soup can help you feel physically and mentally strong and invigorated throughout the colder months.

4. Superfood Bowl

The best thing about a bowl full of superfoods (besides the health benefits) is the variety of flavor, texture, and colors you get in every bite. This scrumptious Superfood Bowl features quinoa, lentils, fresh herbs, cauliflower, mushrooms, kale, and a variety of seeds. With all of those powerful ingredients, it’s no surprise that this bowl has prebiotic fiber, healing phytonutrients, yummy healthy fats, and hearty plant-based protein for a meal that will leave you feeling invincible!

5. Garlic Ginger Sauce

Powerfully potent and delightfully tasty, Garlic Ginger Sauce gives your favorite salads, grain bowls, and stir-fries the antiviral boost they need to help you stay strong when there’s a cold going around. Plus, this zingy sauce is super simple to make, so it’s an easy way to keep a natural cold remedy at your fingertips!

Fight Off a Cold with Diet & Lifestyle!

Getting sick with a cold can be downright miserable. And for people with compromised immune systems, asthma, or other health challenges, it can be more dangerous. You can bolster your immune system and avoid illness by following some lifestyle best practices. These include getting enough sleep and exercise, minimizing stress, washing your hands, and eating a diet rich in plant foods, herbs, and spices. And if you do end up getting sick, a number of natural foods may help alleviate your symptoms and might well shorten the amount of time that you’re sick.

Tell us in the comments:

  • Which lifestyle factor (sleep, exercise, stress reduction, handwashing, and diet) is your strongest? Which could benefit from an upgrade?
  • What’s your favorite cold-fighting superfood?
  • Which cold-preventing recipe do you plan to try?

Featured Image: iStock.com/gpointstudio

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