Immunity Boosters for Cold and Flu Season

The array of products boggle the mind, but many supplements are long on promises and short on proof.
'Tis the season of peace and joy and colds and flu. The weather outside is frightful; youre inside, with family, friends, and their germs. So is there anything you can do to avoid getting sick?

Theres an ever-expanding assortment of products in the supplement aisle—and growing evidence as to whether or not they really work. Add to these a few common-sense (but often overlooked) tips for avoiding infection and an eating plan for peak immunity, and you may have one more reason to celebrate the holidays this year.

In the supplement aisle
If a cold hasnt given you a headache already, trying to choose the best supplement just might. The array of products available boggles the mind. Unfortunately, many supplements are long on promises but short on proof. Case in point: echinacea. Its hands-down the most popular herbal cold remedy around, but a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found users fared no better than those given a placebo. To identify the supplements that are really worth trying, we turned to some of the nations leading experts, including Jim Duke, former USDA medicinal-plant expert and author of The Green Pharmacy; Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council; and several leading medical specialists around the country. Heres what they suggest.

This herb is just beginning to show up on supplement shelves in the United States, but its widely used in many parts of the world. Last year, researchers in Thailand reviewed four studies that included 433 patients and found that andrographis reduced cold symptoms more effectively than placebos did.

Worth a try for: Preventing or easing the symptoms of colds.

How to do it: Andrographis is available in a formula called Kan Jang, which also includes eleuthero (formerly known as Siberian ginseng). You can also buy stand-alone supplements. Blumenthal recommends taking it immediately after the first symptoms appear. Use according to package directions.

This herb has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine as an immunity-booster. It contains complex sugar molecules called polysaccharides, which some studies show stimulate virus-fighting cells in the immune system. Researchers at the University of Texas and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have turned up convincing evidence that astragalus boosts immune responses in lab animals, and in human cells in lab dishes. “The findings on immune enhancement are very strong,” Blumenthal says. “And though we dont have good evidence for its effects on colds and flu, theres good reason to think it could help.”

Worth a try for: Boosting immunity.

How to do it: Astragalus is available in a variety of herbal cold formulations and in stand-alone supplement capsules. Concentrations vary, so follow package directions for use.

Hippocrates called this herb a “medicine chest,” and new evidence suggests he was right. A study conducted by Israeli scientists showed that a commercially available elderberry extract, called Sambucol, can suppress the growth of influenza viruses in lab dishes. The same research team reported that patients given the extract recovered faster. Though no one knows exactly how elderberry works, its potent antioxidants may enhance immune function.

Worth a try for: Preventing and easing the symptoms of influenza.

How to do it: Youll find elderberry alone in capsules or tinctures, as well as in combination products. Most are supposed to be taken two or three times a day, between meals.

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Lead writer: Peter Jaret
Last Updated: January 15, 2009

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