Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fall Home Care

It's autumn and for a change I don't have any major philosophical stuff to blog about. I thought it might be a good time to share some of my home care pearls for colds and such.

In my pharmacology class at Penn State the students just had their unit on respiratory drugs. It's a good time to discuss a few of the things that people use on their own for colds, flus, and what my grandmother used to call "logos-on-the-bogos"...basically just feeling kinda cruddy, when the weather turns colder and wetter.

Echinacea (Echinacea species)

By Jacob Rus - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
The Purple Coneflower has been in use for minor infections for a long time. I use and recommend it for not only colds and flus and such, but also for minor skin infections. I've used it as a supplement for more serious conditions as a co-drug with antibiotics for, say, pneumonia or dental abscess. For the lay person, echinacea is a good way to try natural medicine.

I generally recommend liquid supplements, since many powdered herbs in capsules don't get absorbed well and don't have a very long shelf life. A dose form called the standardized dry extract is like a liquid form that has been re-dried to a powder and formed into a capsule or tablet. Liquigels or "gel-caps" are another dose form with good absorption and a decent shelf life.

There a myth about echinacea that it can be taken daily to prevent colds. This doesn't work, and several research studies have shown this to be true. However, taken for short periods of time at the very onset of an illness it actually does help! The German E Commission, that country's foremost clearinghouse on the benefits and safety of herbal medicines, notes that echinacea really works to boost immunity. They also note that continuous daily use of echinacea can "burn out" the immune system. I generally recommend 2 to 3 times daily dosing for 3 to 5 days for adults.

There's a concern with echinacea: people with auto-immune or auto-inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis should use echinacea with professional supervision as it can actually make those conditions worse.

Elderberry (Sambucus niger)

By Pollinator. Released under GFDL
I love this stuff! Unlike echinacea, elderberry has not shown any tendency to activate auto-immune diseases. It's also kind of tasty --compared to the more herbal flavor of echinacea. It also has a great extra feature for colds and sore throats and such: it calms and soothes irritated respiratory passages.

It can be taken in any number of ways: liquid syrups and extracts, many available at regular drugstores; or it can be taken as a tea. Add a bit of honey and you've got a great natural and effective cold remedy! I'm not pushing any particular brand, but just to give you an idea of how far this tree-herb has gotten into the market, check out Sambucol Original Formula (Swanson Health Products). This stuff comes as an easily-dosed liquid, a kids' formula, and even as gummies! 

Like echinacea, this stuff doesn't prevent colds and such. It's relatively cheap and it can shorten the duration of and improve one's comfort with a cold, flu or sore throat.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

I include this here as what NOT to do. Goldenseal actually does work. This bitter, yellow root herb activates the immunity found on the surface of mucus membranes, including the nose, throat, and sinuses. It's also pretty potent. I reserve the use of goldenseal for cases of sinusitis, but it can aggravate people whose symptoms are actually from allergies. It can also adversely affect the digestion. Goldenseal is a good example of something that people often use casually but incorrectly, and I strongly suggest it be avoided unless advised by a professional with herbal medicine training.

Other things to not do:

  • Don't use any products labelled "homeopathic" unless directed by a professional. Many manufacturers add a little bit of a homeopathically potentized ingredient to their products so that they can get around FDA restrictions on disease-labeling. Unfortunately, this has led to some problems, such as with the product Zicam. The homeopathic version has actually caused loss of smell in some people. Swanson makes a "homeopathic" Sambucol. I recommend to my patients that they do not purchase this variety.
  • Don't take any herbal or natural products daily for more than a week to 10 days. If one is getting worse despite self-treatment, doesn't it make sense that one maybe needs to get checked out by a medical provider? 
  • Don't take high potency homeopathics without professional supervision. Every year I see non-medically trained people selling high potency (200c and higher) homeopathic remedies to prevent the flu. The influenza virus itself is available as a homeopathically-prepared product called Influenzinum (in-flu-en-ZI-num). High potency remedies prepared from viruses are supposed to be "prescription only", but I can tell you that every year I hear about people finding this stuff from online sources. Physician and homeopathy inventor Samuel Hahnemann himself observed that high potency remedies "leave their mark" on the patient and can cause disease. Studies have found that this sort of "homeopathic vaccination" only works about half the time--not any better than the conventional flu shot, and often worse than that.
A final word on the cold and flu season...

Don't forget about the easy stuff:
  • Wash your hands! Handwashing (and alternatively, the use of hand sanitizer) is the single best thing you can do to avoid catching a cold!
  • Rest. Missing sleep and pushing yourself too hard decreases immunity.
  • Honey and lemon. Lemon refreshes and stimulates the system, according to Indian (ayurvedic) medicine, and honey soothes the respiratory passages and has its own antiviral properties--and it's delicious!
  • Salt water gargles and/or the use of nasal washing (neti pot). The water should be lukewarm and the water mildly salty, not disgustingly salty. About a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water is fine. For minor sore throats and coughs, the use of salt water helps to loosen mucus and soothe the membranes. It's one thing that regular doctors and nurses often recommend that I heartily agree with!
  • Lavender. Lavender in a steam or heated diffuser is soothing to the respiratory passages and is mildly sedative. A few drops of genuine lavender oil in a diffuser can help the fussy child (or adult) with a cold or flu to sleep more restfully. There are many places to get diffusers for use with essential oils, and these can be found in stores and online.
This blog today is educational only, and many of the things I have said here can be found elsewhere online. If you have a medical issue that requires further exploration or advice, please see your health care provider. Be well!