Sometimes, despite all the hand washing and best efforts, you still come down with the flu (influenza). For those with autoimmune conditions or otherwise compromised immune systems, the risk of contracting influenza is often greater. I just had a go-round with it myself this past week. It was the first time in nine years! At first I thought it was just a cold, but then the sore throat and congested sinuses turned into a fever, headache, and muscle aches. Blah… Thankfully, I had a good stock of natural remedies for the flu to help me get on the mend.
Scott is a first-rate nurse and took most excellent care of his pathetic, sniffly, achy wife and nursed her back to health. There are lots of “quick fixes” and conventional flu remedies on offer, but many of them carry risks, only serve to suppress symptoms, or can make other symptoms worse. If you are on a healing protocol like AIP, then many conventional remedies offered aren’t even options as they can interfere with your long-term healing. Thankfully, there are some effective natural remedies for the flu that you can use instead.
At the first sign of anything, my mum was always pushing me to drink more fluids. As it turns out, there is good reason for this. When you have the flu, it is easy to become dehydrated. Dehydration makes it harder for your body to regulate temperature, which can exacerbate a fever, and impedes your body’s ability to clear cellular waste and infection from the body. Not to mention the fluids act as a great natural expectorant by keeping mucus and phlegm thinner and easier for your body to expel. So drink, drink, drink. (1, 2)
When selecting your flu-busting fluids, ensure what you’re drinking is helping and not hindering the process. Water is your first and best choice. Other good options are coconut water, bone broth, and herbal tea. Coconut water is an excellent source of electrolytes and can help prevent dehydration and ease muscle aches associated with the flu. It has proven to be just as, if not more, effective than commercial electrolyte drinks like Gatorade. Bone broth is warm and soothing, healing to the gut which will be stressed by the infection, and it includes helpful nutrition to a struggling body. Herbal teas have the added benefit of being warm and there are a variety of blends available specifically to help support immune function. Steeping fresh ginger, cinnamon, cloves, or lemon in hot water or herbal tea is a fast and easy way to get in some extra virus-fighting nutrients, too. (3, 4)
Fresh, unsweetened juices can also help, especially if you have lost your appetite. While generally not a good idea to drink juices alone, the nutrients in fresh vegetable and/or fruit juices will help provide your body with some much-needed fuel in an easily digestible state. Lemon and cucumber are two of the best. It would be best to avoid apple juice when ill as it is a natural diuretic.
If you’ve spent any time on a healing lifestyle, then you already know how vitally important sleep is to your health and well being. If you haven’t, then read here for more information on it! Chances are good that if you have the flu, you probably weren’t getting enough sleep in the last little while. Once you are sick, the quality of your sleep may not be that great either as sinus congestion or body aches can make sleeping difficult.
One of the first signs that I’m fighting something (if I’m smart enough to listen to my body that early), is an unusually strong feeling of tiredness/exhaustion where I just want to go to sleep right then and there. It’s different than being overtired, or a thyroid crash, or anything like that. It’s this deep demand by my body for healing sleep NOW. I also cannot get enough sleep while I am sick.
Your body needs sleep to heal. Tissue repair occurs via stem cell activation primarily during sleep, as does the highest activity of a brain protein called AcPb. This protein links up with interlukin-1 (a cytokine that causes inflammation and makes you feel like junk when you have the flu) and promotes sleep, which, in turn, promotes healing. I normally do best on a solid nine hours of sleep, but when I’m fighting the flu, my body needs significantly more than that. (5, 6, 7, 8)
Some of the most infamous symptoms of the flu are congestion, sore throat, fever, and muscle and joint pain. Most over-the-counter flu remedies include ingredients that are not the best for you, especially when your body is already taxed fighting an illness. I know when you’re in the throngs of the flu, sometimes it’s hard to care about that, but for the sake of your long-term health, I encourage you to care! There are a lot of helpful natural remedies that can do the job of OTC medications. Homemade honey lozenges are great for soothing a sore throat. Sinus irrigation can help to relieve sinus congestion and pressure. Staying in a warm, humid room helps thin mucus excretions, which helps to clear the sinuses and lungs. A warm Epsom salts bath helps relieve the muscle and joint discomfort associated with the flu.
Fever is a little trickier to deal with. A fever is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the body’s natural reaction to fighting off an infection and helps stimulate the immune system. In fact, a fever can help speed the healing and recovery time from the flu. Many pathogens need a very specific temperature to survive. When body temperature increases, it can create an inhospitable environment for the flu virus, thereby weakening and helping to kill it. Of course, if a fever gets too high, it can cause more serious problems, but this is generally rare. Sometimes a fever is one of the most important of natural remedies for the flu. (9)
My approach to fever is to keep and eye on it and if it starts to get into that high range (greater than 104F or 40C), I start taking measures to bring it down, though I’ve rarely had that happen. The fever from last week peaked at 39.1C. If you find yourself in a position to need to bring your fever down, I’ve had success with a cool (not cold) shower or bath. The water should be approximately one to two degrees below your temperature. I’ve also had good success with a well-matched homeopathic remedy. If you are going to take medication to reduce your fever, ensure that it is NSAID-free, like acetaminophen (Tylenol or Tempra), and then only take enough to get the desired result and no more. Usually a half-dose is all I need.
Acetaminophen vs Ibuprofen
There is much controversy about the use of acetaminophen. Studies on frequent and long-term use are certainly cause for concern, especially when it comes to liver health. And reports that acetaminophen can impair glutathione levels should be considered. You can read more on my take on the ibuprofen vs acetaminophen debate later, but to give you the summary – if you are in a position of needing a one-time OTC pain reliever, and especially if you have an autoimmune disease or otherwise damaged gut, then take the acetaminophen and take extra steps to support the detox pathways of the liver and glutathione levels later and leave the ibuprofen alone.
Ibuprofen causes damage to the gut and stresses the kidneys, which are much more delicate than the liver. Ibuprofen functions primarily as an anti-inflammatory, so look for other natural anti-inflammatories instead, such as serrapeptase. That said, if there are pre-existing liver issues, then you may want to consider ibuprofen ahead of acetaminophen.
Ever heard the saying “starve a cold, feed a fever”? Well, science has caught up to that and it’s actually “starve bacteria, feed a virus”. Recent research has found that when the body is infected with a virus, such as influenza, it needs nutrition, especially carbohydrates, that can be broken down into glucose, to fight the infection. Conversely, it was found that supplying glucose in the face of bacterial infections made matters worse. The Yale team leading the study reached the conclusion that one should follow their cravings when sick – trust your body to know what it needs to fight the pathogen. (10)
I often crave starchy carbs when recovering from influenza. Before I went grain-free, it was often white rice with sesame oil, but now it is more often in the way of comforting soups. Bone broth packs a powerful nutritional punch and helps support the gut during the “crisis”. Soup is a good option because you can pack a lot of nutrition into a small serving, and the cooking and blending of starches like sweet potatoes and squash help provide easily digestible carbs when I crave and need it. One of my favourites is Carrot Ginger Halibut Soup, minus the fish. I usually have a stash of this soup on hand in the freezer. When I’m sick, I just heat it up and I’m done. So tasty and nourishing and all that ginger helps show the flu virus the door.
There are some helpful vitamins and supplements available to help support your immune system and shorten your bout with the flu.
Oil of Oregano (The Supplement, not the Essential Oil)
Oil of oregano is a very powerful antimicrobial that you can get almost anywhere and has long been used as a treatment for respiratory illness and fever, both of which are common with influenza. There is also research to indicate that oil of oregano has analgesic properties which can help with alleviation of aches and pains associated with the flu. It comes in liquid and capsule form. The liquid tastes absolutely awful, but it works and is readily available. The gel capsules also work, but you don’t have the unpleasant taste to deal with, aside from oregano-flavoured burps. The capsules are not as readily available and tend to be more expensive, but they are worth it to me. (11, 12, 13)
Vitamin D plays an important roll in the immune system and you are more likely to catch the flu when your vitamin D levels are low. It has even been argued that contracting the flu is a symptom of a vitamin D deficiency, making it essential among natural remedies for the flu. Taking higher doses of vitamin D when fighting the flu has been shown to help shorten the duration of illness. My naturopathic doctor has prescribed up to 25,000IU per day for up to 4 days when I’m actively fighting something like the flu. After that, I drop back down to my regular 5,000IU per day that I take during the cooler months.
The best way to get adequate vitamin D is by skin exposure to direct sunlight. In the summer, my family and I practice appropriate sun exposure without burning to get our vitamin D, and we don’t take vitamin D supplements during that time. Come autumn in Canada, however, it is just not possible to get adequate vitamin D from the sun. Boosting consumption of vitamin D rich foods, such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, liver, and egg yolks is one good strategy to help prevent deficiency. Taking a good quality vitamin D3 supplement is another when still struggling during the short days of winter. Jarrow makes a good quality D3 supplement in a variety of strengths, and it is important to ensure adequate intake of vitamin K2 to ensure the vitamin D is absorbed and used. (14, 15)
Vitamin C is another powerful ally on the list of natural remedies for the flu. Higher levels of vitamin C in the blood have been known to have virucidal effects, and your body’s need for this vitamin goes up when fighting an infection. I usually take vitamin C to gut tolerance, similar to magnesium. My body tells me when enough is enough. It is best to opt for food-based sources of vitamin C. Camu camu powder or acerola powder or juice are the best options I’ve come across. You need less of them because the body is better able to use the nutrients, plus they contain all necessary cofactors. If you are wanting to mega-dose vitamin C for a short period of time, look for a liposomal vitamin C supplement or a buffered vitamin C supplement. (16, 17, 18)
Zinc has recently been gaining more attention and popularity as a flu-fighter. This important mineral is necessary for your thymus to produce thymic proteins, a crucial part of your immune system, plus zinc itself is deadly to many pathogens, including the flu. (19)
Harmonic Arts carries a signature tea blend called Immune Boost. I used it when Scott had a bad case of influenza one year. This tea, together with other measures, prevented me from coming down with anything. A combination of elderberry, echinacea, astragalus, ginger, rosehips, and elderflower, it is quite pleasant to drink and has worked well for our family.
Thieves blend essential oil is a powerful antimicrobial blend that typically contains varying ratios of eucalyptus, rosemary, clove, cinnamon, and lemon or orange oils. Diffusing this oil is said to help kill airborne microbes and using a personal diffuser can help ward off illness. It is important to note that potent essential oils, like some of those found in thieves blends, can antidote homeopathy.
Elderberry extract has shown to be particularly effective for shortening the duration of the flu, showing even more promising results than anti-viral medications, which report high resistance levels. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it works, but it is believed that it works to inactivate the flu virus in the body while stimulating the body’s immune system. You can buy the syrup from any health food store, but it is expensive and can contain ingredients that you might not want to consume. You may be able to find an herbalist local to you who makes their own small batch syrup, or you can make your own with dried berries readily available through suppliers like Frontier Naturals. Just be sure to plan ahead as they sell out every fall. (20, 21)
A Word of Caution
A word of caution on the use of elderberry. There are many in the natural health community that will liberally dose themselves and their children with elderberry throughout cold and flu season, or even year-round. This practice is not advised and is not evidenced-based. Elderberry is an immune stimulant and known to increase cytokine levels. The effects of continually dosing and stimulating the immune system in this manner is unclear in any given individual. It is intended to be used at the onset of symptoms, not as a prophylactic. In worst case scenarios, it can induce a cytokine storm.
If you or a family member happen to already be dealing with an immune dysregulation issue, such as autoimmune disease or an inflammatory issue (asthma or eczema for example), use elderberry with additional caution and consider other natural remedies for the flu. Many in these communities have reported worsening of their chronic symptoms after using elderberry due to its immune stimulating effects. Those with Th1 dominance issues are likely to be the most sensitive to the effects of elderberry.
Homeopathy provides other natural remedies for the flu that can be effective at shortening the illness and easing symptoms. You can find homeopathic remedies most commonly in globule form and sometimes in tincture form. Some companies, including Boiron and Hylands, use globules made from lactose, so if there is an extreme dairy sensitivity involved, it is recommended to opt for a brand that uses sucrose globules, such as Helios or Thompson’s.
Aconite napellus can help head off an illness at the first hint of symptoms. I have successfully avoided falling ill when taking 2-3 doses of aconite an hour or so apart when I first feel that exhausted feeling or tickle in the throat come on indicating that something is brewing.
Oscillococcinum is a popular homeopathic remedy for influenza. It helps reduce the duration of flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, body aches, and headaches, especially when used early on in the symptom picture.
Influenzinum is a homeopathic nosode for influenza. The use of nosodes is somewhat controversial in the homeopathic community, but this remedy can be effective if you know it is influenza you are dealing with. When Scott had his nasty bout of flu, he had a confirmed diagnosis and this remedy worked well to give him relief of symptoms.
Beyond these three suggestions, it is best to match your symptom picture to the remedy that best suits it. Different people will experience influenza differently and so will require different remedies to help find relief. The National Center for Homeopathy has a quick guide to some of the most common remedies called for with influenza, but if you are having trouble selecting a remedy or don’t feel your symptoms match any of the remedies mentioned, you may want to speak with a certified homeopathy for assistance.
Getting the flu is never fun and seems to come at the most inopportune times, but it is good to know that there are natural remedies for the flu that work with our bodies to restore health in the short term and the long term.
What are some of your go-to natural remedies for the flu?
Please note that I am not a doctor or a trained health care professional of any kind. This post is based on my own personal research and experience only and the suggestions contained herein may or may not work for others and are not intended to replace medical advice.