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There's no cure for the common cold. But the healing properties of nutritional remedies can help manage its symptoms.

By Kathryn Matthews
August 15, 2008

There's an old saying: "A cold lasts seven days, but with proper treatment it can be shortened to a week." Since there's no cure for the common cold, the saying usually rings true.

Standard over-the-counter remedies provide, at best, temporary relief of symptoms; drug manufacturers have yet to formulate a product that can prevent a cold or shorten its duration. Antibiotics, appropriate for bacterial infections, are ineffective―even detrimental―in treating the flu or cold viruses, of which there are more than 200 strains. They eliminate all bacteria―much of it helpful―and can actually interfere with the body's efforts to battle a virus.

There is good news, though. Time-honored, food-based folk remedies offer sound nutritional strategies for managing a cold. "Diet keeps our internal mechanisms at peak production. And when you're seeking relief from cold symptoms, many traditional food remedies can be effective," says Samuel D. Caughron, M.D., a family practitioner specializing in clinical preventive medicine at the Charlottesville Wellness Center in Virginia. "Many of these remedies have given symptomatic relief for centuries; some now even have science behind them."

Chicken Soup Superlative
Consider chicken soup, which has a long history as a doctor-approved remedy. In a.d. 60, Pedacius Dioscorides, physician under the Roman emperor Nero, recommended chicken soup for respiratory illness. Eminent 12th-century rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides also prescribed chicken soup when Sultan Saladin, the Muslim military leader he served, complained of a cold.

The late 1970s brought the first modern scientific evidence touting chicken soup's cold-fighting properties. A 1978 study in the medical journal Chest reported that chicken soup is the most effective hot liquid for clearing mucus from the nose. The hot soup nourishes, hydrates, and steams open clogged nasal passages. The faster mucus flows, the better: These nasal secretions help expel viruses.

Recently, another study has revealed that chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory properties that can also ease congestion. In his research, Stephen Rennard, M.D., a pulmonary specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska, focused on how neutrophils, white blood cells that gather to fight infection, respond in the presence of chicken soup. Neutrophils usually rush to airways to destroy an invading virus, but they also trigger inflammatory response symptoms, like coughing, sneezing, and nasal congestion. The results: Rennard found that his wife's homemade chicken soup (and most store-bought brands) slowed this cell migration and reduced congestion, thereby helping eliminate one of the symptoms, if not the source.

Still, he has not yet identified the beneficial compounds causing this neutrophil response. "Things in the soup besides the chicken may have been helpful," he says. "Vegetables, for instance, have lots of potentially medicinally active compounds, like vitamins and antioxidants." And so his research continues, but the basic conclusion remains: Chicken soup does indeed help. 

To C or Not to C
Vitamin C's popularity as a cold remedy began in 1970, when the late Linus Pauling, Ph.D., two-time Nobel laureate, published Vitamin C and the Common Cold and claimed that high doses could protect against this scourge. Since then, mounting scientific evidence indicates that although vitamin C does not prevent colds, taking high doses (1,000 milligrams or more) at the earliest onset of an infection can halt its progression or lessen symptoms.

Vitamin C stimulates the release of interferon, a protein substance that increases resistance to viruses, and enhances the movement of phagocytes, microbe-killing white blood cells. Anatural antihistamine, C also helps dry watery eyes and reduce nasal and chest congestion. And it's a powerful antioxidant, helping prevent further cell damage when viruses or bacteria attack the immune system.

Longtime vitamin C researcher Harri Hemilä, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Helsinki in Finland, has reviewed 21 studies conducted during the past 30 years that used 1,000 milligrams or more of vitamin C to treat colds. He found that higher amounts of vitamin C (taken in divided doses throughout the day) produced the best results. Study subjects given 1,000 milligrams daily showed a 19 percent decrease in severity of cold symptoms.

Spice It Up
For centuries, vitamin-packed chile peppers have been valued as a mucokinetic (or mucus-moving) agent. The Aztecs ate large amounts of chiles for this purpose, and the Mayans swallowed a pungent dose of crushed chile peppers, honey, and tobacco leaf to cure sore throats.

When chile-laced foods hit the mouth, throat, and stomach, they stimulate the nerve receptors of secretion-producing glands, triggering a release of watery fluids that can make the eyes tear and the nose run. "It's a self-cleansing process that helps eliminate the virus by breaking

up congestion, flushing out sinuses, and washing away irritants," says Irwin Ziment, M.D., professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Medicine.

For especially tenacious colds, Ziment recommends gargling with a pepper solution-Tabasco Sauce stirred into a glass of warm water-up to four times daily. The degree of optimum potency and frequency of gargling depends on the bug's severity and your own pepper tolerance (a few drops of Tabasco may suffice for novices, whereas hot pepper aficionados may need 20 or more drops for the desired decongestant effect).

Hot Shots
To get a good night's sleep and to clear a stuffed-up nose, try an old English remedy-the hot toddy. This hot water- or tea-based tonic flavored with liquor (typically whiskey or brandy), lemon juice, and honey may ease cold symp- toms, says Ara DerMarderosian, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy (the study of natural products in medicine) and medicinal chemistry at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. "Alcohol has some antimicrobial properties, thins the mucus, and has sedative qualities," he says. "Lemon provides vitamin C and citric acid, which loosens phlegm. And honey coats and soothes the mucus membranes."

But avoid tippling too much, especially when the cold is at its peak. A moderate amount of alcohol-as in a toddy-is considered relatively safe. Too much can interfere with your sleep, cause dehydration, and hinder immune function, prolonging the cold.

Garlic: The Raw Deal
Physicians from Hippocrates to Albert Schweitzer have used garlic to treat a number of health conditions ranging from cholera to heart disease. Garlic is also a powerful cold fighter, claims Benjamin Lau, M.D., Ph.D., professor of microbiology, immunology, and surgery at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California. In his book Garlic and You, he writes, "Over the past decade, many physicians and patients have reported that they have fewer colds and experience a quicker recovery from viral infections as a result of garlic supplementation."

Crushing, slicing, or mincing garlic releases a substance known as allicin, which rapidly oxidizes and forms more than 100 biologically active, infection-fighting sulfur compounds. Though researchers once attributed the medicinal punch of garlic solely to allicin, new research now points to other therapeutic substances: A 1999 laboratory-based study published in the International Journal of Immunopharmacology suggests that another garlic derivative, alliin, also boosts immunity by improving the production of certain white blood cells.

"Raw garlic has a strong antimicrobial effect," says Elson Haas, M.D., director of the Preventive Medical Center in San Rafael, California. His personal cold-fighting strategy involves chewing thoroughly and then swallowing several cloves of raw garlic every hour or two when he suspects that a cold is coming. "I do this just the first day to prevent the virus from spreading," he says. To temper the taste, he dips the cloves into honey.

A more conservative dosage is one to three raw cloves a day, which most people can tolerate. Ideally, garlic should be taken with a meal to prevent potential stomach upset. Stir two or three crushed cloves into a bowl of hot soup. "You'll still get the benefits of fresh garlic without the strong taste," Haas says.

Back to the Future
Experts counsel that food-based cold-care strategies should not be used in lieu of proper medical attention. And they also emphasize the importance of drinking fluids because extra amounts of water, fruit juice, tea, and carbonated drinks ease symptoms. But the old-fashioned standbys continue to prevail. Their efficacy in fighting the "cold war" makes going on the nutritional defensive a comforting and tasty prescription.

Kathryn Matthews, a freelance food writer who lives in New York City, turns to garlic and chiles at the first sign of a sniffle.

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