Seasonal flu is inevitable. There’s no cure for influenza. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be a victim of the flu. From my more than thirty years of clinical experience, and an exhaustive review of the scientific literature, I believe you can get better faster with fewer symptoms using natural medicines.
A couple of elements for beating the flu stand out more than others. If you get sick, the two essential elements are effectively managing symptoms and shortening the course of illness. You beat the flu by using sensible strategies including natural medicines that lessen the severity of symptoms and speed up recovery time.
It’s also important to understand the six fundamental principles for beating all types of influenza infection. My book Beating the Flu, The Natural Prescription for Surviving Pandemic Influenza and Bird Flu goes into these in detail. Here’s a summary.
- Boost Viral Immunity. Enhancing your protection against seasonal flu begins in the fall, well ahead of flu season. Don’t worry. If you haven’t taken measures to boost your immune system, you can start at any time.
One key to viral immunity is getting enough of the trace minerals zinc and selenium. Vitamins A and C are also necessary. However, overdosing on supplements doesn’t create super immunity. In fact, research shows that too much vitamin A can suppress the immune response. And, zinc in excess of 225 mg daily is toxic, causing nausea and vomiting. Even too much vitamin C causes watery diarrhea.
Every element of your immune system has to be just right. Loading up on supplements that overstimulate your system could make things as bad as being deficient. Finding your personal “Goldilocks” zone is the objective. And, remember that the goal is to reduce symptoms and speed recovery, not to knock out the flu bug.
- Reduce Viral Load. A virus has one goal. To replicate. Once you’ve been exposed, influenza viruses get into your body and follow a sequence of steps for infection. After entering living cells in your respiratory tract, influenza viruses use genetic material and information in those cells to replicate. Antiviral medications and natural antivirals inhibit viral replication and can also kill some germs, but most are unaffected. But even reducing the number of viruses a little makes it easier for your immune system to do its job.
- Manage Fever. Spiking a fever is the natural response of the immune system to infection. However, unmanaged high fever, especially in infants and pregnant women, can cause harm or even death. Start managing fever at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not let your temperature get above 102 degrees. Herbs that help manage fever include yarrow and elderberry. Cool baths and sponge baths help. Acetaminophen lowers fever and lessens pain, but overuse can have serious side-effects as well as blunt the immune response.
- Reduce inflammation. When out of control, the body’s inflammatory response to infection can cause tissue damage or death. Laboratory tests for inflammation include sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP). Your white blood cell (WBC) count might be higher or remain normal during infection. Often lymphocytes are lower than normal; while monocytes are higher.
Quercetin, Omega-3 fish oil, and green-lipped mussel extract can help modify inflammation. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can help. For severe or life-threatening inflammation, you may need steroids. However, according to the 2004 study with MS patients, there is not much difference between the effectiveness of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and prednisone for managing flu symptoms. In my clinical opinion, the best choice is to start with natural medicines and use acetaminophen or ibuprofen only as needed.
- Avoid dehydration. Fever and inflammation induce fluid loss. Dehydration makes you feel very tired. Other signs of dehydration include: thirst, dry mouth and lips, scanty dark-colored urine, lightheadedness, and headache. Severe dehydration leads to muscle weakness, rapid heart rate, and fainting. Drink plenty of water. Try diluted juices, and don’t forget chicken soup. Use electrolyte drinks like Pedialyte to prevent dehydration in children. Adults can drink it too. Intravenous fluids may be necessary for severe dehydration.
- Take antioxidants. Viruses cause cell and tissue damage that lead to advanced oxidative changes. Antioxidants help your body keep up with the rate of tissue repair during and after the flu. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Drink fresh vegetable juices and herbal teas that are high in polyphenolic compounds. Take antioxidant supplements like vitamin C and zinc.
Should You Get Vaccinated?
Vaccination may help reduce the severity of the flu but does not prevent infection. Depending on the circulating strain, seasonal flu vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year between 10 and 60 percent. For the current Influenza A H3N2 strain, vaccination provides less than 40 percent protection. In people over 65-years, vaccination provides about 25 percent effectiveness. In Australia, where H3N2 hit hard, vaccines were only 10 percent effective.
Influenza viruses travel in groups and change fast. So even a good vaccine match may prove unmatched a few weeks later. So far, no mutations have been detected in the U.S. But, if a variation develops, vaccines will be even less effective. Vaccination can help, but it takes at least two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide protection.
Prevention & Avoidance
Prevention comes first. The best prevention is avoidance. If you don’t get exposed, you won’t get sick. Flu spreads quickly between humans. Washing your hands and wearing a mask helps prevent infection. Wiping surfaces with Clorox helps. Clorox disinfecting wipes work within minutes and kill 99.9% of influenza viruses.
Beating the flu requires a toolkit. It should include supplements and natural medicines, and home healthcare products.
Beating the Flu Toolkit:
- Boxes of tissue
- Plastic bags to dispose of used tissue
- Bottled water
- Clorox disinfecting wipes and spray
- Digital thermometer
- Vicks VapoRub and cough drops
- Chicken soup
- Raw honey
- Sea salt
- Saline drops or Neti pot
- Immune supportive supplements
- Antiviral Herbal medicine
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage fever
Stay home if you’re sick with the flu. Not infecting others is as important as preventing infection for yourself and your family. Charge your iPad or Kindle, or have a good book to read. Get comfy, rest, and drink plenty of fluids.
6 Frontline Supplements to Effectively Boost Immunity for Beating the Flu
Strong antiviral resistance is associated with responsive innate immune signals. People who are most resistant to influenza infection clear the virus quickly. Those whose immune system develops tolerance to influenza have built-in protection from past infections or immunization. These individuals experience less tissue damage and fewer symptoms even though they get sick. The also tend to recover faster.
Micronutrients have major influences on health, including viral immunity, and help your body beat the flu. Frontline support includes a balanced, healthy plant-based diet. It means avoiding immune suppressing activities like overuse of alcohol, smoking, and not getting enough sleep. And, by taking micronutrient supplements for an added advantage in beating the flu.
Studies show that micronutrient deficiencies weaken immunity and increase susceptibility to infection. A 2000 review outlined many ways that micronutrients influence immunity. Deficiencies of micronutrients impair an effective immune response to respiratory infections like influenza.
Essential micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that your body requires from your diet or obtained from dietary supplements. In my clinical experience, these six supplements are the best for protecting against the flu:
Beta-glucan (as β1,3-D-glucans): Beta-glucans are natural polysaccharides, a type of sugar, produced by yeast and fungi, including mushrooms. It’s a well-known immune modulator that also has antiviral activity.
A Japanese study found that the survival time of mice infected with influenza improved with a black yeast-derived beta-glucan. Another study found similar results utilizing beta-glucan derived from medicinal mushroom powder. The beta-glucan treated mice had a 60% survival rate from lethal influenza infection.
A 2012 study utilizing beta-glucan derived from baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) reduced upper respiratory tract symptoms better than placebo. One of the ways beta-glucan works is to increase levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) that’s necessary for your respiratory tract to prevent invasion by influenza viruses.
Most beta-glucan supplements are derived from baker’s yeast. Others come from black yeast and medicinal mushrooms. From my clinical experience, and supported by the study results, all forms of beta-glucan are useful whether derived from baker’s yeast, as medicinal mushroom powder, or specialized super-food strains from black yeast.
However, quality and activity vary between beta-glucan products. Look for those that provide the percentage of active linkage, the therapeutic portion or content. I recommend a minimum β1,3-D-glucan content of 80%. A purified form (1,3/1,6)-β-D-glucan) is reported to have a slight edge on β1,3-D-glucans.
Vitamin C (as calcium/magnesium/potassium ascorbate): Taking vitamin C reduces cold and flu symptoms. A 1999 study found 85% improvement with 1,000 mg of vitamin C every hour. A 2013 review found that as low as 200 mg of vitamin C daily helped prevent colds and flu, and shortened downtime due to sickness.
When treating the flu, frequent vitamin C dosing is most effective. When dosing every two hours, 250-500 mg is sufficient. Dosages of 1,000 mg or higher can cause diarrhea. So, take higher dosages less frequently. I recommend that my patients take a buffered form because vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is acidic and can irritate the intestine lining.
Zinc (as zinc picolinate of chelated zinc): Zinc deficiency decreases cell-mediated immunity that fends off infections. A 2013 Cochrane review found that 75 mg of zinc taken within 24-hours of the first sign of symptoms can shorten the duration of a cold.
Zinc supplements help reverse thymus gland atrophy associated with immune deficiency during aging. Older people are particularly susceptible to zinc deficiency. Those over 60 years should get 15 mg of zinc daily. During influenza season, increase to 30 mg daily.
Selenium (as selenomethionine or chelated selenium): Like zinc, selenium is trace mineral necessary for effective immunity. A 2017 study found that selenium nanoparticles enhanced the antiviral properties of oseltamivir. Selenium supplementation supports acute cellular immune response to infection.
Vitamin D3 (as cholecalciferol): People with low vitamin D levels tend to catch a cold and get the flu easily. Those with deficient vitamin D levels (less than 10 mg/dL by a blood test) are the most vulnerable. A 2007 study found that those who took 2,000 IU daily of vitamin D3 had a 90% reduced risk of getting sick.
To learn your level, test for Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy. You may be at risk if your level is less than 30 mg/dL. I recommend that my patient get their vitamin D level between 70-100 mg/dL.
Herbal Medicine for Early Treatment
At the first sign of flu symptoms, take antiviral herbal medicines. Don’t wait. During our era of a looming pandemic, it’s wise to start sooner than later. Even seasonal flu outbreaks are getting worse.
For mild symptoms and for children use Elderberry. For moderate symptoms in adults use Echinacea. Older children and teens can also take Echinacea but in reduced dosages. When symptoms come on fast and strong, take both Elderberry and Echinacea together.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra as Sambucol, or as black elderberry tincture): A 2001 study found that Sambucol inhibits viral replication and has antioxidant effects. A 2016 study found that those who took an elderberry supplement experienced fewer symptoms and got better sooner from viral respiratory symptoms.
Echinacea (Echinacea angustafolia as tincture, or standardized extract in capsules): The medicinal ingredients in Echinacea are soluble in alcohol. That’s why Echinacea tea, a water extract, won’t work. For best results, you have to use Echinacea as a tincture or a standardized extract. Studies have shown, and my clinical experience confirms, that there is no difference between liquid or dry forms. However, the concentration of active constituents in an alcohol tincture is lower than in a standardized extract. To be effective, you have to take more of the tincture. A typical effective dose of the tincture is 1/3 teaspoon taken every two hours.
The active components of Echinacea are alkamides found in at least 33 plant families including the daisy family, of which Echinacea is a member. Alkamides exhibit a range of biological activities including immune boosting and antiviral properties. A standardized Echinacea extract from Italy, Polinacea, contains a specific polysaccharide IDN 5405 shown to improve the immune response to influenza infection.
Bioavailability counts. Though several studies, including a 2014 systematic review of 24 double-blind studies found Echinacea only a 10-20% effective treating symptoms of cold and seasonal flu, I argue that bioavailability and dosage provide the edge needed to beat the flu. To be effective, you have to take enough, but don’t overdose. You also need to dose frequently. During active infection dose every 30-60 minutes.
Get a blood test if you suspect nutrient deficiencies. SpectraCell Laboratories offers a nutritional panel, but requires a licensed doctor’s prescription. You can order individual nutrients on your own through PersonaLabs or AnyLabs, or through my website – drjewilliams.com
The best way to get extra nutrients is to take a multivitamin and mineral, which helps balance high dose individual nutrients making them more effective. Continue immune supportive supplements through cold and flu season from December through April. If you can only get a few, choose Echinacea and Zinc for your beating the flu medicine kit.
Herbal medicines are primarily for treatment. They help reduce symptoms and shorten your sick time. However, some find that daily low-dose Echinacea or Elderberry also have preventive effects.
3 Chinese Medicine Treatments for Beating the Flu
Because influenza is endemic to China, it makes sense that Chinese medicine would have the most experience in treating the flu.
Chinese medicine developed more than 2,500 years ago. Over millennia, traditional doctors gained practical insights about what plants and combinations worked best. But, experience alone isn’t all that matters. Modern science is testing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for the treatment of influenza.
Modern Chinese Medicine
Modern Chinese medicine is in a renaissance. Funding for research is supported by the Chinese government, hospitals, and flows in from private funding. Western countries are also interested in the flu-fighting properties of Chinese herbs. An EU-China consortium of 200 European and Chinese scientists was started in 2009 to work jointly on best practices for herbal medicine research.
Since 2009, the Chinese government established 16 TCM clinical research centers. The aim is to create a better evidence-based model for the use of herbal therapies. The goal is to find ways of integrating modern Western medicine with TCM.
A 2011 guideline paper details Western and traditional Chinese herbal treatment for influenza. The emphasis is on a scientific understanding of influenza infection using Western medical intervention and therapies while integrating TCM formulas.
TCM and the SARS Outbreak
SARS taught us a lot about how a microbe from a family of viruses that causes the common cold can mutate into a fast-spreading killer. Influenza epidemics are in many ways similar. Seasonal flu strains can mutate to pandemic proportions that spread fast and have a high death toll.
Once a pandemic is in motion there is no time to develop a vaccine. We have no choice but to use the best course of treatment and the medicines, including herbal formulas, that we already have. Seasonal flu is different. We know it’s coming.
Clinical studies during influenza epidemics and the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 found that traditional Chinese herbal preparations worked as well as Western antiviral drugs like oseltamivir. But, patients treated with a combination of Chinese and Western medicine did even better. Their fever went down faster, and they got better quicker than with either alone.
The Evidence for Using Chinese Herbs
Chinese herbal formulas have been found to block viral entry into the respiratory system by enhancing mucosal immunity. Chinese herbs inhibit viral shedding and slow replication. They reduce inflammation by suppressing inflammatory cytokines like interleukin-1 alpha. Herbal remedies also have antioxidant effects helping minimize cell damage caused by inflammation.
A Cochrane review of the effectiveness of Chinese herbs for the common cold analyzed 17 trials, involving 3212 subjects. The results found that Chinese herbal medicines can shorten the symptomatic phase.
A 2012 double-blind placebo-controlled study of 327 subjects in Hong Kong found that those who used Western cold medicines including antihistamines, paracetamol, or used decongestant nasal sprays recovered slower than those who took Chinese herbs.
They also found that though traditional Chinese formulas like yin qiao san and jiang fang bai du san – commonly used classical formulas for the flu – didn’t speed recovery, but were significantly helpful in managing symptoms. Based on these results, researchers looked closer.
A 2015 review found that lonicera (jin yin hua) possesses pharmacological effects, including antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, and antioxidant actions. It seems that lonicera japonica – a type of honeysuckle vine that in some places is considered an invasive species – is also a potent antiviral.
A 2017 animal study found that the intravenous injection of chlorogenic acid (CHA) derived from lonicera inhibited H1N1 and H3N2 influenza by up to 60 percent. Chlorogenic acid is a dietary polyphenol compound that’s produced by many plants, including coffee. Robusta raw coffee beans have up to 10% chlorogenic acid. Green coffee bean extract has about 50% CHA. But, that doesn’t mean that coffee or tea can beat the flu. Even though CHA inhibits influenza viruses in the lab, the body is more complex. It takes a synergistic group of compounds to beat the flu, which is the way Chinese herbal formulas are designed.
3 Chinese Medicinal Formulas to Beat the Flu:
- Yin Qiao San – Lonicera/Honeysuckle and Forsythia Formula
- Ban Xia Hou Po Tang – Pinellia and Magnolia Formula
- Jiang Fang Bai Du San – Schizonepeta and Siler/Ledeboriella Formula, also called Tablet to Overcome Pathogenic Toxins
A 2016 study found that Chinese herbal formulas including yin qiao san and ban xia hou po tang significantly decreased the risk for pneumonia in the study group. Lonicera is one of the active components in yin qiao san but is not contained in ban xia hou po tang, so combining the two worked best.
The Chinese medicine ban xia is prepared from the rhizome of another invasive weed, Pinellia ternata. It treats a productive cough with thin phlegm. Hou po comes from a type of magnolia bark native to the hill country in China. It has anti-inflammatory effects that inhibit tumor necrosis factor beta, a molecule that drives the excess inflammation associated cytokine storm – rapid inflammatory changes in the lungs and other body tissues that cause extreme deterioration and death.
Countering Adaptation and Maximizing Response
The highly adaptable influenza virus quickly becomes drug resistant. Given the use of Chinese herbal medicines over thousands of years, why wouldn’t influenza virus also adapt to natural compounds as it has to pharmaceutical drugs?
The answer is in how nature evolves. Plants are organic chemical factories that produce complex mixes of compounds and molecules. Over time, plants adapt to environmental pressures and fine tune their disease responses. It’s the complexity that counts.
The art of beating the flu requires combining several remedies to control viruses from multiple fronts. Instead of a single herb or isolated herbal extract, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) combines several herbs into formulas. This complex synergy mimics the way nature adapts and evolves. It dampens viral activity, rather than trying to kill it.
Ingredients in Chinese herbal formulas have synergist activity. Those that treat influenza have anti-inflammatory action, antiviral activity, and exhibit an affinity for the respiratory tract.
Finding A TCM Practitioner
Only a well-trained, licensed TCM practitioner can skillfully match an herbal formula to your constitution and condition. However, some guidelines work for most people much of the time without an expert’s advice.
TCM involves assessing intricate patterns with multiple relationships of symptoms and signs in the body. A classical Chinese herbal formula is matched to the patient’s constitutional type and the manifestations of the illness. Though ancient, this form of analysis and therapeutic typing is akin to systems biology.
A skilled practitioner works herbal alchemy. After a detailed diagnosis, herbs are selected and masterfully mixed into a personalized prescription. You can find an expert in TCM in larger urban areas, principally in California and New York.
However, evidence-based research provides insight into effectiveness and safety that you can use to treat yourself. A licensed acupuncturist or Doctor of Oriental Medicine can make a formula or dried herbs that you cook at home. And, Chinese prepared medicines in tablets are available in traditional Chinese herb and grocery shops.
However, I prefer concentrated extracts in granules. Modern forms of Chinese medicine come in sealed packets containing concentrated granules that readily mix in warm water. Or, in soft gels or capsules. Use companies that adhere to pharmaceutical GMP standards to assure quality and efficacy.
Tips on How to Use Chinese Herbs to Treat the Flu
If you’re healthy and catch seasonal flu, you’ll be better in five days. However, if you’re not getting better or feeling worse, you’ll need stronger medicine. And, if you experience severe symptoms during the first three days, don’t wait. Start stronger treatment early.
As with all herbal medicine for acute illness, frequent dosing is important. When using tablets or capsules, take three every two hours until symptoms subside. Then take three times daily. For granules, mix 1-2 packets in warm water and drink every four hours.
Here are some tips on how to use anti-influenza Chinese herbal formulas:
- Yin Qiao San or Yin Qiao Jie Du is the best choice when fever is present. This formula is for mild cases of the flu without chills. It is used in the early-stages of infection. It is particularly useful if sore throat is one of the first signs of the flu.
- Ban Xia Hou Po Tang helps control coughing. It is useful for chest congestion, trouble breathing, and difficulty coughing up phlegm.
- Jiang Fang Bai Du San is best for chills, headache, and joint pain during the early stages of the flu. This formula is for high fever with chills and shivering. It’s particularly effective for those with weakened immunity. It may be used as first choice for older adults.
- You may combine equal parts of Yin Qiao San and Ban Xia Hou Po Tang. Combining formulas improves strength and assures broad coverage of symptoms.
Putting It Together
The first rule for beating the flu is that once inside the body nothing “kills” influenza virus including Western antiviral drugs. Attacking a virus with antibiotics, as if it were a bacterial infection, is fruitless. A realistic goal is to suppress viral activity and at the same time support the body’s natural ability to defend against the virus to assure a speedy recovery.
The art of beating the flu requires synergistically combining remedies from multiple fronts to inhibit the virus, promote healthy immune response, and recover sooner. Chinese herbal medicine is an important addition to your toolkit for beating the flu.
Chinese herbs make for an effective alternative for beating the flu. If you have access to Chinese herbs, start taking them early.
In severe infections, as during an influenza pandemic, or in those with complications associated with influenza infection, medical support in a hospital could be lifesaving. Chinese anti-influenza herbal medicine is not appropriate for pregnant women, infants, or small children.
You’ll find detailed information on treating viral illnesses in my books, Viral Immunity and Beating the Flu.