So you’re sick, and you want to feel better fast.
While there’s no magic wand that will cure a cold or the flu, there are things that you can do to rev up your immune system to heal more quickly and feel better while you do it.
Common colds are generally caused by a specific virus called the rhinovirus, and we all know that the flu is short for an influenza virus. That means when we’re sick, we’re usually fighting some type of virus.
When I get sick it’s almost always a cold that turns into a sinus infection (sinusitis), which is complete and utter hell. When I was a kid my doctor told my mom that I have a crooked sinus cavity, and as an adult, I’ve noticed that if I ever do get cold symptoms, it turns into a sinus infection within a few days. In my case, this happens about every 12 to 18 months. Colds are generally viral and can weaken your immune system, creating a breeding ground for viral sinusitis or a secondary bacterial infection.
I’ve had a few conversations with doctors about it and have come to the conclusion that, since I’ve been working on boosting my immune system for the past few years to battle a chronic reactivated Epstein-Barr Virus infection, my immune system is pretty strong, thus I generally don’t get sick very often. When the cold virus is strong enough, my immune system jumps into action but might not be able to fight it off a secondary infection that turns into sinusitis. That being said, I’ve been mastering my routine to get over being sick for a few years and hope it helps you, too!
Fighting a Virus
Seeing as most colds and the flu are caused by viruses, it’s important to boost and support your immune system during cold and flu season, or if you get sick. The stronger your immune system is, the better your body will be able to fight the virus.
You’ll notice that a lot of my recommendations below have to do with gently assisting your digestive system. It’s estimated that over 80% of your immune function resides in your gut, so boosting your immune system has a lot to do with creating the healthiest gut environment possible. Your digestive system is completely surrounded by lymph tissue, which is your body’s first line of defense against disease. It’s also your cellular waste transport system and how your body rids itself of toxins. A healthy gut will support your lymphatic system and can boost your immune system. An unhealthy gut will compromise your immune system.
Before I became a health coach and learned about these remedies, a cold or sinus infection would stick around for 10-14 days. Now when I do get sick, if I do these things I generally start to feel better within a few days. I still may be a little sick for a week, but it’s usually so much better than it used to be.
Natural Cold Remedies to Feel Better Fast
1. Try Elizabeth’s Cold-Fighting Elixir
There are two parts to this elixir.
First, take one teaspoon of Manuka honey right off the spoon. Manuka honey is a special type of honey and a true superhero from nature.
It’s not just folklore—Manuka honey’s healing properties are recognized worldwide even by mainstream medicine. Honey has been used for centuries to treat multiple conditions because it works. Not only does it protect against damage caused by bacteria, it can boost the production of certain cells that can repair tissue damaged by infection. Raw honey also has a powerful anti-inflammatory action that can quickly ease pain and inflammation. However, even according to WebMD, not all honey is the same. The antibacterial and antimicrobial quality of honey depends on the type of honey as well as when and how it’s harvested.
Some types of honey, like Manuka honey, may be 100 times more potent than others(1). Manuka honey comes from New Zealand and is named after the Manuka plant from which the bees harvest this special honey. It’s even used in medical settings around the world to fight infection and boost healing. Needless to say, it’s one of the most impressive natural cold and flu fighters you can find. Science still isn’t completely sure how exactly it works, but it’s most likely the overall antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that make it so powerful. Since Manuka is only found in New Zealand and is strictly regulated to maintain its purity, it can be a bit pricey.
I find the best price at Thrive Market, and always have Manuka honey in my cabinet for mild burns or skin lesions, a skin-soothing Manuka honey face mask, or to fight off any type of cold or flu. It’s important to consume it raw for the most benefits, so I never cook with it. Heating honey can destroy some of its enzymes, which isn’t always the end of the world, but in this case, you want all of the supercharged healing properties of Manuka honey to go right into your system. If you can’t get Manuka honey, any type of raw (unpasteurized) honey also has healing benefits.
After the honey, sip your favorite healing hot beverage to soothe your throat and thin and release mucus (gross but necessary). The enzymes and vitamin C in the fresh lemon juice will also help boost your immune system. I like to stir what’s left of the honey into my tea for a little flavor. Choose peppermint tea to help clear your airways, or lemon balm if you want a mild herbal flavor. Lemon balm is also a natural antiviral.
Elizabeth’s Cold-Fighting Elixir
- Part 1: One to two times per day, swallow one full teaspoon of Manuka honey right off the spoon, then sip the hot drink below.
- Part 2: Combine hot water with a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a little Manuka honey (what’s left on the teaspoon), and muddled peppermint leaves or peppermint tea or lemon balm tea.
2. Reinforce Your Immune System
Along with the Manuka honey I mentioned above, I take these supplements daily to give my immune system a kick.
Vitamin C: Some studies show that vitamin C can help you get over a cold faster (1). Take 400-600mg a few times per day.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a hormone that every cell and system in your body relies on, including your immune and digestive systems. Colds and the flu are most prevalent in winter and early spring, when people’s vitamin D levels are at their lowest. Take 2000-5000IU per day.
Probiotic: The ultimate gut health booster, a high-quality probiotic will help maintain the good balance of healthy gut bacteria in your digestive system. Probiotics—specifically Lactobacillus GG—are even given to children in pediatric facilities in developing countries to reduce the risk of infections (2). Take a high-quality probiotic once or twice per day.
Zinc: Some studies show that zinc can help you get over cold symptoms faster (1). I like to use a zinc and elderberry (another natural cold fighter) lozenge from the natural foods store.
Since common colds are generally caused by the rhinovirus, taking a natural antiviral may help. I already take these two because I discovered that I have chronic reactivated Epstein-Barr (EBV), and you may want to keep them around, too if you find you often need to fight off a virus.
- Echinacea Tincture (I take one called Virus Attack from Whole Foods)
- Lauricidin (The OG natural antiviral)
- You can read more about both of those in this post about treating chronic EBV
3. Sip Garlic Ginger Bone Broth
Bone broth is full of protein, vitamins, minerals, and hydration that can help keep your energy up and heal your gut fast. Try my recipe for Ginger Turmeric Bone Broth, but if you don’t have any on hand and you’re sick you may not be in the mood to cook. I keep store-bought bone broth in my freezer for these types of occasions. Grate in fresh ginger or fresh garlic or both (my preference!) to supercharge the healing qualities of plain bone or veggie broth. If you’re hardcore you can just eat or swallow the fresh ginger or fresh garlic, but if you’re like me this might not be appealing if you feel sick.
Bone broth is full of healing minerals and collagen, and sipping the hot broth can help decongest you and soothe your digestion. Fresh ginger and fresh garlic both contain powerful antimicrobial agents that are beneficial to your digestion and may help reduce the severity of cold or flu symptoms(4). Plus, the garlic and ginger together in the savory broth make for a yummy Asian-style flavor twist on plain old broth.
If you’re vegan, hot veggie broth with freshly grated ginger and fresh garlic can also help.
4. Eliminate Processed Sugars and Highly-Processed Foods
Ideally you don’t eat a lot of sugar or highly processed foods anyways, but it’s even more important when you’re sick. Processed sugars and highly-processed foods (traditional ice cream, sugary soda, fast-food, etc.) compromise the lining and health of your digestive system thus can weaken your immune system. If you feel well enough to cook, make a big pot of nourishing soup. I keep frozen bone broth in my freezer for quick meals, and it can be a lifesaver if you ever get sick and can get out of bed. Always keep some in the freezer!
5. Take a “Get Better” Bath
A hot bath can soothe an aching body and help clear up your congestion. Adding a cup or two of Epsom salts to your hot bath allows your body to absorb some of the magnesium for an even better muscle-calming effect. I also like to add a few drops of lavender essential oils for its relaxing quality and eucalyptus oil for its sinus-clearing quality. Essential oils do not replace supplements, however, they work on a sensory level and can promote feeling better. Use the ones you like best.
Elizabeth’s Get Better Bath:
- Bathtub full of hot water (duh!)
- 2 cups Epsom salts
- 8 drops of lavender essential oil
- 5 drops of eucalyptus essential oil
6. Sleep! Your body can’t heal unless you rest.
I know I’m being Captain Obvious here, but even though this one is the easiest, it’s the one people try to skimp on the most. Your body can’t heal unless you rest. Staying up late to finish a project or making it to a happy hour will just prolong the sickness. Reduce stress as much as possible and skip any extra events. Get as much sleep as possible to allow your body to heal more efficiently. This is probably the one time in your adult life that multiple mid-day naps are totally acceptable, so just enjoy them.
- What about cold medicine?
Try to avoid cold medicine if you can because they just mask symptoms. Let your body rest and heal—it knows what it’s doing and if you suppress symptoms too much you can interfere with the healing process. If you do have to take cold medicine, a decongestant, ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), take the least amount possible. It’s ok to occasionally take these for short term relief, but long term use or reliance on them is extremely hard on your liver and can be downright dangerous. For instance, if you need to take something to get through one presentation so you can get home and rest, that’s ok. Modern medicine has its place. However, taking a pain reliever (ibuprofen or acetaminophen) and decongestant ten days in a row? Not ok. It’s not worth the potential damage to your liver.
- Do you need antibacterial soap or gels?
To help prevent getting sick in the first place, wash your hands often with hot soapy water. Also, this might seem counterintuitive, but ditch antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers immediately! Hot soapy water is enough to clean your hands, and the antibacterial products are killing your good bacteria, not just the bad stuff (and it doesn’t even kill viruses). According to Harvard Health, plain old soap and water is still a good way to clean your hands. Studies show that washing hands with plain soap and water for 15 seconds (about the time it takes to sing one chorus of “Happy Birthday”) reduces bacterial counts by about 90%. When another 15 seconds is added, bacterial counts drop by close to 99.9% (5). When you kill your good bacteria with those antibacterial agents, you weaken your own immune system. Unless you’re in a remote village caring for sick people with no running water or indoor plumbing, ditch the antibacterial products and do all of the above things to boost your immune function instead.
- Are antibiotics the answer?
Your first thought with a serious cold or sinus infection might be to go to the doctor to get an antibiotic, but the truth is that an antibiotic does nothing if it’s a viral infection except kill the good bacteria in your digestive system, which weakens your immune system even more! It’s nearly impossible for a doctor to know if it’s viral or bacterial in the first 10 days of the ailment, but if you’re still really sick after 10 days they may determine it’s bacterial and give you an antibiotic. Take the antibiotic if you need it, but only if you are absolutely sure you need it. If you’re unsure it’s bacterial, don’t risk damaging the balance of good to bad bacteria in your gut because it may make it worse. You can read more about how to support your good bacteria with probiotics after a round of antibiotics here.
- And, of course, remember the general recommendations that may be obvious but worth repeating: reduce stress, stay hydrated and rest as much as possible, all of which will allow you to recover.
Feel better soon!