I'm considered a drug dealer in my office.
Don't worry, I don't peddle narcotics or prescription drugs. But my desk resembles a small pharmacy... It's full of bottles and bags of various pills. Vitamin C tablets, zinc, aspirin – you name it and it's probably there.
That's because around this time of year, more and more of my colleagues show up to work sneezing, coughing, or worse.
Fall and winter are prime seasons for colds and flu. In fact, some research demonstrates that influenza survives better in drier, colder temperatures. So as the humidity subsides and temperatures drop, you're more likely to get sick.
And, as it turns out, it's not just the flu that flourishes in the cold. According to a study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the chilly air also weakens your body's defenses.
The researchers took a strain of rhinovirus – the common cold – and infected mouse cells. The virus is less damaging when our immune cells use a molecule called interferon. But cells produce less interferon when they are colder. With temperatures in your nose reach a cool 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the common cold easily gets a foothold there.
Lead investigator Dr. Akiko Iwasaki said, "In general, the lower the temperature, it seems the lower the innate immune response to viruses," suggesting that as the weather turns your nose cold, your resistance to the rhinovirus decreases.
When my colleagues ask for something to help them feel better, there are two "drugs" I give out. They're minerals we need for our bodies to function properly, but few of us get healthy amounts. And I recommend them to anyone feeling the start of a cold or flu.
Drug No. 1: Vitamin C
When I researched vitamin C for the first time almost 30 years ago, I discovered an amazing fact: Vitamin C reduces the symptoms of the common cold within hours. But you won't hear drug companies tout that fact.
I take at least 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C almost daily during the cold winter months. (It's one of the few supplements that isn't a scam.) And if I feel a tickle in my throat, I go on a vitamin C blitz. I take 2,000-3,000 milligrams a day for a couple of days to knock out the viruses. Remember, you can get vitamin C through citrus fruits, peppers, and broccoli, but not in the amount you need to fight off a cold.
This is one supplement I recommend, as vitamin C has many good benefits. It's an antioxidant. That means it helps combat inflammation and regulates blood flow.
Vitamin C also helps your body absorb iron, which you need to carry oxygen throughout your body via red blood cells – it's the center element in the hemoglobin molecule.
A 2000 study from Cochrane Library, one of the most prestigious database systems, evaluated 30 trials involving vitamin C and the common cold. They found taking vitamin C cut the duration and severity of symptoms.
Drug No. 2: Zinc
I take zinc as well, whenever I feel a cold starting. The mineral strengthens the body's "T-cells," which fight off invading bacteria and viruses in the body.
Research from Tufts University showed that 30% of nursing-home residents had low levels of zinc in their blood. These folks also had the highest risk of getting pneumonia. Older Americans tend to have more trouble absorbing zinc, so many would benefit from supplements.
A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that older folks saw a 16% increase in their zinc levels after taking 30 mg daily for three months.
However, I do prefer to get zinc from whole foods. Foods like shellfish, pork, red meat, nuts, and legumes are all good sources of zinc in your diet.
If you're not getting enough this way, try a small dose in pill form. I sometimes take a 15 mg pill. You can also try taking zinc pills only when you're starting to feel sick or in cold-and-flu season to help build up your immune system.
Like all things, moderation is key. If you take a lot of zinc over the long term, make sure to add some copper, too. Zinc blocks the absorption of copper in our bodies. We need copper to make red blood cells and help our immune system. Nuts, beans, and seafood are all great sources of copper.
Remember, you can help stave off colds by refusing to share drinking glasses or eating utensils. And exercise regularly... Exercise gives your immune system a boost, helping your body keep illnesses at bay.
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