Co-Authored by Kristin Wiens
Winter weather is upon us and for many that means cold season. The average adult will suffer through 2-4 colds a year (1). The seemingly unavoidable onslaught of coughing, sniffling, sneezing, and achiness of the common cold means we are looking for anything that will end our misery. Are there complementary and alternative medicines that can reduce the chance of catching a cold or help you recover more quickly?
Echinacea is purported to rev up your immune system. Laboratory studies confirm that Echinacea can activate cells with immune functions and help with antibody response (2,3). All of this is very promising from a theoretical stand point but how effective is Echinacea in real life? It may depend on the type of Echinacea and the part of the plant being used.
There are a variety of different species and the root of Echinacea purpurea is generally thought to be the most effective (4). Six studies looking at 764 adults with cold symptoms (but who were otherwise healthy) found the severity of the symptoms was reduced in four of the trials and the symptom duration was shorter in three out of four trials. Conversely, neither of the two studies used to determine if Echinacea could prevent colds found any benefit (5).
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Generally, Echinacea is thought to be safe for healthy adults to consume (safety has not been established during pregnancy) with minor side-effects including gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and rashes (3, 6). A daily dose of 2000 - 3000 mg of crude extract is usually recommended (5); however, the safety of long term consumption is unknown so it might be wise to use sparingly. A cautionary note, Echinacea can cause severe allergic reactions in some people.
Ginseng has similar effects on the immune system to Echinacea by activating immune cells and increasing antibody production in animal studies (7,8). The two types of ginseng commonly used are Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng) and Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng) - similar to that used in COLD-fx.
The effectiveness of ginseng for the treatment of colds among young, healthy adults is unclear; however, one study did find elderly patients reported fewer days of cold symptoms (9). Furthermore, adults who were at a high risk for colds, but were otherwise healthy, had milder symptoms and fewer days of illness with COLD-fx (10). If you chose to take ginseng to treat colds, potential side-effects include gastrointestinal upset, anxiety and insomnia (5,11). Furthermore, ginseng should not be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding women or those on phenelzine and warfarin. It may also negatively interact with alcohol (12, 13).
Allicin is a compound released from garlic when it is chopped or chewed. Notably, it is inactivated by cooking so it will have to be raw garlic for any potential benefits. Studies to determine if allicin can treat the common cold are lacking; however, one study found allicin extract for 12 weeks during the winter resulted in 64% fewer colds and the duration of the symptoms was decreased by 70%. Furthermore, only 2 of the participants in the allicin group caught more than one cold as compared to 16 people in the placebo group (5,14).
Unfortunately, a typical garlic clove contains 5-9 mg of allicin, which is a much lower dose than the 180 mg of allicin extract used in this study. The safety of allicin, it is still relatively unstudied but "malodorous belching" was reported (5).
Probiotics are bacteria with proposed health benefits. They are more commonly considered as treatments for gastrointestinal diseases; however, they may have other roles in health. Of six studies involving healthy adults, only one found a reduction in the number of colds, and one had a reduction in the severity of symptoms and duration of the cold (5).
Where probiotics may have benefit, is in those who have been prescribed antibiotics. Typically, antibiotics are not effective against the common cold but if they have been prescribed, probiotics will help ensure your gut will be repopulated with healthy bacteria.
Vitamin C and zinc lozenges may also be beneficial (5); however, be sure to stay within the recommended safe dosages listed. In all cases, be on the lookout for side-effects and check to make sure that there are no known interactions between the natural health product and any other medications you may be taking. Be extra cautious during pregnancy, if you have other illnesses or are taking prescription medications.
If all else fails you may just have to rest up and let your immune system fight the good fight!