Treating a Cold and Flu the Holistic Way

A cold is the most common illness on the planet, and having a medical degree hardly makes you immune to catching one. Being around people who are sick is part of the job.

ABCNews.com asked four holistically minded doctors what they do when they feel under the weather. Their prevention and treatment advice might help you dodge or short-circuit the next bug that comes your way.

Stack the Deck in Your Favor

David Rakel, M.D., director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrative Medicine in Madison, Wis.

Cold prevention: There's no firm evidence that any medication or herb will prevent the common cold, said Rakel. So when it comes to staving off a cold, you want to stack the deck in your favor, he advised.

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He does this by washing his hands frequently, not getting overstressed (high levels of cortisol, a hormone released when you're tense, can weaken the immune system over time), drinking lots of water and "eating multicolored whole foods that were recently alive or came out of the ground."

Cold treatment: At the first sign of symptoms, the goal is to attack the virus early because it replicates the most within the first 48 hours, pointed out Rakel. He might drink more green tea, which appears to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. And he would also drink three big glasses of orange juice to get more vitamin C.

Besides consuming more liquids, Rakel might take 20 to 30 milligrams of zinc acetate lozenges twice a day to improve his immunity. He takes zinc only for the first two or three days of a cold, when he feels it's most effective. He might add andrographis, an herb that's sometimes called "Indian echinacea." He would take 400 milligrams of this immune-stimulating herb three times a day.

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Flu prevention: As a family practice physician, Rakel is around a lot of flu, a reason he gets the yearly shot. His main concern is that the vaccine has very small amounts of the preservative thimerosal in it.

Flu treatment: Rakel doesn't recommend Tamiflu, the prescription antiviral drug. "It's the best medication we have in case of a flu pandemic, but it might only shorten flu duration by a day."

Instead, he would use a black elderberry extract, a remedy found in a few small studies to help shorten the length and severity of flu. Adults can take one tablespoon, four times a day for the first three days of flu symptoms. Beyond that time frame, he feels it's less beneficial.

Shore Up Your Immune System

Lynne Shinto, N.D., naturopathic physician for the Neurology Wellness Clinic at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore.

Cold prevention: To stay healthy, Shinto is conscientious about her diet and sleep habits, and suggests that people should not underestimate the effect of their lifestyle on immune function. She says she believes that for people who get frequent colds, it's an indication that their immune system is sub par. She also says she thinks that too much sugar can weaken immunity.

If Shinto feels as if she's getting rundown, she'll take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C every few hours. But she warns that taking too much of it too quickly can lead to diarrhea. And she'll also take one or two capsules daily of a combination Chinese remedy containing the herb astragalus, which is thought to stimulate the immune system.

Cold treatment: When she gets a cold, her philosophy is to let it run its course. She'll turn to the usual suspects: bed rest, more fluids and chicken soup -- or because she's Japanese-American -- miso soup with shiitake mushrooms, fungi known for their immune-strengthening compounds. These approaches may make the symptoms feel better, she admits, but they likely won't make a cold go away faster.

Flu prevention: Shinto doesn't get the flu shot and neither does her young daughter. "I'm not opposed to it, but we're very healthy people and don't get sick a lot."

Flu treatment: She follows the same treatment advice for a cold. And if Shinto's sinuses are congested, she turns to an "old naturopathic therapy" thought to stimulate the immune system. Called hydrotherapy, she might stick her bare feet in hot water for three minutes then in ice-cold water for 30 seconds, and she repeats this hot-cold sequence three times.

Visit the OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center

Build a Foundation for Good Health

Kevin Barrows, M.D., director of group programs at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco

Cold prevention: According to Barrows, the body works really well when you try to balance the four pillars of good health: diet, exercise, sleep and stress. During cold and flu season he adds a fifth pillar -- hand washing.

He's a big believer in meditation and has found this mind-body approach helps increase his awareness of subtle body shifts, a tip-off that he may be getting sick. For him, a sore throat is his early warning sign of a cold, his cue to start taking echinacea.

Although the studies on this popular herb have been mixed, Barrows says he feels that some researchers tested an inadequate dosage. He would take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of the herb, three or four times a day -- for two or three days -- to help nip a cold in the bud. And he would also finely cut up a few cloves of raw garlic (when he got home and isn't worried about garlic breath) for its anti-microbial activity. But he admits that few research studies exist on whether garlic actually helps a cold.

Cold treatment: In his opinion, "Vitamin C shines when it comes to treating a cold." He takes 250 milligrams of vitamin C every couple of hours and might also continue to take at least 500 milligrams of echinacea if the cold is mainly in his nose. Because he's prone to sinus infections, Barrows does a nasal rinse with a neti pot twice a day to cleanse and soothe these passageways.

Flu prevention: Barrows gets a flu shot, which he feels is safe and has few side effects. But he is not a big fan of Tamiflu. He feels there's only a small benefit to most people from this antiviral drug, but he's noticed that many people get sick to their stomach from it.

Flu treatment: There's no magic bullet, he conceded. To avoid sinus problems, he'd do the neti pot. And while he likes elderberry syrup as a remedy for kids, he feels there's less evidence for it in adults, but is worth trying.

Treat It Early and Aggressively

David Leopold, M.D., director of integrative medical education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif.

Cold prevention: The most important thing to do to prepare for cold season is to keep yourself in better physical condition, said Leopold. For him, regular exercise is a must as is getting enough sleep, keeping a lid on stress and eating predominantly plant-based foods. And using common sense, like keeping your hands away from your nose and mouth and keeping your distance from those who are sick.

Cold treatment: At the first sign of a cold, Leopold treats his symptoms extremely aggressively. His goal is to support his immune system so that it helps clear the virus and slows down the spread of symptoms.

He takes zinc gluconate lozenges, drinks plenty of herbal tea and also uses a liquid tincture of echinacea. Despite research that questioned the herbs' benefits, "I'm convinced that most of the well-done studies of echinacea suggest it seems to be effective for reducing the severity and duration of a cold." He might even head to the gym to break a sweat. "Low-level exercise simulates a fever and makes it harder for the virus to live."

Flu prevention: Leopold gets the annual shot and suggests having a conversation with your doctor about it. "We tend to forget that people do get really sick." If he knew he was exposed to influenza, he would take Tamiflu to be aggressive about curtailing it.

Flu treatment: If felled by flu, Leopold would take 500 milligrams of vitamin C three times a day. As for herbal remedies, he likes either andrographis or Siberian ginseng, taking it according to package directions.

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Cold & Flu season is here! Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center to get all your questions answered about these nasty viruses.

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