According to the CDC, there have been over 25,000 laboratory-confirmed hospitalizations due to influenza between October 1, 2017 and March 10, 2018. Once someone has contracted the flu, prescription antiviral medications are often recommended. But these drugs (like oseltamivir and zanamivir) are not without possible side effects including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, anxiety, mood changes and more. Oseltamivir has even been linked to delirium and self-harm in teenagers. Meanwhile, over-the-counter flu medicines also come with their share of possible risks.
I believe the strongest flu defense and treatment comes from food, herbs and supplements that build up the immune system; when the immune system is strong, the body is better able to fight off viruses and bacteria without the aid of synthetic drugs.
Here are some of my favorite remedies that boost the immune system and fight the flu.
Vitamin C-Rich Foods
To naturally treat your flu symptoms, load up on foods high in vitamin C. Research shows that high doses of vitamin C after the appearance of flu symptoms may decrease symptoms by up to 85 percent compared to taking pain relievers and decongestants.
You may be accustomed to guzzling orange or grapefruit juice when you have the flu, and while these beverage do contain vitamin C, they also have a lot of sugar without any blood sugar-balancing fiber. If you want to fight flu symptoms fast, opt for whole fruit and don’t forget the many vegetables—like green peppers, broccoli and brussels sprouts—that are also high in vitamin C. You can also supplement with up to 4,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily while you are experiencing flu-related symptoms.
Elderberry extract is a top choice when it comes to antiviral herbs. Elderberries contain anthocyanidins, which are chemical compounds that have immunostimulant effects. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in The Journal of International Medical research finds that elderberry extract may reduce the duration of flu symptoms by an average of four days. The study concludes that “elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.”
Vitamin D regulates the expression of more than 2,000 genes, including those of the immune system, making it a key fighter against the flu. You can obtain this fat soluble vitamin in a few foods, and it is also naturally synthesized by the body when skin is exposed to sunlight.
According to scientific research, there seems to be a correlation between times of the year when UV radiation from the sun is lower (typically winter) and when the occurrence of infectious diseases, like influenza, is greater. Many physicians argue that the current recommended daily amount of vitamin D is much too low. Instead of 400 units per day, I generally recommend at least 2,000 units daily for optimal immune function.
Recent studies have shown that ginger root reduces pain and inflammation, which is exactly what people need when they’re struggling with unpleasant flu symptoms like a cough and body aches.
I recommend including fresh ginger in meals and homemade juices. You can also add ginger slices to antioxidant-rich green tea or sip on some ginger tea with raw honey. Galangal root, a cousin of ginger, can also be included in homemade soups (it’s especially great in Thai-inspired recipes) to provide impressive anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant and antiviral properties.
Eighty percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract, which explains why the levels of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, in our digestive systems are key to healthy immune system function.
While fighting the flu, make sure to eat probiotic-rich foods like kombucha, coconut kefir and fermented vegetables. In general—and especially when fighting the flu—I recommend taking a high-quality probiotic that contains 10 to 30 different strains and also has a high CFU (colony forming units) count of 15 to 100 billion.
All of these natural flu remedies can be taken independently or together. In addition to employing these helpful foods, herbs and supplements daily, it’s also key that you get plenty of rest and avoid refined sugar and unhealthy processed foods.
If you or a loved one experiences complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, see your health care provider right away. If you contract the flu and you have a chronic medical condition or you are pregnant, you should also see your doctor. And if you experience what the CDC calls “emergency warning signs of flu sickness,” including trouble breathing, chest pain or severe vomiting, please seek immediate emergency care.
Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine. Read his full bio here.