I’m down with some sort of flu-thing at the moment (maybe regular flu, possibly swine flu, and I can’t totally rule out strep throat). The illness came on within 24 hours and left me a shivering mess. 200mg ibuprofen keeps the fever down for a few hours and gives me a window to feel like a regular human being (otherwise I’d be in bed right now, feeling extremely sorry for myself). This seems like a good as time as any to share my thoughts on various cold and flu remedies.
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. Take my advice at your own risk.
Didn’t get one last year, but I will this year. Why did I avoid it? One reason; I’m not enthusiastic about injecting mercury into my body. While thimerosal is no longer used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, it’s still used in most flu shots. While the mercury-autism link claims have been thoroughly debunked, it’s still not a a good idea to ingest (or inject) large amounts of mercury into your body. However, ethyl mercury (used in thimerosal) metabolizes more quickly than methyl mercury (which can accumulate from eating fish, like tuna, swordfish, or mackerel). For most adults, the possible benefits of a flu shot outweigh any risks from the small amount of ethyl mercury in a flu shot.
In addition to my concern about mercury, I found the allegations against Baxter (the company that won the U.S. contract to produce the swine flu vaccine) to be worrisome. We know that in 2009, Baxter International, Inc. (located in Austria), shipped contaminated vaccine material to 18 labs across Europe (Bloomberg). The vaccines were contaminated with H5N1 (bird flu). This was discovered by a Czech lab worker when a number of ferrets died after being injected with the vaccine.
Bird flu/H5N1 has infected fewer than 500 people in the last decade, but 63% of them died from it. It’s a serious virus.
I’m generally highly skeptical of conspiracy theories, and this case is no exception. It’s hard to find a source that discusses the live avian flu contamination case that doesn’t contain “illuminati” in the URL. Still, there is plenty of precedent for big pharma being up to no good. At best, the contamination case shows gross negligence on the part of Baxter. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the incident. The Toronto Sun originally reported the story as well. The Sun article has been removed from torontosun.com, but has also been republished all over the web. The Czech press also covered the story extensively. The Bloomberg article linked above (and here) is fairly comprehensive, and free of conspiracy theory speculations.
Alex Jones, and other Libertarian-ish conspiracy theorists, believed the Baxter scandal was a fouled attempt by the world’s Illuminati elite to rapidly depopulate the world. (But why? To build bigger golf courses?) Such theories don’t make sense to me, but why hasn’t Baxter come clean and explained what happened? How exactly did the live H5N1 (bird flu) virus get mixed with the H3N2 (seasonal flu) virus? At this point I would almost be reassured if it turned out to be a psychopathic Austrian lab rat working alone. The little information revealed (not by Baxter itself, but by the Austrian Health Ministry that investigated the incident) points to the possibility of some massive lack-of-hand-washing fuck-up. Maybe that’s what happened. Hopefully.
In addition to mercury and the incompetence and/or evil machinations of some big pharma companies, there was this. In 2009, the Canadian study showed that getting a seasonal flu shot slightly upped the risk of contracting swine flu. I’m not sure if the study has been replicated, but the combination of factors put me off flu shots for a few years.
I have to say though, actually having the flu has made me rethink my priorities. If there’s even a decent chance getting a flu shot this year will save me from the misery I’m currently experiencing, I’m going for it.
Vitamin D and Vitamin A
I’ve experienced a number of health improvements from getting my vitamin D and vitamin A levels up. However, total immunity to colds and flu isn’t one of them. I’ve had a few colds over the last year or so, and one of them lasted for weeks. Having a toddler in preschool is definitely a risk factor for being sick more often, so perhaps I’ve fared better than some. Still, optimal D and A levels aren’t the immunity panacea I had hoped for. When I first started taking 5K IU of vitamin D on a more or less daily basis, I didn’t get a single cold for an entire year. Then my daughter started preschool, and my cold-free streak ended soon after.
I’ve always been fairly susceptible to colds, and I probably could make better lifestyle choices in some areas (like drinking less coffee). Still, I think I take pretty good care of myself (vegans would disagree). I’ve tried a number of different diets and lifestyle variations over the years (vegetarianism, veganism [very briefly], coffee vs. no coffee, no alcohol vs. some drinking, etc.). Paleo (with some cheats, including coffee and wine) seems to offer me the best combination of generally good health and food/lifestyle enjoyment and flexibility. Total immunity from colds and flu would be a nice bonus, but that doesn’t seem to be in cards for me (even with my supposedly vitamin D-enhanced antimicrobial peptides). Even Cannell points out (in the video linked above) that vitamin D is no defense against particularly novel and/or lethal viruses (though timely and well-designed flu vaccines might be).
Zinc is an effective immune booster, up to a point. Zinc toxicity is a real concern for people who take more than 20mg a day for prolonged periods. Too much zinc can blunt the immune system and cause fatigue. For me personally, I’ve found that too much zinc can bring on asthma symptoms. I prefer to get my zinc from eating oysters.
What about zinc lozenges? Do they work? Different studies and meta-analyses have found different results. The most recent meta-analysis, in 2011, found definitive positive results for shortening the duration of a cold. That’s also been my personal experience. The problem is this; some brands of zinc lozenges don’t contain enough zinc, or contain forms that aren’t readily absorbed by the body. My solution is to suck on a small piece of a zinc gluconate tablet (maybe 10mg). The taste is horrible, but I’ve had sore throats disappear in a matter of hours from using this technique.
One precaution — don’t consume zinc tablets on an empty stomach. You’ll puke.
Raw Garlic and Antibiotics
In my experience, raw garlic is an energizer, and has strong anti-bacterial properties, but does little against colds and flu.
To consume raw garlic in a way that doesn’t hurt your mouth (and may not affect your breath as badly), chop up a small clove, mix the pieces in with a little water, and swallow it quickly.
Allicin (found in raw garlic) has been shown to be effective against strep B. If I had a confirmed case of strep throat, would I rely on garlic alone for cure? I might try it a few days to see if it worked. If all symptoms completely resolved, I might skip the antibiotics. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are great for getting rid of a bacterial infection quickly, but they have the disadvantage of clearing our all your gut flora (which can take a year or even longer to fully recover). I’m not against the use of antibiotics, but I do see them as “the nuclear option.” If something less invasive is just as effective, I generally prefer that course. It’s important to remember that antibiotic pills aren’t magical. They’re just chemicals that (usually) kill bacteria. There are many chemicals that kill bacteria, and some are found in the produce section of your grocery store. A narrow-spectrum natural antibiotic, like allicin, kills strep B, but doesn’t interfere with most forms of lactobacillus (some forms of lactobacillus comprise a portion of beneficial GI flora). How can you test this? Next time you make sauerkraut, add in some cloves of raw garlic. The cabbage will still ferment. (Just make sure you use sea salt or kosher salt, not iodized salt — iodine will stop the fermentation process).
If you do need to take antibiotics, make sure to follow them up with lots of probiotic foods that contain beneficial flora (like raw sauerkraut, yogurt with live cultures, and raw kombucha), as well as prebiotic foods that contain oligosaccharides and/or soluble fiber that the “good gut bacteria” like to eat (foods like onions, garlic, leeks, artichoke, asparagus, and jicama).
Many natural remedies also function as broad-spectrum antibiotics, and can clear out your gut flora just as completely. Clove oil and wormwood both fall into this category.
Gargling a combination of water and apple cider vinegar can knock out a sore throat in a matter of hours. It won’t cure a cold, but it can quickly ease the discomfort of a sore throat.
I’ve found that raw kombucha vinegar works just as well, and may have other health benefits if consumed in small amounts (it’s too acidic to consume more than a tablespoon or two). I’m terrible at making kombucha — I always forget about it and end up making a large jug of vinegar. My scoby seems to like this well enough — it has grown to huge proportions, forcing me to lend it new containers (anybody need a starter scoby?). The kombucha vinegar does have its uses though. It’s great in greens (especially chard, but also kale). I also toss half a cup to the pot when I’m making chicken stock, to help leech the minerals into the broth. In taste, kombucha vinegar is similar to apple cider vinegar.
Mononucleosis, Herpesviridae, and Dietary Lysine to Arginine Ratio
My throat is sore and my neck lymph nodes are tender (but not swollen). I’m pretty sure I don’t have mononucleosis, but I can’t totally rule it out (this post is starting to feel like an episode of House).
The two viruses responsible for mono (which can drag on for weeks) are Epstein-Barr and Cytomegalovirus, both members of Herpesviridae. They are just two of the many members of this virus group that can infect humans.
The in vivo availability of the amino acids lysine and arginine influence the replication rate of many different herpes viruses. There is some evidence that long-term infection with members of this virus family are linked a number of disease conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, and Type-II diabetes.
I’ve been exposed to HSV1, but I’m lucky enough to not get cold sores. I’ve never been exposed to HSV2 (genital herpes). I’m fairly certain I have been exposed to Epstein-Barr virus (EPV), since 95% of adults are, and it’s easily transmissible. I had chicken pox as a kid, so I know I carry the Varicella zoster virus (also a member of the herpes family). Cytomegalovirus infection (CMV) is also very common, but last time I gave blood I tested negative (which means they can give my blood to newborns — cool!). If you’re curious, here’s the complete list of herpes viruses that can infect humans.
The more I read about the herpes family of viruses, the more I want to maximally suppress their replication in my own body.
So what can be done?
All members of herpesviridae require arginine to replicate. The ratio of lysine to arginine in the bloodstream appears to be important; the viruses are “fooled” into taking up lysine instead of arginine, and thus can’t replicate as quickly.
Limiting dietary arginine (from chocolate, nuts, soy, and red meat) might make sense, but providing large amounts of dietary lysine (from fish and cheese) might be even more effective (if the antimetabolite analog amino acid theory of lysine and arginine is correct).
Resveratrol, and possibly other polyphenols such as proanthocyanidins (including pycnogenol, as well as other substances found in tea, grape seeds, lightly processed cocoa [sold as "raw cacao"], and some berries) have been shown to inhibit replication of various herpes viruses. Another reason to drink your daily red wine, and another possible explanation for the French Paradox (though I think the foie gras/vitamin K2 explanation is just as likely).
Indole-3-carbinol, a compound metabolized in the body after eating broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale, inhibits replication of at least some members of herpesviridae. The same compound may help prevent both cancer and heart disease (in the case of the latter, possibly because of broad suppression of herpesviridae). Eat your veggies.
This study, from 1977, is also interesting, though I’m not totally sure I understand it. It found that phytohemagglutinin (a lectin found in legumes — especially red kidney beans) stimulated EBV growth in vitro, but that various concentrations of l-arginine had no effect. What would have happened if they’d added lysine to the cultures?
Ibuprofen has also been found to have an inhibitory effect, at least on HSV-1. Regular ibuprofen use has also been shown to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Too much ibuprofen can be hard on the digestive tract and urinary system, but it makes sense to use small amounts for fever and pain reduction when necessary (consume with both food and water).
Hydrogen Peroxide 3% in the Ear Cure
This oddball cold cure from 1928 claims that a few drops of 3% hydrogen peroxide solution in each ear, at the first sign of a cold, will kill off the germs and save you a week of sniffles.
DO NOT TRY THIS.
Being curious, I tried it the last time I felt a cold coming on. Not only did it do nothing for my cold, it also gave me intermittent vertigo for over a week. Mild vertigo, but still extremely annoying.
Apparently there are crystals in the inner ear that can come loose, and cause vertigo. It’s possible that the cold virus itself, not the hydrogen peroxide cure, dislodged the inner ear crystal and brought on my vertigo, but I found a number of anecdotal reports of dizziness following the application of this totally useless cold cure.
I cured my vertigo using the Brandt-Daroff maneuver, which is quite simple.
I’ve tried mega-dosing on vitamin C, up to 8000mg/day, to recover more quickly from a cold. It’s no miracle cure (for me at least), but it does seem to reduce cold duration by a day or two.
Vitamin C has been shown to inhibit the variety of strep that causes pneumonia, and may be effective against strep throat as well.
Meta-analyses of vitamin C cold cure research have come up short, with the exception of some evidence for cold prevention benefits for people who exercise intensely, and keep their serum vitamin C levels elevated. Quercetin has similar preventative benefits, and may inhibit cold and flu virus replication generally.
The lack of demonstrated benefit of vitamin C might be because researchers are using sub-effective doses (like 200mg a day), or it might be the vitamin C mega-doses don’t actually cure colds.
While I’ve rarely been able to rid myself of a cold through willpower alone, I think there is something to be said for taking charge of your body (and life), and not letting cold/flu/illness get the better of you.
My own approach includes:
- Treating my symptoms so that I’m not utterly miserable (ibuprofen for fever reduction, etc.). It’s possible that “riding out a fever” will result in a faster recovery, but it’s also possible that some anti-fever medications may in fact suppress viral replication (see above). In any case, not all immune reactions are adaptive. Since I’ve had the experience of suffering from asthma in the past, I know that for a fact. For example, dust mites are harmless — until your body reacts to them as an invading pathogen (resulting in allergies and/or asthma). Your body’s natural desire to lie on the couch all day while you recover from the flu may be partially adaptive (you get rest), but it may also be an overshoot. The human body is imperfectly evolved, not perfectly designed. Any many cases what we experience as “illness” is simply overreaction on the part of our immune systems.
- Reevaluating my life choices. Am I getting enough sleep? Is there something below my conscious awareness that’s stressing me out? Have I been taking odd supplements in my ceaseless journey of not-very-sensible self-experimentation?
- Temporarily reducing my responsibilities and commitments (and therefore stress level), to allow time and space for proper recovery. Everyone gets sick sometimes; everyone understands.
- Actively trying cures and remedies, even if they don’t work or have little chance of working. Though there are some risks (see above), this gives me the sense of being proactive about getting better quickly.
If I find myself wallowing in my illness, I ask myself what I am avoiding. Lately I’ve been finding my consulting/programming work to be slightly grueling. I think I’ll do less of it. It’s important to me to deliver projects that I’ve committed to, but there’s no reason I can’t take on less work, at least for awhile. I’ve been enjoying studio time immensely, as well as writing this blog. I’ve also been reading more (I loved The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and I’m currently engrossed in Transition by Iain M. Banks). Life is short, and there’s no reason to be miserable-on-purpose (especially if you’ve implemented an effective economic plan).
Get Well Soon
This post has taken me about six hours to research and write, and I feel somewhat better. Maybe it’s my all-tangerine diet; that’s the only food that is appealing right now. I’m hoping for a fast recovery. For anybody else out there fighting a virus or other illness, I hope you feel better soon!