There's good science behind Grandma's elixirs for sniffles, sneezes, and other winter woes
Thanks to modern science, you can get a replacement heart, two new knees, and read a road sign without glasses for the first time in years. But when it comes to the common cold, it turns out that Grandma really does know best.
"Many of Grandma's home remedies for colds are safe, gentle, and effective," says Mary L. Hardy, MD, medical director of the Integrative Medicine Medical Group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "They're great for uncomplicated, run-of-the-mill colds." Better yet, many of these remedies are available right in your pantry.
Where-And Why-Natural Works
A cold is a viral illness of the upper respiratory tract. It may lead to sinus infection, bronchitis, or other secondary infections that take hold when viruses lower your immunity. Treating a cold aggressively at the first sign of symptoms can help limit its severity or even stop it in its tracks, says Dr. Hardy.
And that's where Grandma's wisdom can help-if only we'd listen. "We've gotten into the habit of believing that anything that fights cold and flu has to come in a pill," says Ben Kligler, MD, medical director of the Beth-Israel Center for Health and Healing in New York City. "We need to reconsider natural alternatives that work as well as-and, in many cases, better than-over-the-counter remedies."
We've included a diverse sampling of remedies from Grandma's medicine chest. Consult your doctor if symptoms don't improve after 5 to 7 days, or if you have a chronic underlying medical condition, especially heart disease or a chronic respiratory illness such as asthma.
1 Breathe Deeply, and Feel Better
One of Grandma's oldest remedies for congestion is also one of the easiest to do. Inhaling steam helps decongest you because it gets mucus moving. That's important because bacteria flourish when mucus gets stuck in your nose, sinuses, or chest, says Dr. Hardy.
Here's how to do it: Fill a cooking pot one-quarter full with water. Bring it almost to a boil, then turn off the heat, and add a couple of drops of essential oil of eucalyptus. Carefully remove the pot from the stove, and place it on a protected counter or table.
Drape a towel over your head, lean over the pot, and inhale. Caution: Keep your face at a very safe distance from the scalding hot water, so you don't get burned.
An even easier approach is to add 2 or 3 drops of essential oil of eucalyptus to a wet washcloth placed on your shower's floor. Close the door, turn on the water, steam up the bathroom, and inhale while you scrub yourself clean.
Why eucalyptus? It's a decongestant and expectorant, says David Winston, a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild and founder of Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., an herbal medicine company in Washington, NJ. It may also ease sore throats and coughs and help fight infection.
No eucalyptus oil on hand? Smear some medicated eucalyptus chest rub on a washcloth, and toss it on your shower's floor. Take a hot, steamy shower, and breathe deeply.
2 Come Bubbeleh, Drink Your Soup
Long before Chicken Soup for the Soul became a bestseller, mothers were ladling generous portions of golden broth into their children's bowls as a tried-and-true cold remedy.
Chicken soup has a number of things going for it. There's that broth, of course, which helps keep you hydrated by replacing fluids lost from a runny nose or from sweating when you have a fever. The steam that rises from a hot bowl of soup helps to clear a stuffy nose and sinuses, as do optional hot and spicy ingredients such as cayenne or chile peppers, says Dr. Hardy.
Garlic, a mainstay of many chicken soup recipes, has antibiotic and antiviral activities. It's also an expectorant, so it helps you cough up stubborn bacteria that are languishing in your lungs. Onion, another common ingredient in chicken soup and a close relative of garlic, also has antiviral properties.
If homemade soup is not an option (and who feels like cooking when you're sick?), buy the best soup you can afford, says Dr. Hardy. Chop up some garlic cloves, and toss them into the pot with the soup. Add some onion and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Serve hot, and enjoy breathing again.
3 The H20 Cold Cure
You can drink it, steam it, gargle with it, and even sit or stand in it. When it comes to colds, you won't find a more time-tested or versatile remedy than water.
Still, most people don't drink enough water when they're sick, and they don't get its healing benefits in forms such as steam treatments and baths, says Dr. Hardy. To get your share of H2O, start by drinking plenty of water, which helps replace the fluids you've lost. Aim for ten 8-oz glasses a day. (You can flavor some of them with a little fruit juice; herbal tea counts as water too.)
If your throat is achy, try numbing it by gargling with warm water and echinacea tincture (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon echinacea to 8 oz of water). Swallow the solution after gargling.
Use a thoroughly cleaned humidifier to add moisture to your bedroom. And soak in a tub of cool (not cold) water to keep a fever in check.
4 Boneset-Yarrow Tea for Fevers
From its name, you'd probably guess that the herb boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) was used to treat broken bones. But you'd be wrong. Used by the Cherokee people for more than 3,000 years, this bitter herb got its unusual name from treating "breakbone fever," or typhus, a condition in which the bones feel hot and achy.
Today, boneset is still admired for its ability to break a fever, says Winston. It works by raising body temperature, which causes profuse sweating. The combination of boneset and yarrow (Achillea millefolium), another fever-breaking herb, helps during cold and flu season by stimulating the body's immune response to viral and bacterial infections.
To make boneset-yarrow tea, add 1/2 teaspoon dried boneset and 1/2 teaspoon dried yarrow to 8 oz of boiling water. Steep, covered, for 30 minutes, then drink it "as hot as you can tolerate it," Winston says. Be forewarned: Boneset and yarrow are bitter-tasting herbs. And adding honey or sugar to boneset-yarrow tea only makes the taste worse. "But it's one of the best things I know of for influenza," says Winston.
Don't drink boneset-yarrow tea if you are pregnant. Also, people who are allergic or sensitive to chamomile, ragweed, and other members of the daisy family may have an allergic reaction to the yarrow.
5 Honey and Lemon for Sore Throats
If you're a tea drinker, you might add honey and lemon to your daily cup. But a teaspoon of honey and lemon without tea can do wonders for a dry, scratchy throat.
The thickness of honey helps coat and soothe an irritated throat. But there may be more to the story, says Dr. Hardy. Because it's so thick, honey may interfere with the ability of bacteria to go about their business. In other words, bacteria may get stuck in a "honey trap" where they can do no harm.
Don't forget to squeeze some lemon onto your teaspoon of honey. Lemon stimulates the salivary glands, pulling fluid into the mouth and making it easier to swallow.
6 Garlic: A Cold's Worst Enemy
If it can ward off vampires, then why not the common cold?
One of our oldest cultivated plants, garlic has been used for centuries to treat everything from the plague and leprosy to toothache. In the 1800s, American doctors prescribed garlic for colds and coughs. Today, scientists are busy uncovering the many ways that garlic keeps us healthy, and the list just keeps getting longer.
Garlic cloves contain hundreds of active ingredients, including sulfur-containing compounds such as allicin, that give it its distinct and pungent aroma. Garlic is antibacterial and antiviral. It's also an expectorant that helps you cough up phlegm.
To get its full cold- and flu-fighting benefits, stick with fresh garlic cloves, says Winston. "Deodorized garlic supplements are fine for hypertension or to reduce blood lipid levels, but when it comes to antibacterial activity, nothing is better than raw garlic."
For colds and flu, Winston recommends 4 to 8 garlic cloves a day-preferably raw. If you just can't stomach raw garlic (and many people can't), try mixing it with plain yogurt or cottage cheese. If you must cook it, do so very lightly, Winston suggests. Tip: Before cooking the garlic, chop it, and let it sit for 10 minutes to give the disease-fighting compounds a chance to develop.
7 Cinnamon Tea: Tastes Great, Kills Germs
Once as valuable as gold, cinnamon has been used medicinally for thousands of years. In modern times, this fragrant spice flavors everything from sticky buns and curries to cappuccino. But its reputation as a healing herb remains intact.
Cinnamon bark contains an oily chemical called cinnamaldehyde that kills a variety of illness-causing bacteria. It's also a fever reducer and anti-inflammatory, says herbalist James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Inc., 1999). And while it probably won't replace aspirin or acetaminophen in your medicine cabinet, cinnamon does have some analgesic activity.
Dr. Duke recalls that his grandmother made cinnamon tea with honey to cure the common cold. He offers the following recipe: Add 1 tablespoon powdered cinnamon (or several sticks of cinnamon bark) and 2 cloves to 8 oz of boiling water. Steep, covered, for 20 minutes, then uncover and cool slightly. Add honey and lemon to taste. Drink 1 to 3 cups a day.
8 A Powerful West Indies Cold Cocktail
If your grandmother hailed from the West Indies, she might have recommended an exotic and ferocious cold remedy consisting of lemon juice, garlic, ginger, cayenne, and vinegar. Are you cringing yet?
It may sound mouth puckering, but it works because it's loaded with healthful anticold ingredients, says Dr. Kligler. Ginger and garlic, for example, both have natural antibiotic properties. Lemon juice and cayenne are astringents, meaning that they tend to be drying, and they're good for clearing up mucus and wet coughs. And ginger and cayenne are "warming" herbs. In many herbal traditions, you use a warming herb to balance out conditions in which the body is colder than it should be, explains Dr. Kligler.
"I've heard this recipe in various forms at least four or five times from people of different ethnic backgrounds, mostly West Indian," says Dr. Kligler. "They say it's what Grandma used to give them when they were sick. I started recommending it to patients myself and have been very pleased with the results."
Here's his recipe: Combine 1/2 cup lemon juice, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 1 clove garlic (crushed), 1 teaspoon grated ginger, and a dash of cayenne. Mix thoroughly, and "slug it down," says Dr. Kligler.
Lemon Balm Tea: Gentle Virus Killer
If Grandma lived in a temperate climate, she probably grew some lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) in her herb garden. This aromatic and pleasant-tasting herb has been used to calm jangled nerves and soothe upset tummies. It also has strong antiviral activity and helps break fevers associated with colds and flu, says Dr. Hardy.
Use the leaves, picked before flowering, to make soothing lemon balm tea. Add 2 tablespoons lemon balm to 8 oz of boiling water. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes. For best results, chop the leaves just before you prepare the tea. If using dried leaves, use 1 tablespoon lemon balm.
10 Reach for a Spicy Symptom Solver
Grandma probably recommended ginger ale to settle your upset stomach. In fact, science has confirmed that ginger prevents motion sickness and nausea. But this spicy herb also helps with cold and flu symptoms, including fever, dry cough, chills, and congestion, says Dr. Hardy.
Ginger is available as a tincture, capsules, or tea. But for best results, use freshly grated ginger, which you'll find in the produce section of your supermarket. To make ginger tea, mix 1 tablespoon grated ginger in 8 oz of boiling water. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes, then strain the tea into another cup.
11 Slippery Elm Soothes Sore Throats
When the early settlers came to America, they knew just what to do with slippery elm, a close relative of elm trees in their native England. The colonists used the gummy bark of the tree to treat coughs and sore throats, a remedy still used today.
Rich in the slick substance mucilage, slippery elm soothes a sore throat by coating the irritated mucous membranes in the mouth and throat, says Dr. Kligler. It's available as a loose powder or lozenge in most health food stores.
To make a chewy slippery elm paste from loose powder, add 1 tablespoon slippery elm powder to 2 to 3 oz of warm water. Stir, and mix with some honey or maple syrup to taste. Chew, and swallow. If you'd rather drink it down, mix 1 tablespoon slippery elm powder with 6 to 8 oz of water.
12 Try Diluted Fruit Juices
During runny nose/achy body/stuffy head season, you probably keep a gallon of orange juice in your refrigerator, just as your mom-and her mom-did. Orange and other fruit juices provide healthy doses of vitamin C, which has been shown to shorten the duration of common colds and flu and may even prevent them. Vitamin C strengthens your immune system, so your body can fight back against viruses and bacteria. But fruit juices also contain sugar, which some people believe may suppress your body's immune system.
To get the healing benefits of fruit juice without all the sugar (and calories), cut your glass of fruit juice in half with tap water or sparkling water. And read labels carefully to make sure that you're buying whole juices such as orange, pineapple, and tomato, not "fake" juices that contain less than 100% fruit juice, says Dr. Hardy.
13 A Berry Good-Tasting Cold Remedy
At last: a cold and flu remedy that actually tastes good. Elderberry has a long history as a tasty healer. Europeans would chase away cold and flu symptoms by drinking hot elderberry wine with lemon.
Today, elderberry is used by herbalists to treat viral infections, including colds, flu, and bronchitis. It may shorten the length of a cold by as much as 30 to 40%, according to Winston. "If you take it early enough, you may not get sick at all."
Elderberry is available as a tincture or syrup, but the syrup may be more effective, Winston says. It's also easier to find, and it tastes better than a tincture. If you still prefer a tincture, use 1 teaspoon elderberry three times daily.
When contributing editor Julie A. Evans was a kid, her mom would give her cod-liver oil when she had a cold. She's still trying to get the taste out of her mouth.