Cold busters

Sniffles coming on? Staunch the flow before it starts with these five alternative remedies.

There’s hardly a plant in the world that hasn’t been boiled, dried, or squeezed in the fight against the common cold. As we head into fall—and straight into cold and flu season—here’s a rundown of some of the more popular natural remedies and their medical standing.

NAME: Echinacea

ALLEGED POWERS: The remedy is believed to fight infections and reduce inflammation by stimulating the immune system.

OKAY, PROVE IT: Echinacea has been reasonably well studied and the consensus so far is that, when taken at the first sign of a cold or flu, it may help ease symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, and coughing. But the jury is still out on its preventive abilities. A 2003 overview of clinical trials by the Oxford, U.K.–based Cochrane Collaboration, an independent international research network, found that most of the trials combined echinacea with vitamin C.

POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: When taken long-term (more than eight weeks), echinacea loses its effectiveness and may even diminish immune function. There is also some concern that it can reduce the effectiveness of immunosuppressant drugs and, in rare cases, cause allergic reactions.

HOW MUCH ONLY? Jamieson Natural Sources, 30 capsules, 1,000 mg, $16.99 at Pharmasave (various locations)


NAME: Garlic

ALLEGED POWERS: Having been used as a medicine as far back as the time of the Pharaohs, today garlic is believed to help prevent atherosclerosis, reduce high blood pressure, and treat and prevent colds, coughs, and bronchitis. In addition to its immune-function benefits, proponents claim it contains antioxidants, which neutralize the free radicals that are said to contribute to heart disease and cancer.

OKAY, PROVE IT: Although the science is not yet definitive, several well-designed studies suggest that garlic supplements do help prevent colds as well as reduce symptoms. A 1999 study published in the International Journal of Immunopharmacology found that garlic has a positive effect on general immunity.

POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Supplement users have reported headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle aches, dizziness, allergies, and skin rashes, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Garlic’s blood-thinning properties are also a concern. People with bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia, or platelet conditions should stay away from this remedy, as should those who are due to have surgery or have a baby.

HOW MUCH ONLY? Natural Brand Triple Garlic, 100 capsules, 810 milligrams, $14.99 at General Nutrition Centers, 1126 Robson Street, 604-682-2506 and Park Royal North, West Vancouver, 604-913-7755


NAME: Goldenseal

ALLEGED POWERS: This North American herb, which contains the alkaloids hydrastine and berberine, is best known as a treatment for infection, inflammation, and congestion of the lungs, throat, and sinuses; hence its use, often in combination with echinacea, as a remedy for colds and flu. It’s also said to help ease stomach and intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and gastritis.

OKAY, PROVE IT: While it has a long anecdotal history of use for everything from diarrhea to upper-respiratory-tract infections, there is minimal scientific evidence to support its alleged powers. As a cold remedy, there have been no trials in humans testing its preventive prowess, and its benefits may be limited to easing the discomfort of symptoms, particularly sore throat.

POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: As with all alkaloid-containing plants, high amounts (several times the recommended dose) can reduce vitamin-B absorption and lead to gastrointestinal distress and possible nervous-system effects. It is not recommended for pregnant or breast-feeding women.

HOW MUCH ONLY? Albi, 90 capsules, 450 milligrams, $24.99 at Alive Health Centre (various locations)


NAME: Vitamin C

ALLEGED POWERS: Probably the best-known natural treatment for colds and flu, this micronutrient gained notoriety in the 1970s when Nobel Prize–winning scientist Linus Pauling recommended large doses—as much as 20 grams a day for adults—for cold prevention. Since then it has been touted as a powerful antioxidant, potent enough to allegedly help prevent a host of ailments, among them heart disease, lead toxicity, cancer, and cataracts.

OKAY, PROVE IT: In a 2003 review of 30 trials testing vitamin C’s cold prevention and treatment powers, the Cochrane Collaboration found virtually no preventive benefit but did find that high doses at the first sign of a cold reduced the duration and severity of symptoms. The group also suggested that the doses used in the trials were not high enough.

POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Diarrhea in some people after as little as a few grams of vitamin C per day. It also depletes the body of copper, an essential nutrient, and increases the absorption of iron. People with iron-overload diseases such as hemochromatosis or hemosiderosis should stay away from this one.

HOW MUCH ONLY? Jamieson Natural Sources, 120 caplets, 500 milligrams, $5.99 at London Drugs (various locations)


NAME: Zinc

ALLEGED POWERS: Found in many forms—lozenges, sprays, and nasal gels—this micronutrient is purported to help maintain immunity and to interfere with the replication of cold viruses, possibly by promoting the production of the virus-fighter interferon.

OKAY, PROVE IT: A 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that lozenges are not effective against cold symptoms in children and teenagers. In adults, lozenges have been pitted against placebos in seven clinical trials. Though the Cochrane Collaboration found results to be inconclusive, it suggested that zinc showed enough potential to warrant further research.

POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Too much zinc can impair immunity as well as lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol. It can also cause nausea, lead to copper deficiency, and interfere with the effects of tetracycline and some other antibiotics.

HOW MUCH ONLY? Natural Factors, 60 lozenges, $6.99 at Health Works, 3120 Edgemont Boulevard, North Vancouver, 604-987-0104

There’s hardly a plant in the world that hasn’t been boiled, dried, or squeezed in the fight against the common cold. As we head into fall—and straight into cold and flu season—here’s a rundown of some of the more popular natural remedies and their medical standing.