Viruses are an expected part of autumn and winter. We can become run down and tired as the weather gets colder and the nights draw in.
Combine this with ebbing levels of vitamin D and a tendency to prefer comforting carbs over health-giving fruit or vegetables and we become the perfect target.
Anything from a mild dose of the sniffles and a preference for romantic comedy to projectile vomiting and raging fever can be caused by the little blighters.
But what exactly is a virus?
A microbiologist of my acquaintance recently described them as DNA delivery systems.
A cursory search of Google came up with the following definition: ‘An infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy, and is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host.’
They sneak in, hijack our cells for their reproductive equipment and turn them into little bug factories. Without a host they are useless. Pointless. The symptoms you experience are a result of the target cells (nasal lining, respiratory cells, your gut), the way they get in or the way they burst the cell in order to get out and infect other cells. Yuck.
Feeling hot (hot hot)
Of course, your immune system identifies them in order to throw the little buggers out and this causes some discomfort of its own. Your system raises its temperature to try and drive the virus out.
Proteins are only active in a fairly narrow temperature band. Raising your temperature will sometimes be enough to solve the problem. If not, lymph rushes round the body informing immune cells that they’re up for duty and that can cause swollen glands, aching ribs, headache and a general sense of being unwell.
A successful virus will make you a bit unwell for a week or two then move on to another host. Only pretty unsuccessful viruses kill their hosts. This is the reason that most severe disease-creating viruses tend to be self-limiting yet the common cold just rolls on and on.
The public health professionals’ mantra? Prevention is better than cure.
But how to do this? Here are my tips:
Get enough sleep
Our immune systems work hardest when we’re asleep. This is why, when we’re ill, we just want to go back to bed. A good rest really is the best medicine. If you could retire to your bed at the first sign of illness nine times out of 10 you wouldn’t get ill.
Don’t pass it on
The transplant unit at a Leicestershire hospital had a zero tolerance sick policy. If you are ill you put the patients on immune suppressant drugs at serious risk. If you were ill, you were obliged to remain at home. They had the lowest sickness figures in the region.
Stay at home if you can
Overworking when ill prolongs the time it takes your immune system to repair the damage.
Cut out the crap!
Research has shown that just 75 grams of refined sugar will depress immune function for up to six hours. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get ill but repeated exposure when your immune system is below par increases the likelihood. So as soon as you feel unwell give the carbs a miss!
Eat a nutrient-dense diet including fish, pulses, nuts, lightly steamed veg, good fats like butter and olive oil lean meats, and fruit with lots of vitamin C, and make sure you get plenty of calcium.
If you’re craving sugars take a chromium supplement as chromium deficiency can lead to sugar cravings. Making your diet as varied as possible gives your body the nutrients to keep your front line immune cells working optimally.
When you fail at prevention…
Once the virus has got you and you’re feeling properly rubbish the above steps will still help you get over it more quickly. Do you really have to be at work? Your colleagues certainly don’t want your bug.
So climb into bed, have a kip and think about the following:
Paracetemol does not make you better. It just makes you feel better. It reduces your temperature and gets rid of your headache. Since the temperature is part of your defence mechanism this may not be helping in the long run.
Decongestants make breathing easier but if you use them for more than a couple of days you will get rebound congestion when you stop taking them. There is also some emerging evidence that taking paracetemol or anti inflammatories for any length of time can make your cold last longer.
People who never take cold and flu remedies genuinely get better faster.
Your doctor won’t be able to give you anti virals because most pharmaceutical anti-virals, like acyclovir, either won’t have any effect on your cold or have long-term side effects that do not make it worthwhile for a self-limiting condition.
Mother Nature to the rescue
Echinacea angustifolia is an immune-enhancing herb. It improves the function of first- line immune cells. It also steps up your immune response once you become unwell and can help your body quell the virus more quickly.
The humble elderberry has been proven to provide amazing antiviral protection. It prevents haemagglutination, the process by which the flu virus enters cells. You can buy Sambucol from the health food shop, some chemists and some supermarkets and there’s good clinical evidence for it. There is also clinical evidence for a simple syrup made with the berries. Of course the drug companies would like you to buy their expensively packaged product…..
Those old wives knew a thing or two…
A hot drink made with raw organic honey and a couple of slices of real lemon works. There are anti-viral, anti-inflammatory constituents in both.
Together, they work twice as well. The heat of the drink also soothes upset mucous membranes in your head and throat and improves circulation to the area, meaning the blood supply gets there faster and in greater quantities.
To pep it up add a bit of grated fresh ginger root. There is clinical proof that constituents of ginger (gingerols to be more precise) are more effective, weight for weight, than ibuprofen and indomethacin at reducing inflammation.
If your cough is keeping you awake at night rub a thick layer of vapour rub on the soles of your feet, put on a pair of warm socks and it will soothe you to sleep. It’s a little like magic (but don’t tell the witch-finder general).
A stimulating inhalation of menthol will clear your pipes too. Boil a kettle, pour the just-boiled water in a bowl safely on a table in front of you. Put some menthol crystals in the water and cover your head, and the bowl, with a towel while you inhale the vapour.
If you don’t want to use extracts like menthol and camphor try a few drops of eucalyptus, peppermint and thyme oil under the towel. Equally, if you don’t want to use petroleum jelly-based vapour rub ask your herbalist to make you a natural version. We’re very versatile you know.
Talk to a herbalist
If you have lost the battle against the winter virus, visit a herbalist. We’re not just here for chronic conditions like IBS and arthritis (though we’re very good with that) but can help minimise the symptoms of a winter cold and sort out the barking, irritating cough it left you with.