PORTLAND, Oregon—When naturopathic physician Dr. Orna Izakson looks at a plant she sees more than its stem, leaves or vibrant flower—she sees medicine. And naturally, she takes a natural approach to flu prevention and hastening a healthy recovery.
“Our bodies are trying to bring us toward health,” she says. “The responses we experience to outside stressors are our body’s intelligent response to that stressor. A fever is an intelligent response: It makes the body more responsive to invaders… and it makes us feel lousy so we slow down and go to bed so that our bodies can heal.”
So what can you do to stay well this flu season? “Keep things moving,” says Dr. O, as her patients call her. That means drinking clear fluids — especially water — and eating foods that are close to nature. You can get most of the pieces you need in your diet for good health from colorful vegetables, including fiber.
Avoid simple sugars they best as you can; they stun the immune system. “Each handful of berries you give your children is one less Twinkie, it’s a positive step.”
Cigarette smoking depletes vitamins and decreases natural immunity. “You need to cut back, smoke less and what you do smoke should be natural, or if packaged smoke American Spirits,” Dr. O says. “Make up for the extra cost by smoking less.”
Vitamin D, produced naturally in the skin by sun exposure, is critical to your immune system. Deficiencies are epidemic and darker-skinned people are more likely to have low levels. Depending on her patient’s lab assessments of their blood levels, she generally recommends 2,000 to 4,000 iu daily of D-3.
Probiotics support healthy gut bacteria, a barrier between you and the outside world. One 2009 study found regular use of probiotics reduced children’s cold and flu symptoms. Another found probiotics helped elders get more immunity from flu vaccines. Buy probiotics as supplements – acidophilus is one, and find them in traditionally fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee and uncooked miso.
Herbal steams are an old and effective tradition for any respiratory infection: Mix herbs with boiling water in a bowl and cover for a minute with a towel. Drape the towel over your head and the bowl, close your eyes and breathe the steam through nose and mouth into your nasal passages, throat and lungs to loosen mucous, strengthens mucus membranes, and disinfects your passages. Repeat as needed.
“You can use thyme, pine needles, cedars, eucalyptus, and chaparral. Orange peels can be effective too, but wash them well before using,” Dr. O says. “Talk to the Elders, they often know what’s best to use in your location. It could be herbs from the place your grandparents called home, or you may have a grandma in your head; listen to whose voice is louder.”
Lomatium and osha root are best taken as tea, tincture or by chewing on the root directly. “When you take it internally, you’re taking in the volatile oils. They want to volatize, spread out. They go into the bloodstream, their aromatics bubble out into and through your lungs and mucus, disinfecting.” Think of the flu as leaving junk stuck in your lungs, a perfect spot for breeding bacteria. Herbs move it out, disinfecting from underneath.
Garlic helps to fight many bugs that can make you sick, making it one of Dr. O’s favorites. Raw is best if your stomach tolerates it. Add a chopped clove or two, if you can, to any hot or cold food.
If you get sick in spite of these positive steps call your medical provider.
Home remedies Dr. O suggests for her patients include mustard plasters; to make your own grind yellow (or any) mustard seed and mix with water. Place a brown paper bag on your chest as a barrier, then smooth the mustard plaster on top. Use the plaster two to three times a day. How long you keep it on depends on your comfort level, but check frequently; if the skin starts turning red it’s time to take it off.
The next treatment, like the mustard plaster, moves blood and helps immune cells get to where they’re needed most. Wet a pair of cotton socks with cold water; wring them out thoroughly. Put on well-warmed feet, cover with a pair of dry wool socks and get into a warm bed for the night. You can also do this with a cotton t-shirt and wool sweater.
Bottom line, Dr. O says, is it’s the simplest things that help the most: Eat simply. Exercise moderately. Get plenty of rest. Drink water. Cover your cough. Wash your hands. Get outside and breathe clean air. And find some way to cultivate joy in your life every day. “This is traditional medicine, the best memory of the traditional medicine. It’s practical, it empowers people.”