Natural therapies and the flu–what does the evidence show?


The influenza virus

My previous post focused on the evidence of the flu vaccine and the prevention of the flu via the flu vaccine.  As the evidence consistently shows, the flu vaccine does not prevent flu transmission and/or prevent complications from the flu.  That is in addition to the historically very low match rates.  This is not my opinion; this is not marketing; this simply is what the evidence shows.  If you haven’t read that post and the evidence, I encourage you to stop and read the previous post on the evidence against the flu vaccine now.


If the the flu vaccine doesn’t prevent the flu, then how can you protect against the flu?  Do we simply run the immune system roulette table every cold/flu season?  How can you treat the flu if you are unfortunate to welcome the influenza virus into your home?  Is all hope lost in our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones against the cold and flu?


All hope is not lost.  Below, I list natural, evidence-based therapies to prevent the influenza virus invasion and treat the influenza virus if the invasion does occur.  The therapies listed are some of the more evidence-based therapies out there.  These therapies will also work well against the other encountered viruses so prevalent this time of year.



Vitamin D


Hippocrates said, “who ever wishes to investigate medicine properly should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year”.  No better example of Hippocrates quote than that of vitamin D.  Vitamin D levels show an inverse relationship to the cold/flu season.



Seasonal variation of 25(OH)D levels in a population-based sample of inhabitants of a small southern German town, aged 50–80 years.

Cannell JJ et al in “Epidemic influenza and vitamin D” (see diagram to right) showed that Vitamin D levels reach their lowest levels during the winter months. .  Vitamin D levels drop by an average of 24% during the winter months.  If you already have low vitamin D levels in the summer, that average 24% drop during the winter months will decrease your vitamin D levels even more and will increase your susceptibility to the cold/flu season.


Vitamin D is preventative therapy for the cold/flu season. Vitamin D3 therapy has been shown to protect against the cold/flu season.  In the “Epidemic influenza and vitamin D” study highlighted below, 2,000 IU vitamin D3 daily versus 800 IU and placebo was shown to significantly reduce the incidence of the cold/flu.  That is just with 2,000 IU of vitamin D3. It has been my experience of 10+ years of Wellness medicine that 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 will only maintain further vitamin D decline.  Higher vitamin D therapy is required to increase vitamin D levels to optimal therapeutic levels.


In addition to being preventative, Vitamin D3 is active against ongoing infection.  A recent study in the Journal of Virology, revealed that vitamin D3 has anti-viral properties.  Because if its function in the innate immune system, vitamin D3 was suggested to be a “primary method of treatment against the cold/flu virus”.


Take home, Vitamin D is a proven anti-viral that works in the prevention and the treatment of the common cold and flu.



Adapted from: Aloia JF, Li-Ng M. Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiol Infect 2007;135:1095-1-96.











That is right, a healthy gut equals a healthy immune system.  In children with recurrent otitis media (middle ear infection), 24 weeks of probiotics versus placebo was shown to reduce recurrent respiratory infections.  Another study, revealed reduced otitis media recurrence in children given probiotics.  Still another study revealed a reduction in fever, rhinorrhea, cough, days of antibiotics, and school days missed in children given probiotics daily for 6 months versus placebo.


How?  The current thought is that bacteria and viruses use a “biofilm” protective layer.  This biofilm layer protects the virus or bacteria against the body’s immune system identification and attacks.  The biofilm layer allows the bacteria and/or virus to hide.  This biofilm layer also appears to protect the offending virus/bacteria against administered therapies.


We shouldn’t be surprised by the importance of the gut to the immune system.  It is estimated that 70% of the immune system is concentrated in and along the gastrointestinal system.   So goes the health of the gut, goes the health of the individual.  The wave of our knowledge of the relationship between the gut and the immune system is just beginning, so look for much more from the gut as our knowledge wave begins to crest.


Vitamin C


What do guinea pigs and people have in common?  They don’t make vitamin C.   That’s right, we humans don’t make vitamin C.  The only way the human body gets vitamin C is through the dietary intake of vitamin C.  As with vitamin D, the majority of us don’t take in enough dietary vitamin C.


Vitamin C therapy rose to prominence with Linus Pauling in the 1970’s.  Of course, no therapies will have all positive studies.  But vitamin C therapy has a large body of evidence supporting its use against the common cold and flu.  Linus Pauling was an advocate for vitamin C therapy as an anti-viral therapy in the treatment of the common cold and flu.  In this 1970 study, the incidence of colds were reduced by 45% and the duration of the colds were reduced by 63%.   High dose IV vitamin C therapy has been shown to reduce the symptoms of the common cold and flu by 85% in a study of  715 people.  And still another study showed that vitamin C reduced the incidence and the duration of cold symptoms.  A large  Cochrane review of vitamin C and the common cold found a reduction of both the severity and the duration of cold symptoms with vitamin C therapy.


Going even further, vitamin C has been shown to have many positive immunomodulatory effects.  A positive immunomodulatory effect will strengthen and improve the body’s immune system’s ability to protect against foreign invaders—in this case, the influenza and common cold virus.  A 2007 study by Wintergerst, Magginini, and Hornig discussed many of the positive immune effects of vitamin C.  And still another study in 2006 discussed the large body of evidence looking at the positive effects of vitamin C on the immune system. The benefits of vitamin C even reach beyond that with the common cold and flu, but to an overall immune boosting effect.


The immune enhancement effects of vitamin C should be evident over the long-term, not just the short-term.  A study out of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2006 showed no change in severity or incidence of the common cold, BUT a 66% decrease in 3 or more colds over a 5 year period was seen with doses of just 50 to 500 mg daily.  Vitamin C dosing of 50 to 500 mg  is very low dose.   This study points to the long-term positive immune enhancing and anti-viral effects of low dose vitamin C.




The combination of Elderberry and echinacea is my favorite when it comes to the prevention and therapy in the cold/flu season.  Elderberry, that is American elder, is a large deciduous shrub native to eastern and central North America.  Echinacea is a perennial flower of which there are several medicinal varieties: Echinacea Pallida, Echinacea Purpurea, and Echinacea Paradoxa.  The Elderberry and Echinacea herbal therapies have a long folk medicine history of stimulating the immune system and treating the cold/flu; however, the anti-viral evidence of the effectiveness of the Elderberry and Echinacea is short-term, limited and at times inconclusive.  The majority of the lacking evidence with these therapies is through the lack of number of studies and in-vivo studies.  It is one thing to show anti-viral activity in a petri dish; it is quite another to do so in a human.


That being said, a 2015 study out of the Czech Republic, may be the beginning of the end in closing the chapter on this book.  This study was a multi-site (29 general medical practices), randomized, double-blind study of 473 patients ages 12 to 70 with early clinical influenza symptoms.   All patients that presented and included in the study with clinical influenza symptoms were evaluated and confirmed for the influenza virus virologically.  The patients included in this study were laboratory confirmed patients with the flu.  The study compared the drug Tamiflu to a “Echinaforce Hotdrink” that consisted of a combination of Elderberry and Echinacea purpurea.  The results are quite astonishing.  The Elderberry and Echinacea “hot drink” out performed Tamiflu at each day of treatment (see figure below).  Overall, the Elderberry and Echinacea “hot drink” outperformed the prescription drug Tamiflu in symptom resolution, equaled tamiflu in time to recovery, had a significantly lower side effect profile (see second figure below) and all this at a fraction of the cost.


Proportion of patients with alleviated influenza symptoms in the per-protocol group (n = 420). A total of 9.9% did not respond to Echinaforce Hotdrink (A. Vogel Bioforce AG, Roggwil, Switzerland) treatment in comparison to 15.2% who did not respond to oseltamivir treatment until Day 10.


Occurrence of complications accompanying use of Echinaforce Hotdrink (A. Vogel Bioforce AG, Roggwil, Switzerland) and oseltamivir treatment.





Homeopathy goes back to the 18th century with Samuel Hahnemann MD.  In fact, it probably goes back even further.  Hippocrates (400 BC) was quoted as saying “through the like, disease is produced and through the application of the like, it is cured”.  This is quote by Hippocrates is the same general concept behind Homeopathy.  Homeopathy works by helping the body to heal itself first (novel concept), before employing the powerful interventions of today’s therapies. These powerful interventions come with powerful side effects.

Homeopathy is much maligned by traditional medicine today.  Why?  Tough question with no a real good reason.  Advocates against homeopathy would point to lack of evidence.  The evidence is lacking on many homeopathy regimens.  However, there is scientific evidence to support some homeopathies—see Arnica.  For advocates of homeopathy, the healing medical model of homeopathy fits the Hippocratic oath well— “First, do no harm”.


Homeopathy has been shown to be an effective addition to the treatment and prevention of the cold and flu.  Homeopathy was shown to reduce the infection rate of cold/flu viruses by 20-40%.  Long waits to see the doctor are very common in Europe and now US and one study showed that homeopathy effectively reduces URI symptoms in children versus a waiting-list control.  And finally, in a head to head study, homeopathy was shown to be more effective and had lower complication rates than antibiotics in children with recurrent acute rhinopharyngitis.




I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the mediterranean favorite Garlic.  Garlic is more than just for the culinary-minded kitchen.  Garlic is a key component for any natural medicine cabinet.   Garlic has powerful anti-bacterialanti-parasitic, anti-fungal,  and anti-viral activity.


This post is not about the wide-spectrum activity of Garlic, but specifically the effects against the common cold and the flu.  As with all natural therapies, the evidence available through studies is sparse (significantly sparse in review of garlic) and inconclusive due to that same lack of volume of evidence.   Why?  High quality studies are expensive and profit margins on natural therapies are low compared to traditional pharmacologics.


Despite the limited evidence available on garlic’s activity against the common cold and the flu, there is favorable evidence for garlic.  A Cochrane review in 2014  of Garlic and the common cold found that daily garlic reduced the incidence of the common cold and shortened (not statistically significant) the length of the cold symptoms over a 3 month time period compared to placebo.   Though daily garlic did not prevent the common cold, it did decreased the incidence and the duration of the common cold.  Another study found 64% fewer colds and a 70% reduction in cold duration with high dose allicin extract.  Allicin is one of the anti-viral components in garlic.  This is different than taking garlic itself.


There are no studies that have shown that garlic will prevent or reduce the incidence of the flu.  Similar to the common cold, a few studies have shown that garlic will reduce the severity and duration of the flu.


 So what is the value of wellness?  It sure isn’t provided through the flu vaccine or Tamiflu.  Wellness is working with your body and allowing your God created body to guide therapy and heal itself.   Your body wants to protect and heal you.  Why not give it a chance first?


No one therapy, whether traditional or natural, can provide 100% protection against the common cold and flu.   That applies to traditional and natural therapies.  There is still much scientific debate about the efficacy of many natural and traditional therapies.  The evidence on many natural therapies  is clearly limited as highlighted with garlic.  Compare the limited outcomes for some of the natural therapies to more voluminous evidence for traditional therapies and the natural therapies are equivalent to even out perform standard therapies (see prior post on the flu vaccine).   However, these 5 natural recommendations (many other therapies not mentioned i.e. oregano) have been shown, through scientific evidence, to be worthy preventative and therapeutic tools, with limited to no side effects, for this and future cold and flu seasons.


Sorry about the length of this post.  But  when it comes to your health, a thorough review and discussion of the scientific literature  of natural therapies for the common cold and flu is necessary to provide confidence in the face of uninformed opponents.


To your Health and Wellness.

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