Cold & Flu Myths & Mantras | Health | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Cold & Flu Myths & Mantras 

Break out the Kleenex: It's cold and flu time. For now, we might be stuck with the pesky viruses that were imported to the New World by European settlers. But whether or not we're stuck with the legends and folklore surrounding cold and flu season remains to be seen. With the help of experts, I've set out to debunk a few oft-repeated adages and centuries-old myths. It turns out that there's no simple answer in most cases—and that modern science's efforts to find a cure for the common cold are nothing to sneeze at.

Feed a cold, starve a fever.

The origin of this popular health axiom is unknown, but some trace it back to the 16th-century, when British lexicographer John Withals wrote, "Fasting is a great remedie of feuer." In those days, the prevailing wisdom dictated that you treat a cold by stoking the inner fires of the body with food, and conversely, that you cool a fever by cutting off your caloric fuel supply. In the same era that produced this thinking, bloodletting was considered a viable medical procedure. So is the saying pure folklore? Perhaps not. A small study conducted by Dutch scientists in 2002 found that eating a meal can actually boost the immune response that fights a cold virus, while reducing food intake can turn on the body's defenses against the bacterial infections that cause most fevers. Like many novelty studies, this one spawned a few cutesy, sound-bite news mentions but wasn't exactly considered High Science's final word on the subject.

A better rule of thumb might be "listen to your body," says Lauren Vigna, MD, a family care physician in Highland. "It's easier to pay attention to your body's natural signals when you have a cold or a flu," she says. "When you're well, you automatically eat meals because they're part of your schedule. But when you're at home sick in bed and you're off that routine, then you're forced to look inward and see, 'Do I need food, do I need liquid?'" Vigna acknowledges that the feed-starve adage does have an aura of truth to it. "When you have a fever you're probably not going to want to eat so much anyway," she says. "Your body's working harder to keep up its immunity, and digestion takes a back seat." Yet you'd be ill advised to take the dictate too far, justifying cold-turkey fasting for a fever, or worse, pigging out as a misguided antidote to a case of the sniffles. "There's no need to overeat when you have a cold. Eating normally is fine if you're tolerating it and have an appetite." Specifically, this is not the time to pack away the candy bars. "Sugar is a detriment to the immune system, so avoiding that when you're sick is pretty key," says Vigna.

Chicken soup is the best medicine.

If you think this adage dates back no further than your Jewish grandmother, think again. In the 12th century, Rabbi Moses Maimonides extolled the health virtues of chicken soup in his text "Medical Responsa." The piety of the dish—a Sabbath meal—might have had something to do with its elevated medicinal status. Yet other cultures have spun their variations on the therapeutic repast, including Greek avgolemono (thick egg, lemon, and chicken-broth soup). Aside from one small study conducted in 1978—in which sipping hot chicken soup was found to increase the velocity of nasal secretions in healthy subjects—science has been largely reticent on the effectiveness of Jewish Penicillin. But what does that matter? "It works for most people," says Vigna. "Soup in itself is nourishing, and chicken soup mixes fat and protein—necessary for cell reparation—with a good blend of nutrients." Naturally, increasing liquid consumption is crucial for rehydration when you're sick, and the combination of steam for a stuffy head and heat to soothe a sore throat can work wonders. Regardless of what your Yiddish bubbe might say, however, chicken is not the active ingredient here; beans or tofu will do just as well for the protein component. Not to be overlooked, though, is the healing power of receiving a warm meal fed to you by someone else—homemade, preferably, for the ultimate TLC.

To prevent a cold or flu, toke up on Echinacea or vitamin C.

Is Echinacea an immune-boosting wonder herb or an overhyped pseudo-cure? Depending on which studies you read, you'll find evidence for either classification. "I think it's effective in general," says Hillary Thing, an Accord-based herbalist and acupuncturist. "Some people have done meta-analyses of hundreds of studies, and the overall conclusion is that Echinacea is helpful in potentially preventing and also shortening the duration of viral and bacterial illnesses." Thing theorizes that the clinical trials have produced wildly different verdicts about the herb for a couple of reasons. One is that Echinacea might wage a powerful defense against certain strains of virus, but might be less effective against others. More important, she adds, "Sometimes the dosing is not high enough in studies that are dubious about Echinacea. This is a big point about using herbs: You want to take a lot of them, a high dose, for a short period of time." Thing recommends a dropperful (or half teaspoon) of Echinacea tincture every couple of hours at the onset of cold or flu symptoms. This way, the herb can inundate the system and stay active in the bloodstream. Happily, overdosing is not a worry with cold and flu herbs. "They're very safe and can be taken by all kinds of people, even if they're on other medications."

Another object of both adoration and derision in cold and flu science is vitamin C—championed by Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize-winning American chemist. In 1970, Pauling exalted the vitamin's effects in preventing and alleviating cold and flu symptoms, basing his claim on the positive results of a placebo-controlled trial that he conducted on schoolchildren in a skiing camp in the Swiss Alps. Since then, popping chewable vitamin C tablets has become a cold-season ritual. Yet subsequent studies on the vitamin's effectiveness have produced mixed results. In meta-analyses of more than 30 clinical trials that have included over 10,000 participants, researchers have observed no difference in the severity of colds contracted during vitamin C supplementation. On the brighter side, they have noted a small yet statistically significant reduction in the duration of the illness. So it seems that Pauling wasn't entirely off base—though perhaps a bit overzealous regarding the size of the vitamin's benefit. Meanwhile, both Vigna and Thing are optimistic about vitamin C as a cold defense—"especially at a higher dose than might be normal, at least a 1,000 milligrams a day," says Thing.

Meanwhile, both experts recommend taking a supplement that most of us don't always associate with cold and flu season: vitamin D. Deficiency in vitamin D—common in as many as three-quarters of Americans—can leave one susceptible to a host of ailments, from colds and flus to osteoporosis and even cancer. "I recommend it daily to support your immune system," says Vigna.

You lose most of your body heat through your head.

We can thank the US Army for generating a myth that is so beloved among the maternal set. In the 1950s, the military conducted a series of vaguely thought-out experiments to measure the loss of body heat in volunteers. They dressed their subjects in Arctic survival suits—without hats—and set them loose into the bitter cold. Since the soldiers' heads were the only exposed parts of their bodies, wonder of wonders, a good deal of heat escaped from their noggins. This prompted the Army to publish its "findings" in a survival manual, setting in motion the legend that the body can lose 40 to 45 percent of its heat through the head. In truth, the head doesn't give off any more heat than any other area of the body; because it accounts for about 10 percent of the body's surface, that's how much heat will escape from it when the entire body is unprotected. Yet the myth lives on, usually in a more exaggerated form: Claims of an 80 to 90 percent loss of body heat through the head are commonplace in the parlance of the day.

Yet despite its faulty logic, this little nugget of pseudoscience offers some sound advice. The head and face are in fact more sensitive to cold than many other parts of the body—so no matter the percentage of heat they hold, you'll simply feel warmer with those parts covered. And in cold and flu season, extra outerwear can only be a good thing. "Your body is working hard to keep its average temperature while you're outside in the cold," says Vigna. "So, yes—wearing a hat helps you to retain body heat. If you're sick on top of that, your body is working overtime; with a hat on, your body has spare time to do what it needs to do to get better."

We'll never find a cure for the common cold.

If you listen to the naysayers out there, you'll think that Western medicine has already hoisted a white flag of surrender to the various strains of rhinovirus. One of the major obstacles to finding a cure is the multifaceted nature of the ailment. A cold is not one disease but rather a syndrome brought on by multiple viruses—hence the difficulty in coming up with a silver-bullet vaccine or single cure. Also, colds and flus are moving targets; these viruses evolve quickly, developing resistances and outsmarting our best-laid plans. The antiviral medications we've come up with thus far simply aren't up to the challenge—and when we take them it's usually too late, as most antivirals are administered 24 to 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.

Yet some scientists are standing up to the sniffles—and they say we have a good chance of snuffing them out one day. "I believe that there will be a cure for the common cold," says Leo James, PhD, a lead researcher at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. In 2010 James and his team demonstrated for the first time that a cold virus can be destroyed by the body's natural defenses after it has entered the sanctum of a human cell—a task that was once considered an impossibility. James's team located a molecule within human cells called TRIM21, which antibodies use to fight viruses. "The potential for [a new class of] antiviral drugs comes in because this system of antiviral protection is one that we did not know existed," says James, who notes that this is only the beginning of a long road of research and, eventually, years of clinical testing. One day, the drippy nose might be a thing of the past. "We will all have to be patient," he adds, "but we will get there."


Lauren Vigna, MD, (845) 691-3627

Hillary Thing, LAC, Certified Herbalist, (845) 626-1228

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