Last year’s flu season was a doozy: It was dominated by a particularly aggressive strain called H3N2 — and twice as many people fell ill than usual, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deem 2017/2018 the most severe season in 15 years.
In response, scientists amped up their efforts to formulate a flu vaccine that can fell H3N2 more effectively. “But given the fact that viruses mutate rapidly, they’re notoriously difficult to predict from year to year,” points out Fred Pescatore, MD, an integrative physician based in New York City. “That makes it more important than ever to take steps that enhance the body’s natural ability to fight infection.”
Fortunately, several natural strategies have the study- proven ability to rally the immune system to amplify the body’s viral protection — and to lessen severity and recovery time if you do get sick. And since this season’s nasty viruses have already started making the rounds, experts suggest the following steps to help combat the flu (and the common cold too!) at any stage.
To Help Prevent Illness
Upping your intake of mushrooms bolsters your levels of lymphocytes, white blood cells that defend against viruses. “Polysaccharides in mushrooms stimulate the activity of these specialized lymphocytes that protect against viral invaders,” Dr. Pescatore explains.
To fend off infection, he advises tossing two servings of white button, portobello, or shiitake mushrooms into soups and salads and supplementing with 1,000 mg of a mushroom extract called AHCC each day throughout cold and flu season (which typically ends in late April). In one study, AHCC doubled white blood cell counts within one day — and Dr. Pescatore says this cuts flu incidence among his patients by as much as 50 percent.
To Combat Symptoms
Elderberry syrup can lessen the severity of cold and flu symptoms and help you recover faster. “The anthocyanins in elderberry syrup keep viral cells from reproducing,” explains Tasneem Bhatia, MD. “And it’s been shown to increase the production of proteins that help lymphocytes coordinate their attack against infection.”
To get the benefits, she suggests taking 1 Tbs. of the sweet syrup four times a day — a strategy that shortened the course of illness by four days in one study. And for an added assist, cook with garlic. Research suggests this dials down infection by 58 percent because compounds in the herb have antiviral properties.
To Prevent Reinfection
To re-energize your immune system after a bout of flu, Dr. Bhatia recommends enjoying fermented fare (such as 1⁄2 cup of sauerkraut, kefir, or kombucha) daily. “More than 70 percent of your immune system is found in the gut, and these foods supply the probiotic bacteria that recharge that system
after it’s done the taxing work of fighting an infection,” she explains. Indeed, researchers reporting in the British Journal of Nutrition found that boosting levels of probiotic bacteria reduced subjects’ annual sick days by 31 percent.
Also smart: See your friends. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh report that spending just 30 minutes of fun-filled time with people you care about each week reduces your odds of catching another viral illness by 67 percent.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.