We are entering the season of viral upper respiratory infections when I am asked by patients and friends how to prevent and treat these annoying illnesses. Antibiotics are of no use for the majority of these respiratory illnesses as most are caused by viruses, rhinovirus and coronavirus being the most common. A recent meeting of experts of integrative holistic medicine discussed treatment options that make sense for all of us. Addressing your environment, immune system and emotional health may help treat the 3-4 upper respiratory illnesses most of us get in a year. Here are your goals:
Heal the mucous membranes by reducing and eliminating inflammation:
1) Dry air is the worst offender for cracks in our mucous membranes which are our first line of defense. Striving for optimal air quality is key, and what does that mean for us? Air that has a humidity level of 35% to 55%, a temperature of 65° to 85° F. Home-based methods for achieving optimal air quality exist and I've seen them at Bed Bath and Beyond, for example. While I'm not advocating everyone go out to buy these, if you are a frequent sufferer of respiratory illnesses it is worth a try. Options include negative-ion generators that do not emit ozone, an electrostatic or pleated furnace filter, and keeping the furnace, air ducts, and carpets clean, without the use of harsh chemical-based cleaning agents.
2) At a recent conference sponsored by the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine many experts recommended the use of warm-mist room humidifiers in bedrooms and offices, especially during the winter months. If you want to go green with this certain plants can also assist in cleaning the air, including those that remove formaldehyde (Boston fern, chrysanthemums, striped Dracaena, and the dwarf date palm), and carbon monoxide (spider plant).
3) As I have mentioned in previous blogs, other strategies for healing mucous membranes include staying hydrated, so how much water should you be drinking during the winter months? It is recommended we drink 0.5 oz of water per lb of body weight a day. It also helps to use a saline nasal spray with aloe vera or other anti-inflammatory herbs every 2-3 hours and some even recommend inhaling medicinal eucalyptus oil, and swabbing peppermint oil outside of both nostrils following use of the saline nose spray.
4) A new favorite remedy used by my patients is nasal irrigation which has been found to alleviate sinus and nasal symptoms. I don't feel strongly about one over the other but options include the SinuPulse, a pulsatile irrigation device that removes biofilm covering the mucous membrane, a neti pot or SinuCleanse, or squeeze bottle sinus rinses.
Strengthening or restoring your immune system
1) Exercise. I'm a broken record on this but let me say it again: 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three times a week, in addition to stretching and strengthening exercises will help strengthen your immune system.
2) Inflammation increases free radicals, so fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fiber, and protein will help you out.
3) Get enough sleep! At least 7 hours of sleep (see my previous blog on sleep) is the most overlooked key to overall well-being and a strong immune system. A lack of sleep will result in more colds and sinus infections. Period.
4) I read something interesting from an expert in the field of Integrative Medicine, Dr. Ivker, who recommends "emotional exercises" that strengthen immune function. These include practicing "safe" anger release techniques such as pounding one's fists on a pillow or punching bag, screaming, laughing, crying, and writing in a journal. A 1999 JAMA study on asthma patients found that writing about stressful experiences had a favorable impact on symptom reduction (JAMA 1999;281:1304-9).
Is fungus or Yeast (Candida) Playing a Role?
1) We don't have a consistently reliable test for fungal sinusitis and though this is not the issue for most of us, with challenging and recurrent cases of sinusitis we should think about this. Patients with suspected fungal sinusitis or Candida/yeast overgrowth (those who don't respond to standard treatments and have recurrent episodes) should for the short term at least, avoid sugar, milk, and dairy products; fruits; vinegar; mushrooms; alcohol, bread and other foods that contain yeast or wheat.
2) I know, what are you supposed to eat? After 3 weeks, you can start to introduce non-gluten grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and millet, and if the elimination of the above listed foods doesn't help you at all then don't continue with it.
Look at the whole picture. Address the mental, emotional, spiritual, and social causes.
1) Members of Dailystrength know this to be true: social connections play a role in good respiratory health. A study that is often quoted to support this idea was a 1984 study of medical students who were tested at final exam time, those who scored high on the Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale and the UCLA Loneliness Scale had significantly lower levels of natural killer cell activity, 90% lower interferon gamma levels, and lower T-cell responsiveness, compared with those with low-scale scores (Psychosom. Med. 1984;46:7-14).
2) Findings from another study demonstrated that among caregivers of dementia patients, social connectedness correlated directly with immune function. Caregivers reporting the fewest social connections had more upper respiratory infections and decreased immune responsiveness, compared with those who had the greatest number of social connections (Psychosom. Med. 1991;53:345-62).
3) I saw just yesterday in the Los Angeles Times a study about social connections and happiness that showed while a sibling less than 2 miles away who was happy was more likely to make you happy a NEIGHBOR who is happy makes you 36% more likely to be happy. Love thy neighbor.
Let's see if you can get this right, during the viral upper respiratory illness season, stay hydrated, eat right, get some sleep, and stay connected but please please wash your hands.