Beat the Cold and Flu Season

Graeme Bradshaw shows you how to strengthen immunity and stay healthy

It's that time of the year again—coughing, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes. Colds and flu are in the air. It can be tricky to stay healthy during the cold and flu season. IMI Founding Director Graeme Bradshaw gives you practical advice to protect yourself and family.

Colds and influenza are common infections that affect the upper respiratory tract, including the nose and throat. They are caused by several different types of viruses such as rhinovirus, influenza and adenovirus. These viral infections are usually transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes and spreads contaminated droplets through the air.

Living in a city like Hong Kong, where we come into contact with many people each day, we are constantly exposed to all these viruses constantly. But why is it that some of us will catch a cold or flu while others don't?

"The strength of your immune system is an important factor in your vulnerability to cold and flu," says Graeme. "Boosting your immunity is the key in staying healthy during the cold and flu season."

Strengthening Immunity

There are simple steps you can take to give your immune system a boost.

"First, make sure you sleep at least 7 hours a night," advises Graeme. A good night's rest allows your body to keep up its defense. "Studies show that adults who sleep less than 7 hours per night are 3 times more likely to develop a cold than those who sleep more."

The immune system also needs certain nutrients to be strong and fully functional. New research suggests that one of the most common causes of a weakened immune system for children and adults alike is a vitamin D deficiency. A recent study showed that those who are deficient in vitamin D have nearly twice the frequency of colds over the winter months!

"Vitamin D is unique in that it is not possible to get adequate amounts from our diet," explains Graeme. "You can get enough vitamin D if you expose your face, arms and legs to the sun, without sun cream, in mid-day, for about 20 minutes every other day. As many of us do not do this I advise vitamin D3 supplements, and 1,000IU daily is the usual effective dose to optimize immunity."

So if you, like most people in Hong Kong, work inside an office building, or are worried about the health risks from the sun, getting vitamin D supplements could be the best choice.

A study published in the journal Paediatrics in August 2012 shows that vitamin D supplements lowers children's risk of respiratory infections. The study included nearly 250 schoolchildren in Mongolia with low blood levels of vitamin D during winter. Taking a daily vitamin D supplement reduced their risk of respiratory infection by half, the researchers said. People in Mongolia are known to be at high risk for vitamin D deficiency, especially during winter. The situation is not so different in Hong Kong, where 63% are deficient in the vitamin D [Ann Nutr Metab 2007;51:59-64].

The study's corresponding author Dr. Carlos Camargo, of Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that it provides "strong evidence that the association between low vitamin D and respiratory infections is causal and that treating low vitamin D levels in children with an inexpensive and safe supplement will prevent some respiratory infections."

The children in the study were given just 300 IU of vitamin D3 a day, which was higher than the recommended dose when the study began. The U.S. National Institute of Medicine now recommends a daily dose of 400 IU for children, while several pediatrician groups recommend daily doses of up to 1,000 IU for children at risk of vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin D supplements can be administered to children in liquid form. Simply drop some into a glass of milk, making it easy to get children to take.

What About Vitamin C?

Optimal doses of vitamin C, which is over 200mg can help to some extent, however, a dosage of 2,000mg daily only proved to reduce colds frequency by just 10% over winter. Also, Echinacea doesn't do well preventing colds either. Supplementing vitamin D is shown to perform better, if you are deficient in it.

If you are very stressed, vitamin C does work best. In six studies of marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers exposed to significant cold and/or physical stress experienced, on average, 50% reduction in common cold incidence. [Douglas (2005) Vitamin C for Preventing and Treating the Common Cold. PLoS Med 2(6): e168]

So don't write off high dose vitamin C during colds or flu if you are stressed, and taking higher doses is needed at times of stress. In this case, up to 2,000mg three times daily is recommended during the infection. Start as soon as the sneezing or sore throat kicks in.

It is possible to receive a mega-dose of vitamin C through Intra Venous therapy, and especially appropriate if you are very stressed and run down. Not many people want an IV dose of anything, let alone just for a cold or flu. But if you have a big presentation, or another flight to an important meeting overseas scheduled, 30 grams of vitamin C in an IV infusion, in my experience, can be very effective. Dr Liaw at IMI is experienced in giving vitamin C through IV therapy.

Going back to preventatives, next most important are the probiotics.

Probiotics, the Friendly Bacteria

The over reliance on antibiotics is also affecting our immune system. "Antibiotics destroy the good bacteria that inhabit our bodies," explains Graeme, "this in turn weakens our immunity and increases the chance of re-infections."

Probiotics—the good bacteria—lost from our system can be replenished. "As a naturopath, my concern is to reduce the frequency of colds and flu in patients," says Graeme, "using selected probiotics have been effective, and Lactobacillus reuteri is particularly potent."

International studies have found that Lactobacillus reuteri help immunity. When administered to school children, the supplement cut the number of school days they lost to sickness in a year by 50%. Other studies of office and in factory workers came up with the same finding, a reduction of infections, fevers and sick days by around half. It is not useful given during respiratory infections, however.

Lactobacillus reuteri was shown to reduce the incidence of fever in children by a staggering 70% in a child-care setting. (The authors state in Pediatrics. 2005 Jan;115(1):5-9 - "The Lactobacillus reuteri group, compared with another probiotic [BB-12] or controls, had a significant decrease of number of days with fever, clinic visits, child-care absences, and antibiotic prescriptions"). Graeme recommends to "put your child on this one if he or she get ill too often, and consider it for yourself too, particularly if your digestion is poor."


Essential vitamins such as A, C, E, and minerals such zinc and iron support a good immune system, while sugary food, especially soft drinks can suppress our immunity for hours.

Vegetables and fruits are major sources of vitamins and anti-oxidants. Graeme recommends a good diet made up of fresh fruits and vegetables and advises to buy organic foods as much as possible. "Organic foods have been found to have as much as twice the amount of anti-oxidants as non-organic."

Nutritionally valuable fruits include watermelon, mango, cantaloupe, kiwifruit, blueberries and strawberries. "Remember that whole fruit is better than juice, though freshly-squeezed juice does have benefits."

Graeme advises to drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated. "I recommend six to eight glasses of purified water daily and refrain from alcohol and high Caffeine drinks."

Decompress from Stress

Stress increases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which suppress the immune system. It is not uncommon for people to overcommit themselves in the months leading to the holidays and feel stressful. So don't forget to relax, get a long sleep when possible, and regularly engage in mindful activities such as meditation or yoga.

"A positive emotional state is important to a strong immune system," advises Graeme. Optimists have half the infections of pessimists. Looking on the bright side keeps us healthy!

If unfortunately you succumb to a cold or flu, homeopathy is probably the best alternative therapy. There is the simple herbal treatment from Elderberries, that can be provided as a herbal supplement. It reduces the duration of the regular flu from 7-8 days to just 4 days and with milder symptoms, according to studies.

So take good care of your mind and body and prepare your immune system for the cold and flu season. Make positive changes for your health and wellness, one step at a time. Some find the simplicity of taking supplements their preferred way, while others prefer a major life change including cleaning up the diet and undertaking detoxification.

Our dispensary staff can help you find the right supplements and products to strengthen the immunity for you and your family. For more comprehensive and individually tailored advice it is best to have a consultation with a naturopath.