Dr. Tereza Hubkova: How not to catch a cold - or at least not as often

Most Americans catch two to four colds per year (children slightly more), but there is a lot you can do to minimize the risk.

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I love the changing seasons and all the fun one can have in the snow, but it is no fun sitting at home with a cold. Most Americans catch two to four colds per year (children slightly more), but there is a lot we can do to minimize the risk.

Keeping your immune system strong is an obvious starting point. Unfortunately, many of us suppress our immune system by eating too much sugar (and processed food in general), being overwhelmed by stress and not getting enough sleep.

Regular exercise, spending time in nature, and stocking up on vitamin D through responsible exposure to sunshine are all important to keep you healthy.

Thousands-of-years-old Chinese medicine recommends keeping your Qi strong in the cold months by dressing up warmly — especially keeping your feet and lower back warm — as well as protecting yourself from "wind" by keeping your upper back and neck warm. While intuitive to me, I can't convince my 6-year-old to wear socks and zip up her jacket, which results in frequent opportunities to then test the various treatments for a cold that was not warded off.

One my favorite immune boosters are probiotics.

The friendly microbes living nearly everywhere in our body play an enormous role in educating our immune system and protecting us from "enemies." They produce their own antibiotic, anti-fungal and antiviral compounds capable of fighting against microbes like staph, strep and even many viruses.

Simply put, you are their home, they want to live in a good neighborhood and will do everything to protect it from unwelcome invasions. In one study published in the August 2009 issue of Pediatrics, children, ages 3 to 5, who were given a combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis (5 billion units of each — about three yogurts worth of friendly probiotics) from November to May had 73 percent less fever, 62 percent less cough, 59 percent less runny nose, and also reduced the duration of symptoms by 48 percent.

Popping probiotics with prebiotics for two weeks after your child, husband or wife starts looking sick lowers your risk of catching it. And if you get sick anyway, the cold will likely be milder and shorter, according to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016.

One billion of Streptococcus salivarius daily for three months reduced viral throat infections by an impressive 80 percent and streptococcal infections by a whopping 96 percent.

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Not all probiotics supplements are created equal, however. Frankly, the unregulated world of supplements is a bit of a Wild West, so use the guidance of a trusted professional (most good quality probiotics tend to be refrigerated). You can also get probiotics through lacto-fermented foods, like kimchi or sauerkraut, yogurt or kefir. My German language teacher shared with me once how her family survived the Second World War on a barrel of sauerkraut. Rich in vitamin C and probiotics, sauerkraut must have been more valuable in those times than gold. So, what is the evidence on vitamin C? Downing vitamin C supplement seems to cut the risk of a cold by half in people who are physically active outdoors in the colder climates, such as skiers, marathon runners and military. In others, it can still shorten the cold and make it milder. As with most vitamins, taking a pill may be different than getting it through real foods, the latter being harder to study. But from all I've read (and what my intuition tells me), food usually trumps the pills.

Most colds are caused by viruses, so don't expect or request antibiotics from your physician each time you have a sore throat or runny nose. Antibiotics can save your life if you have pneumonia or another serious bacterial infection, but they don't kill viruses. Not only will antibiotics not help with the common cold, they may be harmful in the long run. Antibiotics hurt the good bacteria in our body and thus, paradoxically, impair our immune system and increase our risk of future infection (and other diseases). Previous exposure to multiple antibiotics has been associated with increased risk of subsequent ear infection, upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, diabetes, asthma, depression, anxiety and even some cancers. Sure, association is not causation, but antibiotics used to be handed out like candy for far too long, and the far-reaching harms of that (including creating monstrous, multiple antibiotic-resistant superbugs) are now undeniable.

Since dairy thickens mucous, I usually recommend avoiding milk, cheese and butter during colds — or in anyone prone to colds, sinus issues or allergies. On the other hand, many herbs and spices are anti-bacterial and anti-viral and should be used daily. Ginger, cilantro, thyme, cinnamon, horseradish, oregano, turmeric, garlic — those are a few of my own favorite kitchen staples. I like infusing apple cider vinegar with many of these herbs — which herbalists call fire cider. Recent studies seem to confirm the anti-inflammatory properties of this folk medicine. Speaking of folk medicine, good chicken soup has at least five professional articles backing up its medicinal qualities. And then there are plants like echinacea, astragalus, elderberry, andrographis, and many other. True, not all studies show benefit, but some do. (Which, by the way, is true to many routinely recommended medications). They work for some, and not for others.

My 6-year-old is not too keen on garlic or horseradish, but she happily volunteers for another natural antimicrobial — raw honey. Half a teaspoon of honey at bedtime improved cough frequency and severity, as well as sleep quality in 59 percent of children — better than many over-the-counter cough medications, like dextromethorphan (Robitussin), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and better than placebo. Other bee products, like propolis and royal jelly, are regaining their centuries-old popularity as anti-microbial resistance soars and we look for other solutions to bacterial infections. Moreover, studies of bee products often show equal or better effect of this ancient medicine compared to several prescription antibiotics.

I think it is evident that a healthy lifestyle and natural remedies should be your best friends, and not only in winter. We have a responsibility to pass on healthy habits and stewardship of our planet to our children so future generations can enjoy good health, and not just rely on popping pharmaceuticals — whether it comes to colds or many other conditions. But that will be a topic of another column.

Stay healthy and see you around.

Dr. Tereza Hubkova is an integrative specialist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, where she has worked since 2008.