The Cold Remedy That Actually Works

Is a root used in ancient Chinese medicine really the most effective way to stop the cold or a flu?
Is a root used in ancient Chinese medicine really the most effective way to stop the cold or a flu?Kristin Duvall / Getty Images

Cold and flu season is not over yet. Some of the nastiest upper respiratory infections and knock-out influenza viruses strike in March. There's not a whole lot you can do to help your body battle these viral infections. Cough syrups and cold meds may help you feel better temporarily, but they don't help you recover any faster and they often cause brain fog and fatigue. Ibuprofen and other OTC painkillers may even prolong influenza. Even zinc and vitamin C are looking more like urban legend, as studies suggest neither supplement does much of anything to help you recover from a cold or flu.

But there is one remedy that really does seem to help ease cold and flu symptoms, based on both our experience and what science says — astragalus root. Yes, an herb with a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine.

"Astragalus has been found to have both antiviral and immune-enhancing properties," says Dr. Randy Horwitz, medical director at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. "Research shows that the 50 or so different compounds in astragalus work by stimulating immune cells, such as T cells, phagocytes, and macrophages, to fight off disease. In Asia, it's even given to cancer patients."

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According to Horwitz, there's a good amount of research to demonstrate astragalus's benefits for colds and flus — just not large placebo-controlled trials. "The problem botanicals have is they don't get the backing of big drug companies, which usually fund the multimillion-dollar human studies," he explains. "You can't test every botanical, and so unless a company wants to isolate a botanical compound for use in a drug, they rarely get tested in large human trials."

But that doesn't mean astragalus isn't effective. Because it's been used successfully in Asia for centuries and plenty of animal and in vitro studies have proven it has immunomodulating effects, Horwitz often recommends the herb to his patients suffering from colds and flus.

In most cases, he suggests trying astragalus when symptoms first start coming on. However, taking it daily during cold and flu season may also give you better odds of staying healthy. "If there's a lot of flu going around in your area, then sure, take it daily for a while," Horwitz says. "But with many compounds, it's common to build up a tolerance if they're taken regularly, so it's best to reserve astragalus for when your body may really need it." In other words, don't take it year-round. Besides, it isn't good to keep your immune system revved up all the time, Horwitz adds.

With astragalus, as with any herb, it's tough for doctors to recommend a specific dosage. Herbs can vary wildly in potency depending on where and how they were grown, what part of the plant you're using, and how it's prepared. If you buy whole astragalus root from an Asian market, Horwitz suggests slicing some into chicken soup or using it to make tea. You might have to tinker with how much you use. And if you purchase prepared astragalus capsules or a tincture from health food stores, Horwitz says to follow the dosage instructions printed on the label.

Finally, while you might find astragalus helpful, don't mistake it for a magic cure-all. "People often come to integrative medicine thinking we're hiding the magic bullet, but that's just not the case," says Horowitz. "Certainly, some herbs can help, but you can do more for your health by exercising regularly, eating well, and getting a good night's sleep. Use botanicals only to supplement healthy lifestyle habits."

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