An Integrative Approach for Treating and Preventing Colds and Flu


“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
L.M. Montgomery

I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t love October. My mom always said the sunsets in October are the best …. I agree with her!

October’s crisp temps and clean air put an end to the harsh, ruggedness of Summer.  The orange, red and yellow leaves of the season dot the landscape while the bright flavors and aromas of apples, grapes and pumpkins tempt our taste buds.    

Cold and Flu Season Begins

If you have any beef with October it may be because it marks the beginning of cold and flu season. To protect yourself from cold and flu, it’s wise to do the following:

Click here to read How Not to Get Sick This Winter and here to read Good Bye Flu Season – Get Your Healthy On!

But, despite our best efforts we sometimes get nabbed by the dreaded cold and flu bugs.  There are many cold and flu remedies on the pharmacy shelves but many contain artificial colors and flavors plus other unwanted ingredients and additives.

If you would prefer not to drink artificially colored cold or flu syrup, here are some integrative approaches you can keep in your medicine cabinet to help manage symptoms and shorten the duration of your cold or flu.

These approaches are evidence-based recommendations from integrative physician Tieraona Low Dog, MD, in her recent webinar An Integrative Approach to the Treatment of the Common Cold and Flu.

Artificially colored cold medicine not your cup of tea? Try these integrative therapies for cold and #flu treatment and prevention. #saslife Click To Tweet

Upgrade Your Medicine Cabinet with These Cold and Flu Treatments


Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry can provide significant activity against influenza, strep throat and bacteria that cause respiratory infections.  Elderberries and elder flowers contain several compounds thought to be active for antiviral, antimicrobial and immune priming effects.  Elderberries are safe when the berries are thoroughly cooked.  No adverse effects have been noted from elder flowers.

The leaves, seeds, stems and roots of the elderberry plant contain cyanide-inducing glycosides that can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body which can make you ill. Avoid these parts of the plant.  Inspect your elderberries carefully and remove any visible stems.

Some adults take 1 teaspoon of elderberry syrup daily for prevention during cold and flu season.

For rapid onset of cold or flu, take as instructed on the product label every 4 hours at the first sign of illness.

Check with your child's primary care provider before giving elderberry syrup to your child.

You can purchase Black Elderberry Syrup in some supermarkets, pharmacies and Whole Foods.  Gaia Black Elderberry Syrup and Sambucol Black Elderberry Syrup are two trusted brands.  In flu season 2018, many stores ran out of Black Elderberry Syrup so add some to your medicine cabinet early or make your own using the recipe below.


Two thirds of your immune system cells reside in your gut so taking steps to ensure that your gut microbiome is balanced is a great defense against illness.

Probiotic supplements and fermented foods increase the number of healthy microbes in your gut microbiome which helps boost immunity.  Some studies have shown a decrease in duration of upper respiratory infections (URIs) by approximately 2 days in adults and children who regularly consumed probiotics before and during their illness.

Dr. Low Dog recommends consuming probiotics daily during the Winter months and the months leading up to it.  The longer the duration of consuming probiotics, the better the immune protection.

You can obtain probiotics by daily consumption of fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut and Kim Chi), yogurt, natto, kefir and probiotic pickles and by taking an oral probiotic supplement.  Click here to read about Natural Sources of Probiotics.



Astralagus is an herb that is considered a beneficial plant for people with vulnerability in their respiratory tracts. Dr. Low Dog recommends Astralagus root during the Winter months for the prevention of colds and flu, however, she recommends discontinuing Astralagus if you get a cold or the flu as there are better herbs for treatment of these illnesses.

Astralagus is a “tongue depressor” shaped root that can easily be added to your diet like garlic and onions.  Simply cut 2 inches of the root into pieces and add it to soup or rice.  Cook on low heat for 15 – 20 minutes.


Zinc is critical for good immune response.  Studies have shown that zinc appears to be effective at reducing the number of colds per year.  Be sure to include plenty of high zinc foods in your diet regularly.

If you catch a cold, taking 60 – 80 mg of zinc daily for 5 – 7 days (administered within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms) can reduce the duration of common cold symptoms.   It’s best to take smaller doses throughout the day, like 5 – 10 mg every few hours, for better tolerance.

If you already take daily supplements containing zinc (ex. a quality multivitamin, an immune support supplement, etc.) include the zinc from those supplements in your 60 – 80 mg total for the day so you do not exceed 80 mg per day.

Discontinue high doses of zinc once your cold symptoms resolve.  Taking high doses (40 – 50 mg) for 3+ months could lead to copper deficiency.

Douglas Labs Zinc Lozenges is a reputable brand and provides 10 mg of zinc per lozenge.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an important modulator of the immune system.  Many people are vitamin D deficient, so Dr. Low Dog advises that you know your blood Vitamin D level. Dr. Low Dog advises a blood Vitamin D level of at least 40 ng/mL (most functional medicine providers recommend a blood Vitamin D level of at least 50 ng/mL).

Dr. Low Dog believes that most people can benefit from 2000 IUs of Vitamin D3 daily during the Winter months.  This is often provided in a high-quality multivitamin.  Higher levels are recommended for those with low blood Vitamin D levels.

Talk to your health care provider or nutritionist about your Vitamin D level and whether supplementation is right for you.  Other than supplementation, sunlight is the best source of vitamin D as food sources are not very abundant.  Click Here to learn dietary sources of Vitamin D.

Umcka (Umckaloabo) 

Pelargonium root (umckaloabo), known at Umcka, is a South African geranium species.  It has a widespread history of use for treatment of sinusitis, bronchitis and pharyngitis.  A recent meta analysis showed safety and efficacy for treatment of upper respiratory infections in children.

Nature’s Way Umcka ColdCare is a trusted brand.  Begin taking Umcka at the first sign of cold symptoms and follow the package instructions. Check with your child’s health care provider before giving Umcka to children under age 6.


Soothe Your Body and Soul with Homemade Chicken Soups

If you do get a cold or the flu, in addition to symptom treatment, be sure to get plenty of rest and drinks lots of fluids.  Here are some super yummy chicken soups you can make to comfort your body and soul.


If Symptoms Persist or Worsen 

These integrative therapies are suggestions for managing and preventing cold and flu symptoms.  If you need medication to treat your cold or flu symptoms, by all means, discuss your symptoms with your primary care provider and get appropriate treatment.


Source:  Low Dog, Tieraona, MD, An Integrative Approach to the Treatment of the Common Cold and Flu, February 2018.


Homemade Elderberry Syrup

Adapted from Eating Richly – Instant Pot Elderberry Syrup
Makes approximately 3 cups



4 cups filtered water
1 cup organic dried elderberries
1 Tbsp cloves
1 Tbsp fresh ginger root – peeled and chopped
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon orange zest
6 – 8 mint leaves - optional
1 cup local raw, unfiltered honey

How to Make Elderberry Syrup on the Stove Top

  • Put all ingredients except honey in a stainless steel pot on the stove top.
  • Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a low simmer.
  • Slowly simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour until mixture reduces by half (you should end up with about 2 cups of liquid – watch this carefully and keep heat low.)
  • Strain through a fine mesh strainer pressing on the elderberries with a wooden spoon or spatula until all the liquid is released.
  • Discard the elderberries and let the mixture cool to room temperature or < 115 degrees F before adding the honey (because heat destroys the beneficial enzymes in the honey).
  • Once cooled, stir in the honey and blend well.
  • Store in the refrigerator in a glass jar or bottle for up to 3 months.

How to Make Elderberry Syrup in the Instant Pot

  • Put all ingredients into Instant Pot except for the honey.
  • Close the Instant Pot with the valve in the “SEALING” position, then cook on manual pressure for 10 minutes.
  • Do a quick pressure release, remove the lid, and set to “SAUTE”.
  • Let it boil for about 10 minutes until the liquid is reduced by half (you should end up with 2 cups of liquid).
  • Pour through a strainer, mashing on the berries with a spatula until all the liquid is released.
  • Discard the elderberries and let the mixture cool to room temperature or <115 degrees F before adding the honey (because heat destroys the beneficial enzymes in the honey).
  • Once cooled, stir in the honey and blend well.
  • Store in the refrigerator in a glass jar or bottle for up to 3 months.


Dosing Instructions

  • For Children:
    • Check with your child’s primary care provider before giving Elderberry Syrup to your child.
    • It may be wise to stick with the standardized professional formulas like Gaia Black Elderberry Syrup and follow their recommended dosing instructions.  Gaia Black Elderberry Syrup has dosing instructions for children starting at age 1.
  • For Adults:
    • 1 teaspoon daily during cold and flu season.
    • If you develop cold or flu, 1 teaspoon every 4 hours.
    • If using standardized professional formulas like Gaia Black Elderberry Syrup, follow their recommended dosing instructions.

A Word of Caution About Elderberries

Most parts of the elderberry plant are poisonous except for the dried flowers and cooked or dried berries. Do not eat raw elderberries, raw flowers, stems, leaves, branches or roots of the elderberry plant.

Before using dried elderberries, inspect them carefully and remove and discard any visible loose stems or stems connected to the berries.

Since elderberry can boost the immune system, certain people should avoid consuming it.

Do not take elderberry if:

  • You are on immune suppressive drugs.
  • You have an autoimmune condition like M.S., Lupus, Hashimoto’s or Rheumatoid Arthritis.
  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Check with your health care provider if you have any concerns about elderberry.



About Author

Cathy Greer Mazanec, MPH, RDN, LDN

Cathy is the Senior Manager of Nutrition and Healthy Living Programs at SAS Institute Inc in Cary, NC. She is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, functional medicine nutritionist, blogger and food photographer. Cathy's specialties include integrative and functional nutrition, gut health, food allergies and intolerances and culinary nutrition. She is also a Certified Biofeedback instructor. An avid lover of the outdoors, Cathy spends her free time biking, golfing, kayaking, paddleboarding, sitting under the stars and spending time with her grandson. Follow @CmazanecRD on Twitter.

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