Category Archives: common cold


Natural Treatments for the Common Cold

Cold and flu season is upon us, meaning that 1 in 5 of us are currently suffering with the telltale coughs, sore throats and congestion. Those who feel run down with these symptoms more than a couple of times each year would do well to boost their body’s defences and take natural measures to ease symptoms.

Read on for the top three ways to support your immune system and stay fighting fit this winter.

The Perils of the Party Season

Colds spread quickly in winter, as we tend to congregate indoors in large groups. This means that we need to take special care to protect ourselves against infection.

Two well-known ‘anti-nutrients’, which deplete our immune defences, are found everywhere during the party season – sugar and alcohol. Both sugar and alcohol deplete levels of immune boosting nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and selenium. Eating or drinking 8 tbsp of sugar, the equivalent of a couple of mince pies and a hot chocolate drink, can reduce the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by forty percent. Alcohol also suppresses the ability of white blood cells to multiply, meaning that infection can take hold more easily.

Avoiding sugar and alcohol completely can be hard during the party season, but a couple of simple measures will help protect your immune system. Try eating a high protein snack before a party, to reduce sugar cravings later on. Keep alcohol intake to no more than two drinks each day.

Prevention is Better than Cure

The immune system is dependent upon a whole host of nutrients to keep it functioning optimally. However, there is one particularly critical nutrient which tends to be lacking in winter months. Vitamin D levels begin to fall in October as the days get darker. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that daily vitamin D supplementation should reduce the risk of colds and flu, especially in the winter months (1).

It is difficult to obtain adequate vitamin D from food sources, meaning that supplementation is normally recommended. Public Health England recently advised that during the autumn and winter, all children and adults should be taking supplements with ten micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D daily.

Fighting the Virus

If a cold has already taken hold, there are some effective ways to lessen its duration and reduce the severity of symptoms.

Recent studies have found that probiotic bacteria have immune boosting benefits. They have natural antibiotic properties, and they help to boost the activity of white blood cells which fight off the cold virus. Taking a probiotic supplement has been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold by two days. Probiotics also appear to reduce the severity of symptoms and the incidence of fever. They are also considered safe and beneficial for children. Children taking probiotics are also less likely to suffer with fever, coughing and congestion, and have fewer days off school due to illness. The types of probiotic found to be most helpful are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium (2,3).

Other studies have found zinc to be useful in fighting cold symptoms, with zinc lozenges proving particularly useful in reducing cold symptoms and the duration of illness (4). During an infection, zinc is used by the body to activate lymphocytes, to attack and kill the cold virus. Zinc deficiency impairs cell-mediated immunity, meaning that viruses can take hold and multiply more easily.

While there is no cure for the common cold, there are certainly ways to boost your natural defences, and to quicken your road to recovery. Keeping your immune system fighting fit can help to ensure that you enjoy a happy and healthy festive break.

1. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. BMJ 2017;356:i6583
2. Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics 2009;2008-2666
3. Probiotics for prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections in children. Med 2016 95(31):e4509
4. Zinc gluconate lozenges for treating the common cold. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Ann Intern Med 1996;125(2):81-88


Are you allergic to winter?

The cold winter months can actually increase allergic symptoms in some people, spelling months of misery. Summer allergies are often spotted and tackled early by sufferers. Winter allergies however are less well-known, and are often mistaken for colds or flu, meaning that they are not dealt with effectively.

For those who suffer during the colder months, it is important to know the difference between an allergy and a cold, to understand the most common triggers and to take action to eliminate the troublesome symptoms.

Spot the difference! Is it an allergy or a cold?

Is it just a common cold or is it an allergy?

Many people believe that they are suffering with a common cold when in fact they are experiencing allergy symptoms. After all, coughing, sneezing and a runny nose can be symptoms of either ailment. However, a cold should not last more than 10 days. If your symptoms persist over weeks or months, then it is far more likely that you are suffering with an allergy. Other allergy symptoms include itchy eyes or nose, watery eyes and dark circles under the eyes.

Winter allergy triggers

Spending more time indoors, with the heating on full blast, can mean weeks of misery for allergy sufferers. Common allergy triggers during this time can be:

  • Mould. Moist conditions caused by indoor heating can lead to the growth of mould. Bathrooms and kitchens are particularly susceptible to this problem. Steamy showers in small bathrooms can also be a culprit. If you notice condensation on your windows during the cold weather, then look out for mould.
  • Dust mites. Ducted heating indoors encourages dust to circulate throughout the house. Extra bedding and long-stored winter clothing can also be a breeding ground for troublesome dust mites.
  • Animals. During the winter time, it is more likely that both you and your pet will spend more time indoors. Contrary to popular belief, allergies to pet fur are uncommon. It is more likely that you are allergic to certain proteins present in pet dander and saliva.

Winter Allergy Action Plan

There are a number of natural measures that may help to fight off persistent allergy symptoms at this time of year.

  • Vacuum and dust more often during the winter months.
  • Wash pillows and sheets in hot water every week.
  • Use allergy-proof covers on mattresses, pillows and duvets.
  • Natural nasal sprays such as those containing salt can lessen inflammation and help keep the nasal passages clear.
  • Watch out for mould, especially in moist areas such as the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Clean the filters in your air-conditioning and heater units.
  • Try an air filter to reduce allergens in your home.
  • Don’t assume sniffles are the result of cold viruses, especially if your symptoms last more than a couple of weeks. Check with your GP if you are unsure.
  • Anti-inflammatory nutrients and natural anti-histamines such as Vitamin C and omega-3 fish oils may be helpful. For allergic symptoms, I often recommend a combination of potent anti-inflammatory nutrients quercetin and bromelain. You should always check with your GP before taking any new supplements, especially if you are already taking prescribed medications.

Written by Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC.


Image courtesy of “evah” (Sebastian Smit).


Probiotics for the Common Cold

During winter, the common cold strikes 930,000 Britons on average. We probably catch more colds during this season because we spend much more time indoors, in close proximity. New Year’s Eve parties, January sales and family gatherings mean that we’re coming into physical contact with more people, leaving us susceptible to catching and spreading the common cold.

Probiotics may help prevent the Common Cold
Probiotics may help prevent Infections such as the Common Cold

While there is still no cure for the common cold, a recent analysis has found evidence for taking probiotics as a way of preventing the risk of infection (1). It seems that probiotics may improve health by regulating immune function.

The systematic review, conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration, analysed 10 studies involving 3451 participants. The study examined the evidence for probiotics as a way to prevent upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs).

In studies where probiotics were taken for more than a week, probiotics reduced the number of individuals who had at least one acute upper respiratory tract infection by 42%.

Side effects reported were minor, such as digestive discomfort, and were not any more common in those taking probiotics than in the control groups.

Probiotics may support the immune system by bolstering the health of the gut wall and boosting activity of phagocytes, white blood cells that fight infection.

When choosing a probiotic supplement, be sure to opt for one that uses well-researched strains. It is important that the probiotic strain that you use is capable both of surviving stomach acidity and ‘sticking’ to the gut lining.

I often recommend Optibac ‘For daily wellbeing EXTRA strength’ as this contains one of the most well researched strains, L. acidophilus NCFM. It is also FOS free, which can be useful for those who are worried about side effects such as bloating. Udo’s Choice Super 8 Probiotic also provides the strain L. acidophilus NCFM at an effective dosage.

Written by Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC


(1.) Hao Q, Lu Z, Dong BR, Huang CQ, Wu T. Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Sep 7


Aromatherapy could help the common cold and improve your sleep

Aromatherapy isn’t hocus pocus and it’s nothing to do with ‘hubble bubble toil and trouble’. It’s simply a natural practice of using natural plant oils and essential oils for psychological and physical wellbeing.

Lavender Aromatherapy
The calming and relaxing fragrance of Lavender aids a peaceful and natural sleep. (1)

Whether these oils are inhaled or topically applied there is an array of benefits to using aromatherapy that go way beyond simply having a nice smelling house.

Essential oils, which come from the pure essences of a plant or herb, have been found to have a number of psychological and physical benefits.  The term essential oil is used widely to include all natural, aromatic, volatile plant oils.

There is often much scepticism about aromatherapy but this is mainly due the fact that there are many products out there masquerading as essential oils but are merely perfume oils that contain synthetic materials and provide none of the benefits of true essential oils.  When purchasing your aromatherapy products it is vital to check the ingredients label.  Only choose products that contain no fragrance oils or un-pure and unnatural chemical components.  Look for products that contain pure essential oils.

Inhaling essential oils

Essential oils can be applied either topically or inhaled.  Inhaled directly into the lungs, essential oils can have a wide range of positive effects. When inhaling essential oils, not only does the aroma of natural essential oils simulate the brain, it can also have a number of therapeutic benefits.  For example, if you suffer from a cold or congestions, try inhaling eucalyptus essential oils to help ease your symptoms and get rid of that horrible bunged up feeling.

Topically applying essential oils

When essential oils are applied to the skin, they can be absorbed into the blood stream and depending on the oil you use, can have a number of benefits for health and beauty.  To apply powerful essential oils to the skin they must first be diluted into a carrier such as Sweet Almond Oil or Apricot Kernel Oil.  If you often have trouble sleeping try applying a lavender essential oil such as the PRIMAVERA Organic Lavender Sleep Therapy Roll On, direct to the temples, earlobes, wrist and chest.  The calming and relaxing fragrance aids a peaceful and natural sleep.

Other benefits of essential oils

There is a vast array of uses for essential oils that go way beyond the medicinal and physical benefits. They can be used in anything from home made household laundry cleaners to repelling mosquitoes and other nasty bugs.  Citronella essential oil is the marvellous ingredient in some of the most effective mosquito repellents on the market.

Find out more about the array of uses of some of our most popular essential oils in our new essential oils table of scents.


Written by Mike Pye


1.  Image courtesy of Simon Howden.


Pelargonium, a herbal remedy that may help relieve coughs and colds

Pelargonium (Pelargonium sidoides), also known as Umckaloabo or South African Geranium is a herbal medicine traditionally used to help relieve the symptoms of colds, coughs, sore throats, runny noses and other upper respiratory tract infections.  I have previously written about other nutrients which may be helpful for symptoms of the common cold so please read those posts for further advice.

Recently there have been some studies looking into the effectiveness of pelargonium.  In 2008 a review (1) of research evidence was published.  The paper wanted to assess the usefulness and safety of pelargonium for respiratory tract infections in children and adults.  The researchers found that there was evidence to suggest that the remedy might be useful for relieving symptoms of acute bronchitis in adults and children and sinusitis in adults and possibly symptoms of the common cold in adults.  The researchers called for further trials before any firm conclusions or recommendations could be made.

Acute bronchitis is one of the most frequent health complaints for which parents seek medical care for their children and the common treatment of acute bronchitis with antibiotics has been questioned because of concerns about the emergence of antibiotic resistance and only scant evidence of benefit (2).  Any alternative to antibiotic treatment is therefore interesting to review.

Since the review was published there have been further studies of pelargonium which have shown interesting results. Last year a study was conducted with 400 children aged 6-18.  The children received either 30mg, 60mg or 90mg of pelargonium or an inactive placebo daily.  The primary outcome criterion was the change in the ‘Bronchitis Severity Score’ (BSS) from day 0 to day 7.  The results showed that after 7 days of treatment the change in the bronchitis severity score (especially coughing and phlegm production) was significantly better in the children taking 60mg and 90mg of pelargonium compared with the placebo group.  Time of bed rest was also shorter in the 60mg and 90mg pelargonium groups.  The authors conclude that pelargonium “is effective in acute bronchitis outside the strict indication for antibiotics in 6-18 years old patients, with a dose of 60 mg or 90 mg daily offering the best benefit/risk ratio. EPs-7630 [pelargomium] significantly reduces the severity of symptoms, leads to a more favourable course of the disease and a faster recovery from acute bronchitis compared with the placebo, and is well tolerated”.

Pelargonium is approved for use in children older than one year of age in Germany as a first-line treatment of acute bronchitis.  It seems as though the herbal preparation has antibacterial and antiviral properties and may directly influence the immune system (2)

Another study published last year (3) looked at a group of over 400 adults with acute bronchitis who were given either a placebo or 30 mg, 60 mg or 90 mg of pelargonium daily for 7 days.  The researchers found that there was a statistically significant and clinically relevant improvement of patient health-related quality of life and patient-reported outcome in those individuals taking pelargonium, at any dose, compared to placebo.

Two (4,5) laboratory based studies which were published this year looked at the mechanisms by with pelargonium might be working.  One (4) found that the herbal medicine seems to prevent specific respiratory infection causing bacteria from binding to body cells i.e. it has anti-adhesive properties.  The other study (5) investigated the influence of pelargonium on a variety of respiratory viruses.  The researchers found that the herbal medicine interfered with the replication of a variety of viruses (such as seasonal influenza A virus strains (H1N1, H3N2), respiratory syncytial virus, human coronavirus, parainfluenza virus, and coxsackie virus).  However it was not effective against all viral strains.

More research studies in humans are needed but results so far for the use of pelargonium for the reduction of cold symptoms are interesting.  There are pelargonium supplements available to buy in the UK, such as this one.  You may wish to try taking the supplement at the start of a cold for a short period of time (up to 7 days) to see if it helps.  It is always worth checking with your medical doctor prior to taking any new supplement.  Please also read my other blog posts on the common cold for some nutritional ways which may help.  Having a healthy diet, rich in nutrients, will help to keep the immune system strong and functioning well. 

(1)Timmer A et al.  2008.  Pelargonium sidoides extract for acute respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 16;(3):CD006323.

(2)Kamin W et al.  2010.  Efficacy and tolerability of EPs 7630 in patients (aged 6-18 years old) with acute bronchitis. Acta Paediatr.  99(4):537-43.

 (3)Matthys H et al.  2010. [Pelargonium sidoides in acute bronchitis – Health-related quality of life and patient-reported outcome in adults receiving EPs 7630 treatment]. [Article in German].   Wien Med Wochenschr.  160(21-22):564-70.

(4) Janecki A et al.  2011.  Evaluation of an aqueous-ethanolic extract from Pelargonium sidoides (EPs® 7630) for its activity against group A-streptococci adhesion to human HEp-2 epithelial cells.  J Ethnopharmacol.  133(1):147-52.

(5) Michaelis M et al.  2011.  Investigation of the influence of EPs(®) 7630, a herbal drug preparation from Pelargonium sidoides, on replication of a broad panel of respiratory viruses. Phytomedicine.  18(5):384-6.

Written by Ani Richardson


Review study finds that zinc supplements may reduce the severity and duration of the common cold

Previously I have written about zinc and vitamin C in relation to the prevention and shortening of the common cold and I would recommend you visit this post for more information.  I have also written about probiotics, elderberry, vitamin D and a healthy diet in relation to the common cold 

Colds are caused by viruses and our susceptibility to these infections is largely dictated by the efficiency of our immune system.  A healthy diet providing our bodies with optimal nutrition may help to keep our immune systems strong and protect us from infection.  The symptoms of a common cold, such as a tickly throat, headache and runny nose, tend to last from a few days to a couple of weeks.  There is mixed evidence with regards prevention and treatment of colds with complementary health methods but a new review study (1) of 15 trials has found that taking zinc supplements in syrup, lozenge or tablet form within a day of symptoms starting can reduce their severity and shorten the length of illness.  Zinc is essential for the efficient functioning of the immune system.  Every cell in our body needs zinc.  This mineral has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body which may account for these effects.

The authors of the review study (1) write in their introduction that “the common cold is one of the most widespread illnesses and is a leading cause of visits to the doctor and absenteeism from school and work”.  The review set about looking at all the available information – trials that have occurred since 1984 investigating the role of zinc in the treatment of the common cold symptoms have had mixed results, the review was looking for clarification.

The authors of the study (1) looked for well conducted, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, trials using zinc for at least five consecutive days to treat, or for at least five months to prevent the common cold.   13 therapeutic trials (with 966 participants) and two preventive trials (with 394 participants) were included in the review.  The results showed that the intake of zinc is associated with a significant reduction in the duration and severity of common cold symptoms.  There was also a significant difference between the zinc and control groups (not taking zinc) for the proportion of participants still having symptoms after seven days of treatment .  The incidence rate of developing a cold, school absence and prescription of antibiotics was also found to be lower in the zinc group.

The authors conclude that (1)Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people. When supplemented for at least five months, it reduces cold incidence, school absenteeism and prescription of antibiotics in children. There is potential for zinc lozenges to produce side effects. In view of this and the differences in study populations, dosages, formulations and duration of treatment, it is difficult to make firm recommendations about the dose, formulation and duration that should be used”.

It is important to note that zinc supplements should not be used long-term due to concerns of toxicity.  Excessive amounts of this mineral can lead to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.  Scientists say that more work is needed to determine the exact dose of zinc required to prevent and treat the common cold.

There is no proven treatment for the common cold, but experts believe zinc medications may help prevent and lessen infections by coating the common cold viruses and stopping them from entering the body through the thin lining of the nose.  It also appears to stop the virus from replicating, at least in laboratory tests.   There is also the suggestion that zinc aids the immune system and may dampen down some of the unpleasant reactions the body has to an invading virus.


In a BBC news article the lead researcher of the review, Meenu Singh, said (2)This review strengthens the evidence for zinc as a treatment for the common cold”.  “However, at the moment, it is still difficult to make a general recommendation, because we do not know very much about the optimum dose, formulation or length of treatment.

According to trial results, zinc syrup, lozenges or tablets taken within a day of the onset of cold symptoms reduce the severity and length of illness.   At seven days, more of the patients who took zinc remedies every couple of hours during the daytime had cleared their symptoms compared to those who took placebos.   And children who took 15mg of zinc syrup or zinc lozenges daily for five months or longer caught fewer colds and took less time off school.

Editor in Chief of the Cochrane Library, David Tovey, said (2): “This is a treatment that is showing some promise which, where treating the common cold is concerned, is unusual”.   “Although there are many over-the-counter cold remedies already available, we are not awash with things that can stop cold symptoms or greatly reduce their severity”. “But there is still uncertainty about the best doses, timings and formulations and more studies will be needed to look at this.

Zinc lozenges and dissolvable tablets and drinks often contain vitamin C, another nutrient which some studies suggest may be useful in reducing the severity and duration of cold symptoms.  If you feel a cold coming on it may be useful to try sucking on a lozenge every three hours or so while symptoms persist.  However, more evidence will be needed before firm recommendations about dose and duration of zinc supplementation can be made.  It is important to check with a medical doctor prior to beginning any kind of supplement regiment.  Good food sources of zinc include red meat, poultry, beans, wholegrains, nuts and seeds as well as some seafood such as crab.  The zinc found in plants such as beans and wholegrains is more difficult for the body to absorb since it is bound up with substances known as phytates which reduce its bioavailability in the body.

(1)Singh M & Das RR.  2011.  Intervention Review.  Zinc for the common cold.  Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.  2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub3.

(2)Michelle Roberts.  2011.  BBC News.  Zinc can be ‘effective treatment’ for common colds.  16 February 2011.

Written by Ani Kowal


Study finds that a dietary supplement may help reduce the symptom severity of the common cold

Many people are experiencing the symptoms of the common cold this winter, sniffles, runny nose, sore throat, stuffy ears.  I have previously written about diet and dietary supplements for the prevention of the common cold however, investigations with supplements are, as yet, inconclusive and results inconsistent.  Having a healthy diet which provides the body with abundant nutrients may be helpful in the prevention of the cold since a good diet helps keep the immune system functioning effectively.

The common cold is the most frequent acute illness in industrialised societies (1).  It is a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract, caused by a variety of viruses.  The leading symptoms include sneezing, runny or congested nose, sore throat, headache and coughing, typically lasting for about 5–10 d.  On average, adults experience two to four colds per year.  Frequency of common cold infections increases in the UK in the autumn and winter (1).

Since there is no causal treatment for the common cold, therapy focuses on symptom relief. In addition, preventive strategies for the common cold include lifestyle measures such as avoiding infected people and regular hand washing during the winter. As mentioned above dietary supplements including herbs and vitamins have been suggested in the prevention of the common cold, but previous investigations have proven inconclusive.

A recently published study(1) was designed to determine the preventative effect of a dietary supplement made from a concentration of fruits and vegetables on common cold symptoms.  The study was well designed, a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.  It involved over 500 healthcare professionals, mainly nursing staff aged 18–65 years, from a university hospital in Berlin, Germany.  The individuals involved in the trial received the supplement or a matching placebo daily for 8 months.  The number of days with moderate or severe common cold symptoms within 6 months was assessed by diary self-reports.

Results (1) found that the average number of days with moderate or severe common cold symptoms was reduced in the supplement group compared to the placebo group, intake of the dietary supplement was associated with a 20 % reduction of moderate or severe common cold symptom days.  This is significant since the individuals involved in the study were healthcare professionals who were particularly exposed colds through patient contact.  It is important to note, however that the average number of total days with any common cold symptoms was similar in both groups. 

The results are interesting since the supplement helped to reduce the severity of the cold symptoms, even though the total number of days with symptoms was not reduced.  Reducing the severity of symptoms is important since it may mean that individuals don’t take time off work and can carry on with their days as normal.  Although colds are not really serious conditions, they are a leading cause of absence from work and doctor visits (1).   In the current study the group taking the dietary supplement had fewer days with intake of common cold medication and a trend towards fewer days absent from work due to the common cold.

The authors of the study write “ To our knowledge, it is the first randomised investigation focusing on the benefits of juice powder concentrate in subjects particularly exposed to patient contact. The confirmation of the present findings in other populations could contribute to the growing scientific basis of assessing the clinical importance of dietary supplements from fruits and vegetables. In conclusion, intake of Juice Plus þ w was associated with fewer number of days with at least moderate common cold symptoms. Whether long-term intake of Juice Plus þ w could further reduce severity or even the frequency of common cold symptoms and the possible underlying mechanisms should be assessed in future studies

Many supplements made from concentrated fruit and vegetables are now available.   Such supplements may be considered as a short term measure especially if your diet is consistently falling short of fruits and vegetables.  Supplements, however, can never be seen as an alternative to a healthy diet and it is always best to check with your medical doctor prior to starting a new supplement regimen.   Eating a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruits and wholegrains will help to provide vitamins, minerals and flavonoids that may help to keep the immune system functioning optimally.

(1) Stephanie Roll S et al.  2011.   Reduction of common cold symptoms by encapsulated juice powder concentrate of fruits and vegetables: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.  British Journal of Nutrition (2011), 105: 118-122


Written by Ani Kowal


Probiotics may be helpful to prevent childhood colds

Earlier this year I wrote about some studies which suggest that probiotic supplementation in infants and children can help to prevent recurrent ear infections.  Very recent evidence (1) suggests that probiotic supplements may also be useful in children in order to prevent common colds.

The study (1) looked to evaluate the effects of probiotic consumption on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in otherwise healthy children.  The study was well designed and included 326 children aged between 3 and 5 years old.  104 children received an inactive placebo (plain milk), 110 received a probiotic supplement containing the bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus (mixed into milk) and 112 children received a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus  acidophilus in combination with another bacteria Bifidobacterium animalis (also mixed into milk). The children received two doses daily for 6 months

• Compared to the placebo group, children who received the single probiotic had a 53% reduced incidence of fever, 41.4% reduced coughing incidence and 28.2% reduction in rhinorrhea (commonly known as a runny nose!).  The children receiving the probiotic supplement containing two species of bacteria had 72.7% reduced incidence of fever, 62.1% reduction in coughing incidence and 58.8% reducion in runny nose compared to the placebo group 

• Duration of symptoms (fever, coughing and rhinorrhea) was decreased significantly in children taking the single (by 32%) and combined (by 48%) probiotic supplements.

• Antibiotic use was reduced in children taking probiotics, relative to placebo, by 68.4% for the single and 84.2% for the combined probiotic supplement groups!  Many parents do not wish their children to undergo multiple antibiotic treatments in early life for fear of antibiotic resistance occurring later.  Antibiotics also destroy good bacteria in the digestive system which are now recognised as being very important for overall health.

• Subjects receiving both of the probiotic products had significant reductions in days absent from group child care, by around 30% compared with subjects receiving placebo treatment.

The authors conclude (1) that “Daily dietary probiotic supplementation for 6 months was a safe effective way to reduce fever, rhinorrhea, and cough incidence and duration and antibiotic prescription incidence, as well as the number of missed school days attributable to illness, for children 3 to 5 years of age”.

There have been studies (e.g. 2) which have shown that feeding supplements containing probiotics and/or prebiotics are safe in newborn infants and children and seem to increase resistance to infections during the first 2 years of life.  It may well be useful to speak to your GP or practice nurse about probiotic supplements if your child has already had frequent colds and/or antibiotic use or if you just want to give a regular probiotic supplement as a preventative measure.  Antibiotics are really effective at clearing infections but do also kill the good bacteria in the digestive system.  There is evidence to suggest that good bacteria in the digestive system are important for overall immune health and may prevent subsequent infection.  Taking a prebiotic and probiotic supplement after antibiotic therapy is probably a very wise way of re-establishing balance in the digestive system. 

Prebiotic and probiotic supplements specifically designed for children and infants are readily available to buy and can be taken daily.

(1) Leyer GJ et al.  2009.  Probiotic Effects on Cold and Influenza-Like Symptom Incidence and Duration in Children.  Pediatrics: 124: e172-e179.
(2) Kukkonen K et al.  2008.  Long-term safety and impact on infection rates of postnatal probiotic and prebiotic (synbiotic) treatment: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Pediatrics. 122(1):8-12.

Written by Ani Kowal


Vitamin D hits the headlines once more

The sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, is receiving continued research attention this year.  Two recently published studies (1,2) add to the mounting evidence for the importance of this nutrient.  As I have previously discussed vitamin D is linked to far more than just bone health.  A lack of this crucial nutrient has now been linked to heart problems, cancer, brain disorders, sleep problems, headaches, weight problems and immune problems to name but a few.

The first study I would like to review (1) looks at vitamin D in relation to muscle strength in young girls.  The authors of the paper note that in the UK vitamin D deficiency in infants, toddlers and adolescents is becoming more and more common.  Reduced muscle strength seems to be associated with a lack of vitamin D in the body but has not been widely researched or studied as yet.  The authors wanted to look at the relationship between blood serum vitamin D levels and muscle power in 12-14 year old post-menarchal girls, girls who had already started their period/menstruation.  The study took place in a secondary school and involved 99 girls. 

The body height, weight and blood serum levels of vitamin D were among the measurements that the researchers took.  Muscle power was assessed via a series of jumping tests.  The researchers found that there was a significant positive association between vitamin D levels and muscle power.  The greater the vitamin D level the more muscle power was exhibited by the girls.  The authors of the study conclude that vitamin D is significantly associated with muscle power and force in adolescent girls. 

A lack of vitamin D seems to hinder the ability of the muscles to contract.  The problem goes deeper than simply affecting muscles.  The problem may cause issues for bone health since muscles actually help to build bone mass and strength via their force on bones.  The authors of the study (1) stress the need for more research since poor bone health and osteoporosis in older women is becoming a serious issue in the UK and bone strength is mainly built in early life, before the age of 30.  A bone healthy diet and regular exercise in early life (and throughout life) are important in order to build and maintain strong bones. 

The second study (2) looked at the association of vitamin D levels in the body and prevalence of colds/flu.  Previous studies have found that vitamin D is very important for the immune system.  The authors of this study wanted to look at the link between blood serum vitamin D levels and the risk of colds/flu.  The researchers looked at data from 18883 individuals aged 12 and above.

Lowered vitamin D levels (2) were significantly associated with recurrent bouts of colds and flu.  Participants with the lowest vitamin D levels were about 40% more likely to report having a cold/flu than those with the highest vitamin D levels. In addition to this the, association seemed to be stronger in individuals suffering from asthma (or other respiratory tract problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).  Asthma patients with the lowest vitamin D levels were five times more likely to have had a recent respiratory infection.  This study only showed an association and the authors called for further randomised studies in order to solidify the evidence, but the findings certainly support a role for vitamin D in the prevention of common respiratory infections such as colds and flu

The study authors are said to be planning clinical trials to test the effectiveness of vitamin D to boost immunity and fight respiratory infection, with a focus on individuals with asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as children and older adults – groups that are at a higher risk for more severe illness.

Colds and flu are common in the autumn and winter months, this is also a time when sunlight is scarce in the UK, people wrap up and there is less skin exposure to light.  This means there is less opportunity for vitamin D to be manufactured in the body.  This is purely circumstantial associative evidence but certainly makes theoretical sense.


Foods rich in vitamin D are limited, with oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines being the primary natural source.  Eggs also contain limited amounts of the vitamin and some breakfast cereals are fortified with the vitamin.  The exposure of our skin to sunlight is definitely the main source of vitamin D.  Recently, however, there has been mass debate about whether UV exposure in the UK is sufficient to keep vitamin D levels optimal for health.  Most individuals in the UK are falling short of recommended levels.  If you rarely get out into the sunlght you may wish to consider a vitamin D supplement which provides around 12mcg of the nutrient per day (around 500iu).  Children will require less, many specific child supplements are available and it is also a good idea to check with your GP or health professional before providing your children with supplemens.  Vitamin D supplements may be particularly useful during the autumn and winter months.

(1)Ward KA, Das G, Berry JL, Roberts SA, Rawer R, Adams JE, Mughal Z.  2009.  Vitamin D status and muscle function in post-menarchal adolescent girls.  J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 94(2):559-563.
(2)Ginde AA et al.  2009.  Association between serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level and upper respiratory tract infection in the third national health and nutrition examination survey.  Arch Intern Med.  169:384-390

Written by Ani Kowal


‘Tis the season for influenza ……….can elderberry really help?

Unfortunately one of my very dear friends is seriously unwell, so I started writing this from the 9th floor of St Thomas’s hospital.  There are hand wash points all over the place in a bid to prevent the spread of infection.  Any hint of a sniffle and I would not be allowed to set foot onto the ward.  So, I am doing my very best to keep my immune system strong! 

In the past I have written about the prevention and treatment of colds and coughs and generally about the immune system and how to keep it strong.  It is the time of year when the cold and flu virus sis rife and people are very interested in how they can escape the infections that seem to be surrounding them.  Earlier this week I was made aware of the potential benefits of Black Elderberry extract (brand name Sambucol®) for the prevention and alleviation of the influenza virus.  I wanted to delve into the scientific research to discover if there is fact behind the hype.

Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra), a member of the honeysuckle family, is a tree-like shrub.  Traditionally various parts of the plant, including the leaves, bark, flowers and berries, have been used in medicine.  The health giving properties have been documented as far back as the 5th century.  Currently much of the interest and research has focussed on extract from the berries.  Research(1) suggests that elderberry has antiviral properties, especially against the influenza virus, and also seems to activate and boost the immune system as well as acting as an antioxidant.

The berries contain various bioactive plant compounds, known as flavonoids, as well as certain vitamins (C, A and various B vitamins), that appear to be responsible for the positive effects on the immune system and our health.

Sambucol® is a supplement that contains 38% standardised extract of black elderberry.  Research(2,3) suggests that elderberry extract appears to boost and activate the immune system in individuals who are healthy as well as those who are already suffering from a viral infection.

Two small well planned studies (randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies 4,5) found that Sambucol® effectively inhibited the influenza A and B virus strains when given orally to patients in the first 48 hours of flu symptoms developing.  The earlier preliminary study (4) was very small, involving only 27 patients, but demonstrated the ability of elderberry (4 tablespoons of Sambucol® syrup per day) to reduce influenza symptoms in 20% of influenza patients within 24 hours and to reduce influenza symptoms in 75% of patients within 48 hours.  After three days of elderberry use, 90% of influenza patients experienced a total alleviation of symptoms. 

The most recent study (5) involved 60 patients aged 18-54 years who had just began (48 hours or less) to suffer from flu-like symptoms.  Participants received 15 ml of elderberry or placebo syrup four times a day for 5 days, and recorded their symptoms using a special scale.  In the participants receiving the elderberry syrup the symptoms were relieved, on average, 4 days earlier and use of rescue medication was significantly less compared those receiving placebo.  The study was small but very encouraging, the findings need to be confirmed in a larger study.

The underlying mechanism (1) for elderberry’s effectiveness in the treatment of influenza virus was discovered by an Isreili virologist, Dr Mumcuoglu.  The berry seems to be able to prevent and inhibit the replication of the influenza virus.  The active compounds within the elderberry seem to ‘coat’ or neutralise the spike-like projections that are found on the surface of several viruses, including the influenza viruses.  When these spikes are deactivated the virus is prevented from piercing the human cells, so the virus does not enter our cells and is prevented from replicating.  Unlike bacteria, a virus cannot replicate on its own, it must attack living cells in order to survive.  If the virus is prevented from entering our cells it will be unable to survive and cause us to suffer health problems.

I mentioned earlier that elderberries also possess antioxidant properties.  Antioxidants protect our cells from the damaging effects of highly reactive molecules called free radicals, which cause oxidative stress in the body.  There is mounting evidence that these destructive molecules, together with lowered antioxidant defences, play a significant role in the development and aggravation of many diseases (including cardiovascular disease and cancer to name but a few).  The body does produce its own antioxidants but also relies on vitamins, mineral and phytochemicals (bioactive plant chemical) from the diet, especially from colourful vegetables and fruits, for additional valuable supplies.

The elderberry extract, Sambucol®, is widely available in the UK as a liquid or lozenge.  The products can be taken as a preventative or at the first signs of cold or flu-like symptoms.  A healthy diet (rich in fruit and vegetables) is obviously the most important way to keep the immune system strong, healthy and effective.  However, if you are surrounded by people with colds, or worried about the ‘flu-season’ taking an elderberry extract may well give your immune system an extra boost and help you to fight off invading infections. 

(1) Sambucus nigra – monograph.  2005.  Altern Med Rev.  10(1):51-54.
(2) Barak V et al.  2001.  The effect of Sambucol® , a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines:I.  Inflammatory cytokines.  Eur Cytokine Netw.  12:290-296
(3) Barak V et al.  2002.  The effect of herbal remedies on the production of human inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines.  Isr Med Assoc J.  4:S919-S922
(4) Zakay-Rones Z et al.  1995.  Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra) during an outbreak of influenza in Panama.  Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.  1(4):361-369.
(5) Zakay-Rones, Z et al.  2004.  Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.  J Int Med Res.  32(2):132-140.

Written Ani Kowal