Man has suffered the common cold for centuries, and historical remedies range from the banal to the bizarre. The ancient Egyptians’ go-to was the milk of a mother who had given birth to a boy. If that didn’t work, they had a spell to go with it. And Victorian cookbooks are stuffed with “natural” cures for congestion, like cold beef tea, a hot mustard foot bath, and even a “bacon bandage for the throat.” (See Aunt Babette’s Cookbook 1889 for the recipe).
For hundreds of years we’ve sniffled, and we’re still no closer to finding a cure. In fact, the common cold accounts for approximately 40 percent of time taken off work and millions of days of school missed by children each year, according to some estimates. The good news is, we no longer have to bet on hocus pocus and borax mouthwash (an Edwardian special!) for relief. Here’s a roundup of the best natural cold cures—7 superfoods scientifically proven to ease the sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, and fever. Find out how many of these you knew, and be sure to take out our list of 27 Doctors’ Own Cures for a Cold.
Lots of studies have been done to gauge the effect of zinc on cold symptoms, with varying results. In fact, a systematic review published in The Cochrane Library was withdrawn after concerns about the data. But a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that taking zinc “may shorten the duration of symptoms of the common cold.”
Dana Corriel, MD, and internist, recommends taking a zinc supplement as soon as you notice symptoms of a cold to stave off getting full-blown sick. To get your zinc fill, toss back a couple oysters; they’re the best natural source of zinc. You’ll get 74 mg, or about what you’ll find in 6 lozenges, in just 3 ounces.
Mom was right: chicken soup really can ease a cold. According to a study in American Journal of Therapeutics, chicken soup’s medicinal power may be attributed to carnosine, a compound found in chicken breast and real chicken broth, that helps the body’s immune system combat flu-like symptoms by inhibiting the release of inflammatory nitric oxide cells. The downside is the soothing benefits end as soon as the soup passes through the digestive tract, so you’ll have to hope mom made a large batch.
Another double-blind study also suggests that chicken soup has more than just a placebo effect. Researchers looked at how chicken soup affected airflow and nasal mucus among patients who drank cold water, hot water or chicken soup. Both hot fluids helped relieve stuffy noses, but chicken soup did a better job.
More commonly known as kiwifruit, the Chinese Gooseberry—a nickname given to the native Chinese fruit by New Zealanders—is also one of nature’s most powerful cold remedies. Research in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests snacking on nutrient-dense kiwifruit can help relieve cold symptoms, and even shorten illness. The study took 132 adults and placed half on a daily diet that included 4 gold kiwifruit, while the other half supplemented their diets with two bananas each day. The result? The kiwi eaters had sore throats resolve three days sooner—and head congestion resolved almost four days sooner—as compared to the banana group. Researchers attribute the results to micronutrients in gold kiwifruit that significantly enhanced the concentration of immunity-boosting erythrocytes in red blood cells.
What better group to test the effectiveness of a cold remedy than 200 sleep-deprived, stressed-out college kids living in cramped quarters? A study in the British Journal of Nutrition did exactly that. Researchers assessed how a 12-week course of probiotic supplementation affected the duration and severity of cold symptoms among 198 students, as well as the impact of symptoms on their daily lives. The results were impressive: Students who took the “good bacteria” recovered two days faster than the placebo group, had symptoms that were 34 percent less severe and missed half as many school days (15 vs. 34 missed by students taking the placebo).
Researchers say probiotic microorganisms may help by softening the body’s inflammatory response—which you experience as nasty cold symptoms. Yogurt is the most commonly widely available probiotic food. Look for brands with “live and active cultures” and strains from lactobacillus or bifidobacterium species, clearly printed on the label.
Almonds & Their Skin
A handful of almonds is both preventative against and therapeutic for the common cold, but you have to eat them whole. A study in the journal Microbiology Letters found that polyphenols—disease-fighting compounds found in the skin of the almond—can increase the sensitivity of white blood cells known as helper T cells, which are involved in fighting off viruses. And, like a natural vaccine of sorts, the immunity boost lingered even after the almonds had been digested in the gut, researchers say. Interestingly, blanched almonds without skins had little effect on the immune system.
A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but it’s even better if a spoonful of sugar IS the medicine. Researchers say honey may be the best natural cure for a hacking nighttime cough. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that children who ate 2 teaspoons of honey 30 minutes before bedtime raw reduced frequency and severity of their nighttime coughing and an overall better night’s sleep than those who didn’t take the honey.
Adults may want to add a drizzle to hot water; researchers have found hot liquids to be superior in relieving upper respiratory tract infections. As for that lemon-honey concoction often touted as a cure, well, the science just isn’t there. There aren’t any studies to suggest lemon, specifically, can help. And, brace yourselves: a recent review of 72 studies found no significant effect of vitamin C (the major nutritional benefit of citrus) supplementation on cold.
Interestingly, a double-blind study by Iranian researchers found a combination of honey and coffee to be more effective than a steroid medication and a placebo at relieving symptoms among adults who had suffered a persistent cough for three weeks.
There’s now science to back-up the smelly, cold-busting benefits of garlic. In one study published in The Cochrane Library, adults who received a placebo came down with nearly three times as many colds as those who selected a daily garlic supplement. Moreover, the placebo group suffered with colds three times longer, reporting more than three times more sick days than the garlic group. Researchers hypothesize garlic’s cold-fighting power comes from the compound allicin, which blocks enzymes that play a role in bacterial and viral infections.
Another double-blind study found daily supplementation of aged garlic extract may enhance immune cell function. Participants who took 2.56 grams daily for 45 days experienced a reduced severity of cold symptoms by 20 percent and recovered 61 percent faster than the placebo group. You can find aged garlic extract at most health food or drugstores, and the good news is it’s odorless. Garlic is also one of our 30 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods to help fight inflammation and ward off chronic illness.