Ask HE: Do Cold and Flu-Fighting Supplements Really Work?

by in Healthy Tips, February 17, 2011

cold and flu vitamin c

Cold and flu supplements have become a multi-billion dollar business. As the cold weather rolls in each year, consumers fork over a pretty penny for anything that promises to keep them healthy or get them better. Are these supplements all they’re cracked up to be?

Q: Is there any benefit from those pills, powders and fizzy drinks that promise to cure or protect you from cold and flu germs?

A: Unfortunately there are no proven cures for these illnesses. Some of the most common supplements are harmless; others you need to watch out for.

There are numerous vitamin, mineral and herb concoctions out there. Here are a few of the most common ingredients and what you’ll want to know before picking up a cold and flu supplement.

Echinacea
There’s no solid scientific evidence to prove that this herb can prevent or shorten the duration of a cold. Since the quality of herbal supplements is sometimes questionable due to loose regulations, you’re better off saving your money.

Vitamin C
While no one can discount the benefit of meeting your daily needs for vitamin C , only a small amount of research links the vitamin with shortening the duration of colds. While the anti-inflammatory properties may help to relieve some symptoms, proceed with caution — mega-doses can also cause unpleasant side effects like stomach upset and diarrhea.

Zinc
Zinc does play a role in immune function, but that doesn’t mean that more is better. Excessive amounts can be toxic, causing loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and headaches (I’d rather have a cold!.) It’s pretty tough to eat your way to a zinc toxicity, so stick to zinc from foods like shellfish, pork, beans, nuts and whole grains.

Vitamins A and E
You body relies on vitamins A and E from foods to help keep the immune system running strong. These two vitamins also so happen to have cell-protecting antioxidant properties. Again, more is not the answer — large doses from supplements can be toxic.

Bottom Line: Beat germs during the winter months by eating a diet loaded with nutrients and antioxidants from brightly colored fruits and vegetables. If you do come down with an ailment, seek relief from real foods like chicken soup, tea with honey and lemon and orange juice.

TELL US: Do you take cold and flu-fighting supplements?

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana’s full bio »

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