Vulnerability to infection is a hallmark symptom of hypothyroidism. This is not a surprise when I think about the majority of my life spent catching every cold and flu around me. Thanks to a great thyroid doctor my number of illnesses per year has remarkably reduced. While optimal thyroid treatment is key for those of us with hypothyroidism, I wanted to bring you additional information about natural ways to help you beat the cold and flu.
Written by Jennifer Fugo, Gluten Free School
It seems everyone wants to know how to naturally beat a cold and the flu (or avoid them altogether!) this year since the transition of Fall into Winter is the prime time to get sick. Even I haven’t been immune to the bugs bouncing around and took nearly four weeks to clear out a nagging cough.
Personally, it scares me to have to run to the pharmacy and just randomly buy over-the-counter medicines to deal with whatever the ailment at hand happens to be. The reason? Gluten. Drugs aren’t required as part of the US FDA’s labeling law surrounding gluten-free products. It’s a shame, but that’s how it goes. When I’m feeling totally awful, I really don’t want to be researching cold medicines on my computer or calling companies hoping to get a straight answer.
Plus I’m not a fan of all the chemicals that are put into those products including food coloring, flavors, etc. So I’d rather do my best to avoid getting sick at all costs.
In my interview with licensed acupuncturist and herbalist Nicole Fugo-Zibelman (who also happens to be my sister!), we break down the Eastern perspective on why we get sick and what we can do nutritionally using very common ingredients and herbs to help you stay healthy or get better faster once you’re sick. Of course, Nicole dishes on a ton of easy tips and tricks that you can start to use now.
Jennifer Fugo: Today we’re going to talk about natural immunity and how you can use herbs and some other natural things in your life like food to help boost your immune system. Because at this point, almost every person I know is sick dealing with coughs and colds and we haven’t even hit winter yet.
So how can we boost our immune systems and feel well for the rest of what is known as the cold and flu season? Well, I have a really special guest for all of you today‒ it’s my sister and she is such a wealth of knowledge. Not just to me in my own life but to many people who she’s worked with, and I thought that she’d be a great guest to bring on.
Her name is Nicole Fugo-Zibelman, LAc and she’s a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist based in Northern California specializing in women’s health and pediatrics with an emphasis on reproductive health, full spectrum, pregnancy, birth, postpartum care, and natural fertility. She also works closely with families to support their little ones from newborns to older children and natural options for vibrant health and strong immune systems. Nicole has extensive training in both Chinese and Western herbalism. She maintains a private acupuncture practice in Petaluma California as well as working with clients all over the US via phone consultations. Nicole welcome!
Nicole Fugo-Zibelman, LAc: Thanks Jen, I’m really excited to be here.
Jennifer: Why don’t we tell everybody why you decided to focus on herbalism and what that is in case the ladies listening have not heard that word before?
Nicole: I have been fascinated and enthusiastic about herbs since a very early age and as I started to shape my professional life as a Practitioner. Herbs are just an incredible adjunct. Herbal medicine, which means including herbals like things that we know of such as echinacea, elderberries, nettles, and things like that and incorporating them into our lives in a medicinal way so as to treat or prevent an illness. So I was first trained in Chinese medicine and I learnt a lot about the diagnostics, and then they had started to have some reactions to Chinese herbs because some of the Chinese herbs are treated in different ways to make them more tolerable for our bodies and also to bring them here from China.
And so my curiosity with Western herbalism—which means herbs that are typically grown in our own country here—became really important to me and so I started to study that. I have been really fascinated over the past few years working with families in ways we can incorporate things that is something that might be growing outside your door, you might be growing them as culinary herbs and how we can incorporate them into our daily lives as a preventative and also as a way to help treat ailments that come up for us. So that’s kind of where I started and a big focus for my practice is looking at sustainability, making sure that you know obviously this community is gluten free, so making sure what we are getting is organic and its source so you know it’s something that we know what has been added in and what has not been added in and that it’s good quality, and that it’s also affordable for families. So that’s basically where I come from.
Jennifer: You’re an acupuncturist, that’s your background and your training and how you got into doing a lot of this stuff. How does the Chinese medicine model view pathogens like colds, bacteria, viruses, that kind of stuff? Because I think it’s slightly different than if you go to your primary care doctor, how they’re going to look at it.
Nicole: My training in the Chinese medicine model really has helped me as an herbalist in the way that I see these golden opportunities for us to prevent — and we need to talk about that word more – prevent illness because there is usually a really nice window of time when you might start to feel like you’re getting sick and that is the most golden moment to start treating yourself because often you can get the pathogen out. So originally in the Chinese model we see that we caught the Wei Qi layer, so that’s the protective layer of energy around our bodies that’s governed by the lungs.
Typically when we first start to feel like something is coming in, which we call ‘wind’ or a pathogen is entering the body, we’ll feel that in our throat and there’s a distinction there so we can either be feeling wind heat or wind cold. On the heat side, you’re going to experience a hot, sore throat and feeling kind of hot — your general body temperature is going to rise. Compared to a colder pattern which is going to look more like a scratchy throat, muscle tension in the back of the neck and feeling colder. And so we respond to those two different temperature changes naturally.
If I’m feeling wind heat, I’m going to be throwing my covers off, right? And then I’m going treat that illness like something cooling, obviously, because that’s what you are already doing for yourself. And then if you’re having more of a cold pattern, we’d be thinking more about how you’re going to heat up and move that pathogen out.
The other really big thing is there are these folk traditions that we think of… grandmother’s tales and things that are just kind of silly wisdom, but I’ve found to be really powerful ways to prevent illness. So one of those things is the Chinese model believes that pathogens typically enter through the back of the neck, and so I practice this pretty religiously is that when the temperature starts to dip in the Fall. So when you start to get those spikes where there are more patterns of wind in the environment, you should cover the back of your neck. You want to keep that area really protected. Especially for those who are running into the gym and coming out when it’s really cold. At that moment, your pores are open and ready to catch things. Think about really covering up and keeping that area protected and warm.
And the other thing that’s kind of just a simple piece is to avoid walking on cold floors with bare feet. Think about putting on slippers because the first kidney point in the meridian, which I want you think about the kidneys as sort of the fireplace inside our bodies that’s keeping a deep level of warmth vital for our immune systems. And so if you’re standing on this icy cold floor we’re sending cold up into the body and we don’t want that. So those would be like two easy things to keep in mind.
Jennifer: And I was going to add too that this is the perfect excuse to break out or get yourselves some really lovely scarves.
Jennifer: And now it’s not just fashionable, you look nice and you’re keeping yourself warm. So don’t make an excuse for why you’re wearing turtle necks or things like that, there’s a reason and I rarely get sick, I mean this last time of me being sick which I’ve admitted and talked about, and I unfortunately made Nicole’s daughter, my niece, sick from what I’d brought out there with me to California. You’ve got to keep yourself covered and warm. There is a lot of truth to that.
And I’m a firm believer in eating what’s naturally around you based on the season, and if you’re someone living in the North East in the winter time and you’re eating lots of raw cold salads, I think too, for me I’m a very cold person, typically that just makes me colder so I focus more on cooked, roasted, and stewed meals where there’s heat to help me maintain an appropriate body temperature. Do you have that same sentiment?
Nicole: Yes the first thing with illness that I talk about in this class that I’ve been leading in different areas of the US on the immune system is that nothing is going to replace rest. If you’re not resting at a very fundamental level and if you’re not sleeping, then it’s really important to go get acupuncture, get herbals. Do something where you’re going to find a way to rest because rest is absolutely a non-negotiable item for good health, you know? And so sometimes your body is really asking you to stop and if you’re a person that’s just moving way too fast, that might be the message coming through.
What you’re talking about here is obviously nutrition. Unfortunately we’re talking about a time of year during which we’re eating more sugars, and hopefully not eating gluten because that obviously is going to affect our immune system. And so really looking at your diet and, like you just said, seasonally aligning with the foods and herbs and different things around you. Those foods typically‒ like pears, for instance, are really great for the lungs and they often come out in these cooler time periods– and so there’s usually some sort of medicinal property to the food of that time. Garlic and onions are important to health and are in season.
And then what we’re talking about is just making me think about bone broth. I’m a big believer in bone broths and they are an incredible way for us to get the boiled down nutrients of everything you put into that broth including the culinary herbs that you add.
Jennifer: And I don’t want to forget about fermented foods. I know that you’re really into that.
Jennifer: And I know that a lot of people are nervous about fermented foods and what that means and how to use them, but what is one of your favorite fermented foods that people could add to their meals every day that might be helpful?
Nicole: One of my beliefs is that just like with eating a broad spectrum of foods, we also want to think about having a broad spectrum of probiotics in the diet. Not just a probiotic supplement, but I often talk to my clients about looking at the difference between all the different bacterias you get between say kimchi and a kombucha. And there are a lot of different offerings out there.
I think that the industry of fermentation is booming right now and it’s really exciting because more than seventy percent of your immune system is in your gut and so it’s really important that your gut is healthy. I also want to make a plug for prebiotics which are the food for your probiotic or your gut bacteria. Some of the great herbs that are so fabulous for the gut is one of my favorites– burdock. I throw in a little handful of dried burdock root into my rice. I can make a tea with burdock root too. Those are some ideas for you, but definitely that’s part of the prevention and the treatment of things because it’s going to help us really get better faster.
Jennifer: Now let’s switch gears and talk about kids because you mentioned your daughter and what people do, like moms… they’ve got these kids, they’ve either got babies who are at daycare while they are at work or their kids are at school and it seems to be a given that a child who is in daycare or school is just going to be sick all the time for months on end. And then they are going to hand it off to everybody and we assume that that’s just the way it is. Is there something that we can do? You’ve mentioned a few things, but is there anything specific that you talk about for parents that they can do to help kids get sick less?
Nicole: This is a huge topic and I talk to someone about this every day. It is really challenging for those who put their babies in daycare because they often bring illness home. And then we see the domino effect of mom gets it, dad gets it, other siblings get it, and then mom might get it again. The thing is that you know colds and flus are viral and antibiotics are not going to treat them so we should look at herbals and foods that are going to offer us that antiviral benefit. And taking these items has to become a daily ritual.
Jen and I both come from this rich Italian heritage so I have to offer out the garlic remedy because it is so awesome and it’s something that almost all of us have in our home. And I’m talking about fresh garlic, not garlic powder, but fresh garlic which is such an amazing immune booster. It’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral‒ again if your kids won’t eat it in food, we can put it in broths. I would definitely make garlic a part of your winter practice as soon as that temperature starts to change.
Also before twelve months of age, we typically don’t give honey to babies. But there are elderberry syrups that are glycerin-based like Sambucol Kids Syrup (there is also a version for adults Sambucol Original Syrup). The company Gaia has a brand of elderberry syrup for kids, but it does have honey in it. If you look at the back of the box, it should say elderberries and vegetable glycerin which is not a honey derivative and thus it’s vegetarian and usually safe for kids who can’t have the honey. So I am a really big believer in elderberry syrup. I make it myself because I want to get honey into the syrup since it’s a part of the formula to me and others who can have honey. It protects your throat and it’s anti-microbial. So as a family, we take elderberry syrup everyday as well as bone broth. Gaia has a brand of elderberry syrup for adults as well. (I encourage caution with using elderberry if you have autoimmune conditions.)
And then the other big thing is to prevent the domino effect that I was just talking about before. If I can’t stress this enough– being prepared with the things that you are going to use at that moment when somebody starts to get sick or your child says “Oh hey, I was around this kid who was coughing,” that is your red flag to just say “Ok, I need to start my echinacea and taking a bunch of vitamin C” or what ever way you’re going to prevent it. You know echinacea to me is like my big go-to, but there’s also Yin Qiao which is a Chinese herbal formula. And thinking about garlic and eating things that are going to help boost your immune system in that moment is really big. As somebody in the house is sick, everybody else in the household is bumping up these foods so that we stop the domino effect.
Jennifer: If somebody gets sick, and you did mention this– like I got sick, it started to happen, I felt it coming on, I knew it was coming– you made me this awesome tea that I never would have thought that would have tasted good from herbs in the garden. What are some things that we can do if we do get sick to help us feel better because a lot people are dealing with this congestion and chronic cough that will not go away?
Nicole: I’m going to speak to this, but I want to caution moms who are pregnant. Pregnancy is a whole other conversation and it is really challenging to treat colds and flus if you are pregnant because so much is not allowed. For those of us who are not pregnant and are not nursing, we’re going to think about a lot of the culinary herbs that are available in those little pots that you can grow around the house.
And for Jen, specifically with this cough she has, I was thinking about finding an expectorant that could help her lift mucus out of her lungs and something that would also soothe. I mentioned honey, so adding raw honey into a tea. It’s got to be something that’s warming and possibly using an herb that we don’t really talk about that much, but we might be going to in the form of its essential oil like sage. It’s a really, really, really wonderful anti-septic, anti-stringent herb that helps clear the mucus from your throat, mouth or even in the tonsils. It’s great for sore throats and coughs. Sage is something that if you are lactating, you do not want to use because it can actually decrease milk supply.
Another great one is rosemary. And let’s not forget thyme (thyme is one of my favorites actually!). It’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral; it’s awesome at warding off colds and protecting sore throats. You might want to incorporate it in your bone broth as it’s just a really great respiratory tonic. So it’s building for the respiratory system and it also has this effect of warming and drying up mucus.
Jennifer: I was going to say to you, you just made a tea for me which I would have never thought to make and it’s maybe four dried leaves of sage with a couple of small sprigs of fresh thyme. I let it steep for four to five minutes and added some raw honey to it. It was so helpful. I never would have though to do that!
Nicole: And so one of the things to do with plants that have essential oils (which many of us know which ones do because we buy the essential oils) is to keep a cover over top when you steep the tea so that you trap the essential oils in the liquid as those are what we want to get. So cover the tea while it’s steeping and add a little bit of raw honey to it to lubricate the throat.
And then another really awesome and easy remedy that most of us have at home is apple cider vinegar. If you have a lot of phlegm, having a tea made with apple cider vinegar (ACV) and raw honey in warm water– like a teaspoon up to a tablespoon of ACV (depending on how much you can take of it), and then a teaspoon of raw honey– the apple cider vinegar is great to cut phlegm making it an awesome remedy. If I wake up and my throat is feeling scratchy, that’s usually my go-to. I’ll do a little apple cider vinegar and honey, and it usually does the trick.
Jennifer: And I was going to say, not to like over pump raw honey, but they’ve done studies and they’ve found that honey is a better cough suppressant than store-bought cough suppressants. And so it’s really nice that at night when I did wake up coughing and I couldn’t stop, I just went into the cabinet and took maybe not even a teaspoon, but half a teaspoon of raw honey and my cough stopped. I was then able to go back to sleep. So that’s a really great thing to be able to use and it’s something you have in your home.
Nicole: And for the kid’s side of it too– just to throw out something for the children–one of my favorite herbs which has become a top remedy for kids and babies is catnip. And we don’t talk about that herb enough because we think it’s just for cats and it’s so stimulating for cats, but I can’t even tell you how many raving reviews that I have from moms. I use it for children all the time. It’s a nervine which means it really settles the nervous system. It’s great for helping with sleep and teething but also when kids are sick and feeling crummy. It’s a great herb for them. They love it and it helps them when they’re just not feeling well and when they are amping up more, it helps them relax.
We know that if our kids aren’t sleeping when they’re sick…. we talked about rest and how important it is to drop into this rest and repair place of sleep which is one of the most important things to offer your kids when they are sick. Just keep putting them down to sleep as much as you can. It’s going to help them get better so much faster. Rest is number one.
Jennifer: And just as a testimonial to what Nicole’s talking about so I have an aversion to taking medicine and sometimes doing things when I know I should. When I don’t feel well, I just put things off. And I’m almost three weeks out and I still have a cough and she had to kind of like drag me along to get me to take like my echinacea and do all this stuff (and God love her for doing that for me), but her daughter started to get sick a few days after I arrived. I felt so bad I made my niece sick. She got better so much faster than I did with all of the things that Nicole was able to give her. It was like within a matter of two or three days, she was dramatically better than me and I was still struggling. I am still struggling now, so this is a testimony to the fact that if you do this stuff and you are religious about it, and you do it immediately and you are consistent, it really can help. So take a child that’s constantly sick and who’s sick for weeks on end and you can now minimize that impact I would think, for a parent, that would be amazing.
Nicole: Yeah, and like I mentioned at the beginning, there’s that window of time where the Chinese medicine model would say the pathogens are not in, but it’s like hanging out on the border of your system. And you should have your preventatives ready at home… a big bottle of echinacea and all of the stuff that you’re going to dose yourself with when you’re getting sick. Echinacea without goldenseal, so just Echinacea is my go-to. It’s very sustainable and effective. It can be used as a preventative and during illness, but having that at hand is the number one thing. As I mentioned with elderberry, I encourage caution also with echinacea if you have autoimmune conditions.
(This is Hypothyroid Mom here. I would like to provide an explanation for why to use caution with elderberry and echinacea if you have autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Hashimoto’s expert Dr. Datis Kharrazian wrote this in his guest article for Hypothyroid Mom 10 reasons why Hashimoto’s patients don’t get better, “”Taking Immune Enhancing Supplements – Nutritional supplements can either help or flare up your autoimmunity based on an individual’s T-helper dominance (whether you have a TH-1 or TH-2 dominance). Supplements such as echinacea, green tea, acai, astragalus, licorice, and a variety others can either help or aggravate autoimmunity depending on your dominance. If you are unaware of this you may be taking supplements that promote an autoimmune response. Please refer to Chapter Three of my thyroid book, Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? When My Lab Tests Are Normal for more information and lists of supplements and herbs to be aware of.” The same goes for elderberry since it boosts the immune system.)
And I don’t want it to sound like you have to do this every two hours, but making it a ritual. Think that you are doing this for yourself and you know how to do it and you’re wise and you feel just empowered. Feeling that way with herbals is great because we want to avoid getting these pathogens, but remember that it’s important for your immune system to start mounting an attack. “Oh my gosh, my throat’s tickling”, well it’s good for your body to have exposure and practice flexing its “muscles”.
And then you’ve got those people who allow the condition to become chronic. Then it’s harder to treat typically, and the other thing is if you’re a person who gets sick chronically, you should talk to a herbalist because there are so many different things that we can add into your daily ritual that will help boost your immune system so you can get to that place where your immune system can fight it off rather than staying in a deeper pattern of illness where you’re going to need more than just echinacea.
Jennifer: And the other thing to mention which we really didn’t talk about here is if you are sensitive to gluten or your kids are sensitive to gluten and there is gluten sneaking in which you are not careful about cross-contamination–there are studies showing that if you are sensitive to gluten, especially if you really have celiac disease, exposure to gluten will deplete and depress your immune system’s first line of defense which is called IgA. These antibodies will be depleted from your saliva and your GI track. This is a problem when you inhale somebody’s particles when they cough or you ingest something that’s contaminated or infected because you have a lower immune system. So you just have to be really vigilant, especially at this time of year, to be more careful that you are not getting cross contaminated going to parties and eating unsafe food because we certainly want to do whatever we can to allow the immune system to be strong so if something does come along it can do what it needs to do instead of being depressed.
Nicole: I do want to say to the postpartum moms out there… and I use that term ‘postpartum’ for a much longer period than it’s traditionally used, but I see a lot of fatigued women. It’s an issue when you are tired and you are working hard and maybe nursing and you have a baby and you’re pregnant again or you have a lot of children. The gluten factor is a major player even in women who I often see that aren’t gluten intolerant and didn’t think they were pre-pregnancy. Their bodies are just a lot more compromised at that point after working so hard and are so exhausted. So being aware of gluten in your diet is huge when you are getting sick. That’s the sign to make commitments to your health that needs to happen.
Jennifer: Thank you Nicole for joining us! I really appreciate it. This is great information and I hope that this will demystify this whole topic of herbs and herbalism and get people more interested in trying more. Like you said, they are growing in pots and in the grocery store that you could easily get and bring them into your home. No matter what time of year it is, every grocery store sells these types of herbs and you can buy them fresh in the herbs section or supermarket.
For more information and to connect with Nicole, you can reach her at www.shaktimamas.com. She does see clients all over the US via phone for herbal appointments and she has her private acupuncture practice in Petaluma, California.
About Jennifer Fugo
Jennifer Fugo is the founder of the website Gluten Free School. She’s a certified Health Coach named a “Gluten Free Guru” by Philadelphia Magazine. Jennifer is a sought-after expert about healthy, gluten-free living as well as a speaker who has been featured on Doctor Oz, Yahoo! News, eHow, CNN, and Huffington Post. Her first book, The Savvy Gluten-Free Shopper: How to Eat Healthy Without Breaking the Bank is now available.