Suzy Cohen, RPh, is known as “America’s
Pharmacist.” For the past 24 years, she’s been surrounded by sick people on a
daily basis: she’s handled their money and has even been sneezed on. But when
asked to recall the last time she had a cold or the flu, she pauses and says
with laugh, “I can’t even remember! Eighteen, maybe 20 years? I just don’t
How can that be? Cohen suggests thinking of
your health like a bank account: you deposit money when you don’t need it, so
you’ll have it when you do. Your first line of defense is building a strong
immune system before sickness kicks in and maintaining it in times of health.
In addition to getting your annual flu shot, try
Suzy’s tips for sidestepping sickness and staying healthy all year long.
Taste the Rainbow
Certain nutrients are linked with the pigment
found in fruits and vegetables. So the more colorful your plate, the more
vitamins and minerals you’re getting. That means eating a rainbow spectrum of
living plant foods. Let’s hear it for Roy G. Biv!
Ever wonder what gives tomatoes, watermelon,
and grapefruit their ruby red and pretty pink colors? It’s an antioxidant called
lycopene. Antioxidants may minimize
the effects of free radicals, the no-good toxins that damage cells over time
and speed up the aging process.
Adding more antioxidants—including lycopene—to
your diet may help repair damaged cells, boosting your immune system and warding
off chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
Check out these recipes for tomato-rich meals.
Orange and Yellow
Sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, mangoes,
and bell peppers probably wouldn’t make the best-tasting smoothie. But, eating
these tasty foods would give you a big boost of beta-carotene, the antioxidant
responsible for most orange and yellow fruits and veggies.
Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin
A, which may strengthen your immune system and keeps your eyes, skin, and mucus
Take a tip from Popeye: spinach will make
you—and maybe your immune system—stronger. And so will other dark, leafy
greens. Kale, spinach, and collard greens are rich in vitamins A and C. So are
Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Vitamin C usually claims most of the credit
in the immunity department, but vitamin A is gaining attention for its ability
to regulate and enhance immune system function. A lack of this crucial nutrient
puts you at risk for infectious diseases like colds and the flu.
Blue and Violet
Perhaps it wasn’t Willy Wonka’s magic gum
that turned Violet Beauregarde violet, but the antioxidant anthocyanin. This potent antioxidant turns blueberries,
blackberries, cranberries, cherries, red cabbage, pomegranates, and purple
asparagus hues of blue.
Foods in this color group tend to be high in
fiber and the immune-booster, vitamin C. Vitamin C has long been linked to
immune system health: from fighting off the common cold, to shortening the
duration of symptoms.
But don’t just reach for it when you’re
feeling under the weather. Include it in your regular diet to keep your
defenses up through snowy, rainy, and even warm, sunny months.
Purposely consuming bacteria may not sound
like the best way to stay healthy. Don’t worry: we’re not suggesting licking
public handrails or standing in front of a sick person’s sneeze mist. That
would just be gross.
We’re talking about probiotics—the ‘good’ germs that you want growing
in your body. The bowels are a breeding ground for trillions of microorganisms,
which actually help the digestive system run smoothly. Probiotics are strains
of good bacteria used to treat diarrhea and may keep inflammatory bowel
syndrome (IBS) in check. “Anyone who wants regularity or has any kind of
digestive concern—diarrhea, constipation, nausea, ulcers, or GERD—will benefit
from them,” Cohen says.
However, research has shown that the benefits of probiotics may extend beyond the
bowel. For example, they could help:
- prevent and treat eczema in children
- prevent and treat yeast infections and UTIs
- prevent respiratory infections in children
- stimulate the body’s immune response
“Probiotics, for me, are an absolute essential every single day,” Cohen says.
“Not only do they support immune health, they’re also fabulous for optimizing
thyroid hormones, supporting weight loss, and boosting mood. And emerging
studies are showing that they help with anxiety and problems with focus.”
Probiotics occur in fermented foods like
sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso. You can also find them in yogurts and
aged cheeses, or buy them in supplement form. Because health benefits are
linked to specific strains, it’s best to check with your doctor to decide which
is best for you. Suzy Cohen recommends Dr. Ohhira’s brand because it’s live and natural.
“We all have a fingerprint of beneficial
bacteria. It’s different from person-to-person,” Cohen explains. “Dr. Ohhira’s
probiotics will support anyone. They don’t add in strains of germs that could
be foreign to you. They only put in the
natural, normal flora that all of us have at birth. Therefore, the
response rate [to Dr. Ohhira’s] is very good, because your body’s not fighting
against it going ‘What is this germ? What’s this bacteria? This isn’t common to
You Must Have Mushrooms
If chicken soup has healing properties,
mushroom soup has preventative ones. Eastern cultures have been using mushrooms
for thousands of years to promote health and long life. And modern science
shows that the immune-stimulating power of mushrooms is far from folklore.
The magic of the mushroom lies in a property it
contains called beta-glucan. Beta-glucans
stimulate immune cells that attack invaders like cold and flu germs. They also
may protect against cancer. More research needs to be done, but so far,
studies have shown promising results, especially in
preventing the spread of tumors.
You can find beta-glucan in foods like shiitake
and maitake mushrooms, oats, wheat, rye, and barley. It’s also available as a
daily supplement in extract or pill form.
Go Green (Tea)
Five thousand years of tea-touters were on to
something, but it wasn’t until recently that scientists started taking teatime
to task to uncover exactly which health benefits this leaf elixir offers. Green
tea is made by steaming, rolling, and then drying the leaves. It’s the least
processed tea, which means it brings the most benefits (think raw versus nuked
“I don’t recommend [green tea] supplements
generally speaking, I recommend the tea,” Cohen says. “In that leaf, there are
thousands of compounds that work synergistically. When you’re drinking the tea, you’re
getting all of those [nutrients] all at once. It’s more alive and bioactive.”
The Little Antioxidant That Could
Green tea’s powers are owed to a little
compound called ECGC, a type of catechin. Catechins
are the antioxidants found in dark chocolate, red wine, and the skins of fruits
that give them that signature, slightly bitter flavor, and help fight off
cancer-causing free radicals.
If cancer runs in your family, green tea consumption
may curb cancer cell growth, according to BreastCancer.org. Several
studies indicate a link between green tea and a healthy
heart. It also may have antiviral properties that help stave off sickness.
According to a study published in the journal
Antiviral Research, researchers found that ECGC is a potent preventer of flu virus replication.
That is, it may help cut down on the length of lingering flu symptoms.
Experts recommend guzzling three cups of
green tea a day.
De-Stress Before Your Body’s Distressed
Stress doesn’t just wreak havoc on your
emotional and mental health, it also makes it difficult for your immune system
to do its job. “Stress definitely makes us more susceptible to cold and flu,”
Cohen warns. “[Stress causes your body to] release cortisol, which we know is a
risk factor for illness. Heightened cortisol will lower your immune response.”
Stress triggers an alarm system in your body
that sets off a series of reactions that prepare you to fend for your survival
in a life-threatening situation. The fight-or-flight response is activated when
the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released. Your blood gets pumping, your
energy levels increase, and your body suppresses processes that could interfere—like
your digestive and immune systems.
We Are Not Our Ancestors
This response was helpful for our ancestors
when, say, they encountered a bear. But missing a deadline isn’t actually going
to kill you, and it certainly doesn’t require the same super-strength as
tackling a bear. Yet, both situations initiate the same response in the body.
Once a threat passes (the bear decides he’d
rather have a fish dinner), hormone levels drop back to normal. However,
chronic stress caused by situations that don’t go away (you can’t not work, right?) keep stress hormone
levels constantly high.
This means your immune system is always
operating at a low level, leaving you open for long-term problems like heart
disease and depression, as well as immediate dangers like cold and flu. Several studies indicate that stress can make you susceptible to sickness, or can
make symptoms worse.
Practice relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing on a regular basis, and get tips for
managing situational and work-related
stress and keep your immune system strong.
Water, Water, Everywhere
One sneeze sends about 100,000 germs flying
into the air, as far as six feet away. Ninety percent of germs enter your body through
your nose and your throat. You know that sniffling commuter sitting across from
you on the bus this morning? Yep, you probably inhaled some of his bug-laden
backspray—even if he managed to throw the crook of his arm up in time to catch most of a sudden sneeze.
And the flu can live on a surface longer than
eight hours. That means objects like door handles, railings, light switches, and
buttons on ATM machines are potential flu bombs. “Most people don’t know [that]
you actually contract the virus three to four days before you start to feel the
first symptoms. And you’re contagious—you’re exposing people to illness a full
day before you even start to feel symptoms, maybe longer,” Cohen explains.
You can’t avoid touching every budding
hotbed, but before you start drawing up plans for an insulated bubble, take
these steps to safeguard yourself or at least stop a cold or flu in its tracks.
“If you can get to the cold or flu virus within 24 hours, things are going to
be a lot better for you. There’s going to be a lot less misery,” Cohen
recommends. “So, action at the first sign of symptom would be great.”
Harness the Power of Plants
If you’re starting to feel
the first sign of symptoms or you know you’ve been exposed to cold and flu
germs and want to stave off a full-fledge attack, try a homeopathic approach. While
the jury is still out on many supplements that claim to quell the common cold
and flu—studies show conflicting evidence—no one denies the effectiveness of
the placebo effect.
Suzy Cohen recommends the
over-the-counter (OTC) homeopathic throat and nasal spray FluNada, which draws
on the combined power of elderberry, eucalyptus, mint, and Gaultheria. Together,
these ingredients provide relief from the early onset of cold and flu symptoms
such as runny nose, sore throat, and body aches. Check out the science behind
the formula below.
Elderberry has long been used—especially in Western
Europe—as treatment for many ailments, including respiratory infection symptoms
like congestion. It’s also thought to boost the immune system. So what’s the
science behind these little berries?
The Online Journal of Pharmacology and
Pharmacokinetics published a study on the
effectiveness of elderberry extract. Sixty-four people who had three or more
symptoms of the flu for less than 24 hours were monitored. One group was given
elderberry for two days, and the other group was given a placebo. The placebo
group showed no improvement or worsened symptoms, while the other group showed
“significant improvement in most of the symptoms.”
Another study published in Phytochemistry found that elderberry extract
contains flavonoids with antiviral properties. Specifically, it blocked H1N1
from infecting potential host cells.
Eucalyptus and Menthol
Koalas aren’t the only ones who benefit from
the eucalyptus tree (although they’re the only ones who should eat its
leaves—it’s toxic to humans). Eucalyptus oil is known for its antiseptic
properties, and for its ability to relieve chest-related symptoms like phlegm
A study in Alternative Medicine Review reported
anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-stimulating results when inhaled. Another study identified successful antibacterial activity against bacteria
that cause strep throat, pneumonia, meningitis, skin infections, sinusitis,
MRSA, and others.
You may think of mint as a classic toothpaste
flavor or a garnish for a drink, but similar to eucalyptus, it provides relief
Jump-Start Your Immune System
Kick your immune system into high gear by
ramping up your diet. Continue to heap hearty helpings of colorful fruits and
veggies on to your plate and cut out the crap. Lay off fried, sweetened, or
carb-rich foods, which don’t offer much nutritional value.
Suzy Cohen suggests making
a smoothie using colorful berries or veggies, and
adding a shot of an immune-boosting supplement like probiotics or spirulina. Hawaiian spirulina is a supplement derived from blue-green algae. It
contains a variety of nutrients, including protein, zinc, iron, vitamins like
A, B, and E, and more.
Some test tube and animal studies have
indicated that it may strengthen the immune system by increasing anti-body
production. However, these studies haven’t been performed on humans, and there
are some concerns about its safety. Algae absorb toxins from the water they
grow in, including bacteria and heavy metals like mercury.
Sleep It Off
Sleeping does more than reboot your energy
levels and give your mind a rest. The body repairs itself while you slumber, so
the more snooze time you can get in, the better your body will be able to
handle immune system threats—as well as cut down on recovery time when you’re
Proteins called cytokines act as messengers for your immune system. Interleukin, a type of cytokine, tells
your body to produce T-cells, the white blood cells that target and attack
invaders like viruses and bacteria. This process is especially active while
you’re lights out, making sleep essential to immune system function.
Lack of sleep has a similar effect on your
body as stress does. You may think you function just fine on a few hours of
sleep, but your body would disagree. Adults should aim for eight hours a night.
Keep Your Cold to Yourself!
You’ve done everything you can to stay
healthy and you still come down with something. That’s a bummer, but don’t take
it out on others. Make sure the bug stops with you.
“Be mindful of others when you’re sick,”
Cohen suggests. “Maybe you don’t have to run that errand right now. Can’t that
happen in a day or two? Can you send someone else? People will push themselves
because they’re not thinking.”
Cold or Flu, That Is the Question
So how do you know what you’ve got? “A cold
is generally wetter and above the neck,” Cohen explains. “So you see stuff going
on up top, like sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, runny nose. With the flu, it’s
a whole body, systemic thing: chills, and body aches, stuff low in the chest,
joint pain, muscle pain, things like that.”
The flu is also usually more serious than a
cold. Most people will recover from the flu after a miserable week or two, but
some people, especially children, the elderly, and people with compromised
immune systems, are at risk for deadly complications. “There are
hospitalizations associated with it,” Cohen warns. “From pneumonia to bacterial
infections, and respiratory failure. These are very dangerous, virulent
Don’t Discount the Little Things
Do everyone a favor: stay home and rest up
when you’re under the weather. But if you must
go out in public, practice extra courtesy around others.
“There are little things you can do,” Cohen
says. “Sneeze into the crook of your elbow or even down your shirt or into your
jacket. And wash your hands well. Soap and hot water do a good job of killing
And if you really want to go the extra mile
in protecting others from what you’ve got, you can wear a surgical mask. You may
look silly, but you also may save someone’s life.
On the flipside, if you’re healthy and
someone is sneezing or coughing around you, move away from them. If you’re in
an enclosed space like a bus or an elevator and can’t move, be outspoken to
protect your health. Cohen suggests saying something like “I’m so sorry you’re
not feeling well, but I’m worried about catching this, and I can’t afford to be
ill. Can you please use this tissue?”
“It’s an awkward situation,” Cohen admits,
“But you have to ask yourself ‘Is my health worth it, or not?’”
About Suzy Cohen, RPh
Suzy Cohen, America’s Pharmacist™ is a licensed pharmacist for 24 years, and a Functional Medicine practitioner. In addition to writing a syndicated health column, “Dear Pharmacist,” for the last 15 years, Suzy hosts a medical minute on Know the Cause television. You may have seen her on the Dr. Oz Show, The View, The Doctors, 700 Club, or Good Morning America Health. She has appeared in hundreds of magazines and television shows nationwide.
For more information about Suzy Cohen, please visit: www.SuzyCohen.com.