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Eddie Thomas, Star Tribune

Myth-busting cold remedies

  • Article by: Warren Wolfe
  • Star Tribune
  • December 28, 2012 - 4:00 PM
Want to protect yourself from a cold -- or drive one off once it moves in? Here's the secret formula your doctor will never tell you, even though it's supported by bits and pieces of actual scientific research: After a moderate workout, settle back in an easy chair with a little Kenny G on your iPod. Snack on an appetizer of oysters, drink a bowl of chicken soup with a beer chaser, chew some raw onions and garlic -- and for dessert try a cup of dark chocolate sweetened with honey. Good so far? Now prepare for bed with a little catnip tea, then pull on a nice pair of wet, cold socks for the night. Too far-fetched? There's research to back up these claims, although it's a bit thin and often contradictory.

"Of all those, there's actually pretty good research on the chicken soup," said Dr. Gregory Polland, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Unless they're actually harmful, don't dismiss home remedies or oddball treatments just because they came from an infomercial or your country cousin.

"Just about anything can help if you believe it will help -- the placebo effect," Polland said. "Your attitude and expectations are important. So if you believe that vitamin C or echinacea or jazz will help ward off a cold, it actually may."

Now about those remedies.

Oysters: In addition to boosting your libido with amino acid bumps to your testosterone and progesterone, oysters are high in zinc that can help white blood cells fight off bacteria and viruses. But actual test results have been mixed. Your best bet is to take throat lozenges containing zinc within 24 hours of symptoms.

Beer: The beer benefit comes from a chemical found in hops called humulone, which seems to fight off the cold virus and alleviate inflammation, say researchers at Sapporo Medical University in Japan. (The research, by the way, was funded by Sapporo Brewery.)

Minor problem: There's so little humulone in hops that you'd have to slam 30 beers for this remedy to have an effect. Long before that, you wouldn't care.

Another "minor" issue: The compound is said to ward off colds, pneumonia and bronchitis in children. This remedy probably isn't ready for prime-time testing until researchers can feed kids an extract (instead of an actual pint).

Muzak: Listening for 30 minutes to elevator music -- jazz, soft rock, chorales and, yes, Kenny G -- raises your level of Immunoglobulin A (IgA). That's a protein in your nose and mouth that fights off viruses and bacteria, and the effect lasts for an additional 30 minutes. But after the first four hours, you may prefer a cold.

Onions and garlic: Both are antimicrobial and might help ward off bacteria and viruses, as well as combating congestion. Just having a chopped onion nearby is said to help with congestion. It also solves any problems you might have with dry eyes. Onion juice with honey is a traditional cold remedy.

Catnip: Mint teas have long been a folk remedy, and tea from catnip is said to ease congestion, reduce fevers and help you sleep. It also repels insects, usually not a winter problem. Mix with a little honey and it's effective in combating sore throats and coughs. Just don't breathe in your cat's face.

Chocolate: British researchers found that an ingredient in dark cocoa, called theobromine, is more effective than codeine in preventing persistent coughs. But don't use sugar-sweetened milk chocolate. Drink it as hot chocolate, sweetened with honey.

Cold, wet socks: Cold socks stimulate blood circulation in the feet, relieving congestion and boosting your immune system response. And by morning, your feet are warm and toasty. Repeat for three nights.

Still skeptical?

"Well, most of these are not remedies I'd typically recommend," Polland said. "But if your grandma's salve has helped generations of your family get through colds, then maybe the science doesn't matter."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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