Natural remedies are everywhere these days. From vitamin C to zinc, everyone’s touting their version of a cure for what ails you. And when respiratory illness season occurs in the fall and winter, the conversation definitely heats up.

Here are some of the top questions surrounding natural remedies for respiratory illness.

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Can natural remedies be harmful?

They can. For example, there’s been a lot of discussion about elderberry extract recently, because, theoretically, it might contribute to what’s known as “cytokine storm,” which is an overzealous immune system response.

Cytokines are a type of protein that help launch our bodies’ inflammation and immune-system responses to injury or illness. When we get sick, symptoms like congestion, coughing and fever come less from the illness itself than from the body’s response to the infection or virus.

For example, during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, most of the people who succumbed did so because their immune systems responded so vigorously to the infection that they “drowned” in the fluids that developed in their lungs.

There is evidence that elderberry products ease flu symptoms and support the immune system, but taking elderberry might lead to an overzealous immune system response, which could be harmful if you get COVID-19. Until it's proven safe, it's wise to steer clear of elderberry for COVID-19 symptoms.

What about vitamin D?

Initial concerns about vitamin D potentially also promoting cytokine storm have been replaced with enthusiasm for ensuring adequate levels of vitamin D in the body. Research findings suggest that healthy vitamin D levels may actually help protect against infection and prevent cytokine storm from occurring.

Supplementing with vitamin D appears to be most important for those with low levels. We are waiting for further research in this regard. However, considering that almost 50% of us have low levels of vitamin D because we stay indoors so much, it is worthwhile to ask your doctor if supplementation is appropriate for you.

Are there other natural remedies we should avoid?

People should avoid reaching for colloidal silver, which is touted as a treatment for infections and illnesses from the common cold to Lyme disease. But, theres absolutely no evidence to support these claims. Even worse, when people use it for a long time, their skin develops a blue tinge that does not go away.

It’s important to remember that “natural” is not synonymous with “safe.” Until were certain about safety, we shouldnt go out willy-nilly, taking everything we can find at the health food store. And, even when natural agents like echinacea or melatonin do show promise for colds or flu, that doesn’t mean the same is true for COVID-19.

Are any supplements proven to prevent respiratory infections?

There’s some promising data about the effectiveness of vitamin C, and aside from some concerns about people with kidney stones, it’s generally safe. Evidence suggests a reasonable dose of 500-1000 milligrams a day during cold and flu season may have a protective effect.

Other popular natural remedies…

  • Apple cider vinegar: If taken appropriately — always diluted, and in small amounts — apple cider vinegar is safe, and it may have certain benefits. There is not evidence (yet) to prove effectiveness to treat cold, flu or COVID-19.
  • Garlic: The evidence for fresh garlic to treat respiratory infection is anecdotal, but it’s a generally safe action to take, and there is some rationale behind it.
  • Green tea: Green tea’s high antioxidant levels and polyphenols might help fight illness. Also, it contains the amino acid L-theanine, which may help with anxiety. So, there are good reasons to drink green tea, but some green tea supplements have been linked to liver damage, so these should be avoided.
  • Medicinal mushroom extracts: Medicinal mushroom extract may help boost the immune system, and there’s no evidence yet suggesting it could induce cytokine storm.
  • Zinc: Many people use zinc during cold and flu season, but they often think more is better. That’s not true, and taking large amounts of zinc can cause side effects. High zinc intake over time can result in low levels of copper, that with high levels of zinc, can actually lead to a depressed, rather than strengthened immune system. The FDA has also warned consumers that zinc nasal sprays can lead to loss of smell.

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The bottom line

It may sound old-fashioned, but the best way to stay well is still mom’s common-sense advice: eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, stay hydrated and take steps to manage your stress. We also know for a fact that the general guidelines about social distancing, frequent hand-washing and wearing a face mask are very effective at preventing the spread of respiratory viruses.

Above all, it’s important to check with your doctor — an integrative medicine specialist if at all possible — before taking any natural remedies.