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Immune Boosters for Moms

It's an occupational hazard: Take an on-the-go mom, add one or more germ-carrying kids, stir in sleep deprivation, and brace yourself for the germ du jour. While there's still no cure for the common cold, drinking water (three to four glasses a day), washing your hands often, and getting a good night's sleep can help fend off drippy noses, up-all-night coughs, and more --and the latest research suggests that some natural remedies can be effective, too. Here's the lowdown on what just may work, and what isn't worth your money:

Note: Talk with your doctor before taking any supplement, especially if you're pregnant or nursing.

Fights: Colds
Prevents or treats? Both
Does it work or doesn't it? Studies have gone both ways over the years, leaving us snifflers scratching our heads. But in the last year, three different research groups have reviewed the existing evidence and concluded that, in high enough doses, the herb does appear to offer some relief and protection from the common cold. Echinacea may reduce the average duration of a cold by nearly two days, and the chances of even catching one by 58 percent.
Immune Rx: During cold and flu season, take an echinacea supplement with at least 900 mg --and no more than 3,000 mg --of standardized echinacea extract daily. Since researchers aren't sure which species or parts of the plant provide the most benefit, look for a supplement that contains a mix of species (E. purpurea, E. pallida, and E. augustifolia) and parts (stems, roots, leaves, and flowers). These aren't always noted on the packaging, so look for a product that does list the species inside. If you're allergic to sunflowers, daisies, or ragweed, avoid echinacea products derived from the stems, leaves, or flowers --they may contain pollen and could trigger a reaction; stick with a root supplement instead.

Probiotics (healthy bacteria)
Fights: Diarrhea, urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, colitis and other gastrointestinal disorders, colds
Prevents or treats? Both
Taking probiotics may have wide-ranging immune-boosting benefits. Studies show they may help to prevent urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, and vaginal yeast infections; they may also prevent or reduce the severity of upper respiratory infections, colds, stomach bugs, and other common ills. In clinical trials, probiotics have proved a potent remedy for both viral and antibiotic-induced diarrhea. There's also good evidence that they can help to induce or maintain remission in gastrointestinal autoimmune disorders, such as Crohn's disease.
Immune Rx: You'll find live bacteria in most yogurt, but while eating it has plenty of health benefits, you'd have to swallow a lot to get the immunity benefits, says Kelly Karpa, Ph.D., author of Bacteria for Breakfast: Probiotics for Good Health --in some cases, at least a couple hundred small containers a day! More realistic: For infection prevention and general immune support, take one to two capsules daily of a probiotic supplement containing a mixture of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria. If you have severe diarrhea, increase that to as many as ten capsules daily.
Choose a supplement that guarantees a minimum of 15 billion live bacteria through the expiration date. If the label lists the number of bacteria "at time of manufacture," save your money --there's no guarantee those bacteria will still be alive by the time the bottle reaches your kitchen. Select a refrigerated product, and keep it cold. Finally, take your probiotics on an empty stomach, since food triggers the production of stomach acids and bile, which can destroy the beneficial bacteria.

Fights: Bacterial and viral infections (including colds); fungal infections; intestinal parasites; high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis
Prevents or treats? Both
In a recent British study, people who took a supplement containing allicin (garlic's active ingredient) daily for 13 weeks in the winter suffered 46 percent fewer colds, were significantly less susceptible to repeat colds, and recovered from the colds they did catch a few days faster than people taking a placebo. Bonus: Many studies suggest garlic may also help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent atherosclerosis and fungal infections, and reduce cancer risks.
Immune Rx: To resist infections, eat two to four cloves of fresh garlic daily, or (if you're concerned about your breath scaring away more than just vampires) take a 600 mg to 900 mg garlic supplement containing allicin daily. Garlic acts as a blood thinner, so if you're taking a blood-thinning medication or are about to undergo surgery or deliver a baby, consult your doctor before taking it.

Fights: Colds (and just about everything else)
Prevents or treats? Prevents
If you're sick and tired of being sick and tired, exercise may be your antidote: Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle have found that women who worked out regularly for one year lowered their risk of colds by almost half. ("Regularly" meant doing a moderate-intensity activity, like brisk walking or stationary bicycling, for 45 minutes a day, five days a week.)
Immune Rx: If you can't do that much exercise all at once, aim for 30 minutes and break it up: Steal 15 minutes at lunch for a brisk walk, and another 15 minutes before or after dinner, advises Cornelia Ulrich, Ph.D., senior investigator on the study. "I try to build in exercise with my two sons where I can, even if it's playing tag or dancing," says Ulrich.
Just don't overdo it, especially if you feel a cold coming on. Studies have shown that prolonged intense workouts can lower immunity temporarily.[PAGEBREAK]

The jury's still out on...

Vitamin C
It has a long-standing rep as a cold conqueror, and the latest research suggests it may live up to the hype --but only if you're under serious physical stress (even more than the usual mom kind): A recent review of dozens of studies found that a group of marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers who took daily vitamin C supplements cut their chances of catching a cold by about half. For "regular" folks, taking 200 mg of vitamin C or more a day shortened colds, but only by about 8 percent in adults and 13 percent in kids. Bottom line: It can't hurt to load up on citrus fruits, OJ, or C supplements, but it may not help, either.

Suck on zinc lozenges all you like, but there's no guarantee they'll zap your cold, according to a new review of research on the mineral. True, some studies suggest that zinc does prevent infection and may even cut the length of a cold in half --but an equal number found no infection --fighting benefits. If anything, it's a zinc nasal gel that seems to work best, not the ubiquitous lozenge (and definitely not zinc --containing foods like red meat, since it's nearly impossible to eat enough to see any benefits).

Drugstore remedies that may work

From Airborne to Cold-Eeze, lots of "natural" products on store shelves claim to fight cold and flu. Here, two backed by seemingly solid research (the studies were funded by the companies that manufacture them and apply only to these specific name brands, not the plants they contain):

Cold fX (Ginseng)
Fights: Colds
Prevents or treats? Both
According to a Canadian study, people who took 400 mg of Cold fX --a patented North American ginseng extract --daily for four months experienced 26 percent fewer colds, were half as likely to suffer recurring colds, experienced markedly milder symptoms, and recovered a few days quicker from the colds they did catch than people taking a placebo. It's also been shown in lab studies to bolster immune-system cells. Unfortunately, these results can't be generalized to all ginseng products, since they each contain differing amounts of active ginseng, says Gerry Predy, M.D., who led the study at the University of Alberta.
Immune Rx: You can take up to 400 mg of Cold fX daily during cold and flu season to prevent or minimize infections.

Sambucol (Elderberry)
Fights: Flu
Prevents or treats? Both
The elderberry plant has been used for centuries in Europe to relieve flu symptoms, including muscle aches, coughing, congestion, and fever. The best-studied standardized black elderberry extract is Sambucol, a patented formula sold in the United States by Nature's Way. According to research from Israel's Hadassah University Hospital, which tested several Sambucol formulas (including an extract, syrup, and children's formulation), it increases production of inflammatory cytokines, chemicals that stimulate the immune system and bolster its ability to fight off invaders.
Immune Rx: If you have the flu, you can take two teaspoons of Sambucol four times daily (or two lozenges, three times daily), for three to five days, starting with your first symptoms. (It won't hurt, and might even help!) As a preventive, take two teaspoons of elderberry syrup or two lozenges daily during flu season.