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SciTech Tries: Fresher’s flu cures

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An amalgamation of germs from every corner of the planet and a month living off four hours sleep and oven chips; if you’ve managed to stave off the infamous fresher’s flu so far, your immune system is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Yes, the first two fun-filled weeks of term may be long gone, but the inevitable illness that follows remains at large around campus and I for one am certainly still feeling the effects. Although not technically a ‘flu’, more accurately, ‘the mother of all colds’, the resulting grogginess may lead to one (or six) skipped lectures, leaving many students racking their brains for a miracle cure. Old wives’ tales concerning what to do when infection strikes have been circulating since the dawn of mankind, but do these makeshift remedies possess any scientific validity?

CHICKEN SOUP 

A steaming bowl of handmade broth has been a popular cure-all amongst numerous cultures since the 12th century, but is chicken soup truly good for a cold as well as the soul?

Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Centre found that sipping chicken soup increases nasal mucus velocity which alleviates congestion, effectively causing your nose to run and making it easier to breathe. Shockingly this isn’t just because of the heat of the liquid – the broth was found to increase mucus flushing even more so than water alone. Thought to be due to aroma or taste-activated mechanisms, the soup increases the activity of protective cilia (tiny cells that project from the nose) that defend against incoming infection. However, the effects only work for as long as the soup is in your system, so you might want to stock up.

Dr. Stepehn Rennard and colleagues from the University of Nebraska Medical Centre, Omaha, found further evidence that chicken soup is more than just a nostalgia inducing placebo. By taking blood samples, they concluded that eating soup inhibited neutrophil movement, the most abundant type of white blood cell in the human body. As many symptoms of upper respiratory tract diseases are due to inflammation, the anti-inflammatory effect of reduced neutrophil activity may ease the fatigue and other nasty effects of a cold. The exact biochemical cause of this was not identified, but it is suspected to be carnosine, a molecule found in chicken, working in combination with compounds from the vegetables.

It is important to bear in mind that only a handful of studies have been performed on this matter…

It is important to bear in mind that only a handful of studies have been performed on this matter, so the results can’t truly be declared conclusive. Nevertheless, there are many other confirmed elements to chicken soup that make it beneficial. The high water and salt content of the broth helps with hydration and electrolyte rebalancing. Chicken provides a healthy source of calories and protein, a macronutrient vital for recovery (for the vegetarians out there, a lentil or bean based soup is a good alterative). The vegetables featured provide essential vitamins and nutrients, and the slight fatty content helps your body absorb these more efficiently.

So unsurprisingly, your mother was right about everything. Chicken soup has medically proven benefits, so cooking up a tin of Campbell’s may actually do you a lot of good.

RAW GARLIC

Emitting a pungent, garlicky odour may keep your germ-harbouring flatmates away, but will knocking back a spoonful of raw garlic genuinely help your body fight infection? Doted a ‘rustic’s theriac’ (cure-all) by the ancient romans and used as an antiseptic during world war I and II, this plant has a rich history in folklore medicine due to its powerful antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

Garlic contains the sulphur-containing compound alliin; when the garlic is crushed, an enzyme is activated that converts this to allicin, which is responsible for the garlics distinct aroma. Allicin is thought to boost the number of T-cells, a form of virus fighting white blood cell, in the blood stream. However, cooking destroys this compound, meaning the garlic really does have to be eaten raw to gain its immunity boosting effect. For the strong willed, it’s suggested you pop a full clove of garlic in your mouth and chomp away. A more palatable alternative is to mince the garlic, mix it with honey (which also has antimicrobial properties) and eat this, on a cracker if you’re feeling fancy.

A more palatable alternative is to mince the garlic, mix it with honey (which also has antimicrobial properties) and eat this…

In a University of Florida conducted study, volunteers were given a garlic extract pill (equivalent to 180 mg of allicin) and a second group were given a placebo version. Over a period of 12 weeks, those taking the garlic extract had 60% less instances of catching a cold or flu, with 70% less day’s sick in total than the placebo group. Whilst these results suggest a staggering benefit, it’s important to note this was the only clinical trial judged by Cochrane (out of the eight on the matter identified) to be scientifically rigorous enough to qualify for their meta-analysis. So, whilst the biochemical evidence supports the cold battling nature of garlic, there is very little evidence from clinical trials to conclusively confirm these effects on real life humans, leaving many scientists doubtful.

Another more undisputed benefit of garlic is its throat and nasal decongestion abilities. Even without scientific trials it’s widely acknowledged that the strong taste of a raw clove can trigger some sinus action, de-stuffing your nose and making it easier to breathe. Scientists at the UCLA Centre for East-West Medicine suggest this is due to, yet again, allicin (alongside other sulfuric compounds) promoting mucus flow in the sinuses and reducing inflammation.

So, the verdict’s unclear, but all in all it’s worth a shot. Might nuclear garlic breath decrease your chances of pulling at POP? Maybe, but a runny nose and insatiable cough aren’t going to do you any favours either.

VITAMIN C

A tall glass of juice is the first thing many students might reach for upon contracting a bout of fresher’s flu, praying natures fruity goodness will ease our snivelling noses and sore throats. Even before the discovery of ascorbic acid, or more commonly, vitamin C in the 1930s, fruits such as oranges had long since been used as a preventative measure or treatment for colds. Vitamin C is involved in collagen support, increased iron absorption and fighting oxidative damage, but do vitamin C containing products like OJ actually fight our colds better than any other nutrient rich foods?

Controversy has been surrounding the topic for decades, particularly since the release of Nobel laureate Linus Pauling’s book ‘Vitamin C and the Common Cold’ in the 1970’s, promoting a mega dosage of vitamin C to thwart infection. Pauling himself was rumoured to of taken 10,000 mg per day (equivalent to about 32 pints of orange juice), yet the RDA for men is around 90mg, with excess of 2,000 mg likely to cause diarrhoea. Make of that what you will.

So scientific jury is still out on the magical healing properties of the orange…

Since publication many researchers have attempted to dispute or support this theory, with mixed conclusions. The perhaps most compelling evidence comes from a 2013 meta-analysis by Hemilä and Chalker, comparing almost 30 trials involving over 10,000 participants. According to this Cochrane review, regular usage of vitamin C supplements before the onset of the cold can reduce its duration by up to 8% (approximately one less day ill), but has no effect on the incidence of colds occurring. Therapeutic administration, meaning the supplements were taken post-onset as a ‘treatment’, revealed no benefit to either the duration or severity.

So the scientific jury is still out on the magical healing properties of the orange, but altogether the best strategy looks like pumping your body full of vitamin C all year round, in preparation for next year’s Freshers Fortnight. If citrus isn’t your thing, it can also be found in dark leafy greens like kale, berries, broccoli, kiwi fruit and bell peppers. In fact, in a gram for gram comparison to oranges, bell peppers contain over triple the amount of vitamin C. Glass of pepper juice anyone?

AVOIDING DAIRY

A warning, you probably won’t want to read this section whilst eating.

Phlegm is a thick, gluey, all around unpleasant secretion from the mucous membranes of the respiratory passages. Although serving an important biological purpose in trapping viruses and bacteria, during times of infection it can become too plentiful and hard to excrete, causing a nasty cough or blocked nose.

The idea that dairy products increase mucus production has been present for centuries, and is seemingly even nowadays affecting how we feel once we drink them. A 1993 study published in Appetite found that people who had drunk milk reported thicker saliva and a ‘coated’ feeling in their throats, however, so did the people who had been given the placebo soy milk (both flavoured with mint chocolate to disguise the differing tastes). This may be as milky beverages, both normal and soy, are emulsions, so when mixed with saliva the droplets aggregate. This may create a ‘coated’ sensation in the mouth people assume is due to mucus, despite stemming from nothing more than the fatty nature of the drinks.

Interestingly it would seem that the supposed increased mucous levels caused by dairy products are little more than a figment of the imagination…

Another study by Pinnock et al. involved infecting 51 volunteers with rhinovirus (the ‘common cold’ virus) and collecting their nasal secretions over a 10-day period. Delightful. Subjects drunk zero to 11 glasses of milk per day, and it was found the amount of milk consumed had no effect on the weight of the mucus collected. In addition, those who believed that ‘milk makes mucus’ when questioned beforehand reported significantly more congestion symptoms, despite producing the same quantity of phlegm as those who didn’t.

Interestingly it would seem that the supposed increased mucous levels caused by dairy products are little more than a figment of the imagination, perpetuated by thousands of years of milk-slandering rumours. Essentially this implies there is absolutely no reason to avoid dairy when you’re suffering from fresher’s flu. In fact, the extra calories may help. Yes, this includes Ben and Jerry’s.

KEEPING HYDRATED

A classic piece of cold-conquering advice is to ‘get plenty of rest and overload on fluids’. Intuitively, drinking plenty of water always seems like a good idea, especially during an infection. Runny noses, fever and vomiting lead to an excess of fluid loss from the body, potentially leading to dehydration if not combatted with high levels of water intake. Water is also theoretically meant to loosen mucus and relieve congestion, especially if hot (in some herbal tea, perhaps).

Caffeine, alcohol, and salty/sugary foods force your kidneys into overtime trying to excrete the toxins and rehydrate your body…

However, scientists at the University of Queensland, Australia, found a significant deficit of trials in the medial literature to support this hypothesis. Not a single study could be found that linked increased liquid consumption to reduced time ill or decreased severity of an upper respiratory tract infection. Now this doesn’t mean to say it’s unwise to drink up, but just that scientifically, we can only say this works in theory until someone conducts a clinical trial to back it up.

But fresher’s flu isn’t always purely from infection; late nights, poor nutrition and too much booze are all contributing factors. Caffeine, alcohol, and salty or sugary foods force your kidneys into overtime trying to excrete the toxins and rehydrate your body, eventually leading to dehydration. Drinking a few pints of water a day should stave off the ensuing headache and dizziness. It also might be an idea to take a break from the jägerbombs until you’re back in fighting condition (and ready to dehydrate your body all over again).

IN CONCLUSION

So, what’s the consensus? Sparse evidence limits the conclusions we can draw about which myths really do hold scientific bearing, but it’s a safe bet that a bowl of chicken soup and a clove of garlic or two might just help you back on your feet. Plenty of bedrest and copious amounts of ginger and honey tea is my personal go to, but it really does appear that unfortunately, there is no miracle cure. Eating your five-a-day, drinking plenty of water, avoiding junk food and drinking less alcohol seems to be the medical advice given for every conceivable ailment, but yet again, it really does appear the way forward to shaking off that dreaded fresher’s flu.

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