Flu Fighters: From Vitamin A To Zinc

This winter's flu season has turned out to be especially severe. One reason: About 40% of sufferers caught a strain resistant to this year's flu shot. So, along with the usual over-the-counter medications, lots of folks are looking to home remedies, such as zinc lozenges and vitamin C, or even more exotic nostrums such as echinacea and goldenseal to make symptoms go away.

Ever since Congress relaxed regulations on marketers of food supplements in 1994, companies pushing "nutriceuticals" have popped up all over. At the healthy-food emporium Trader Joe's, based in Pasadena, Calif., the pleasant-tasting house-brand mixture of peach, grape, and strawberry juice laced with vitamin C, vitamin E, and green tea extract is billed as "Defense Anti-Oxidant Blend."

It's tough to separate real benefits from marketing hype, and it doesn't help that the medical community often bitterly contests the value of nutritional supplements and other nonmedical treatments. More studies would help, but it's hard to get pharmaceutical industry funding because vitamins and herbs aren't patent-protected. However, "physicians are becoming less nihilistic" about supplements, says Dr. Thomas Ziegler, an MD and nutritionist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. That's because what research does exist indicates that some vitamins or herbs can boost your immune system and help ward off infections. He's impressed with studies showing that vitamin E can strengthen germ-fighting white cells, for example, and takes a 400-milligram pill to try and ward off colds and flus himself.

More doctors are warming up to a relative of the daisy family called echinacea, which seems to offer some protection against respiratory-tract infections. Dr. Jacques Carter, director of general medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, says he has been impressed both by patients who rave about its effects and recent data suggesting it can increase white cell counts. Echinacea comes in tablet form or as drops, which are often added to tea. It's frequently combined with goldenseal, a root extract that may also have therapeutic value. Like a lot of physicians, he's worried that wild claims for exotic, vaguely described blends of supplements aren't justifiable and waste money. In general, if his patients are using supplements and feeling better, Carter doesn't discourage them. "Most of these things are quite safe," he says, adding that he has seen virtually no side effects related to supplements.

But one mineral gaining wide popularity--zinc--could have adverse affects. Many people swear by it to fight colds and flu, especially in combination with vitamin C. Although the recommended daily allowance of zinc is 15 MG, some users take many times that amount. Too much zinc can suppress the immune system, studies have shown.

OLD RULES. Before you start popping pills and herbs, take some common-sense steps to bolster your body. Rest, abundant fluids, and hand-washing after being in public places are still the best ways to deflect winter scourges, says Carter. Then, say nutritionists, follow some basic guidelines for using supplements to fight colds or the flu. Don't use them as a substitute for a balanced diet and proper exercise. Take only doses recommended by the manufacturer or your health-care provider. Excess vitamin C is simply washed out in urine, for example, but large amounts of vitamin A are more dangerous. Beware of products that don't provide dosage guidelines. And if you have a medical condition or are pregnant, check with your doctor before starting or continuing any supplements.

These days, many people are turning to the Internet for information on health topics. When it comes to vitamins and nutritional aids, one word of caution: Hundreds of "informational" sites are actually maintained by supplement manufacturers. One professionally managed site that is worth checking out is the Mayo Clinic's Health Oasis (www.mayohealth.org). It discusses supplements in considerable detail--and may just help you to ward off that next bug.