I used to get head colds a couple of times a year. Doesn’t sound too bad until I relay that I would be sick with congestion, body aches and coughs for two to three weeks at a time. In the last year or two, I have not had a full fledged cold, because I have learned to nip those suckers in the bud naturally and safely. So, here’s a bit of what I’ve learned.
1. Take time each day to notice what is happening in your body. In years past, I would ignore or not be aware of the initial signs that my body was under stress and moving towards illness until it was too late. Whether your daily practice is yoga, seated meditation, or some form of exercise where you are aware of your body’s behaviors, do something each day where you notice if something in your body is not feeling right.
2. Slow down, rest, take time off. This is the hardest, but most important step. When you notice that you are congested, have a sore throat or just feel “off”, cancel as much as you can and stay in bed all day for a few days. To nip a cold or other illness in the bud, it is vital to give your body a chance to fight off the intruder as soon as possible. Otherwise, you are likely to be taking more than one or two days off down the road. Sleep, journal, read or watch a movie or two, whatever helps you slow down and stay in bed.
3. Hydrate. Specifically, drink lots of warm tea with warming spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Some people find that putting honey or lemon in their tea is helpful. Though drinking cold water is better than nothing, warm tea or even just warm water with lemon will work much better.
4. Nourish your body and your immune system by eating warm, easily digested foods. Some good choices are broths, soups, stews, kitcharee or dahl, oatmeal or kasha. You can add warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cloves, cumin, curry, garlic and hot peppers to your food, if your body tolerates them well. No need to listen to the old folk wisdom and starve yourself while sick, but it is important to allow your body to focus its energy on fighting your illness rather than digesting foods that are hard to process.
5. Treat your symptoms, but let your body do the work of fighting off the cold. Rather than taking medications that fight your symptoms, but also your body’s ability to naturally combat your illness, try some of these easy, natural and healthy ways to treat the symptoms of a cold:
Nasal congestion: Irrigate your nasal passages twice daily with a neti pot or bulb syringe using warm saline or salt water. After you have finished, put a few drops of Ayurvedic nasya oil in each nostril and sniff. You can then blow your nose if needed. Make a steam bath by taking a large cooking bowl and fill it with water and a few drops of peppermint essential oil. Place a warmed towel over your head and the bowl and breathe in the steam. Humidify the space you are resting in. Take a shower with a natural shower bomb (I love the ones from Levels Natural) or a sponge with a few drops of peppermint and/or eucalyptus essential oil in the basin of the shower. Give yourself a sinus self-massage across your eyebrows towards your temples, at the top of each side of the bridge of your nose and following that down your nose and down under your eyes. You can even put a few drops of peppermint essential oil diluted with any carrier oil on your fingers as you massage. Take your head down as in Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Posture) or between your legs to let your sinuses drain, then blow your nose. If you have a regular pranayama practice, you can practice Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath). Have lots of soft tissues or (even better) soft cotton cloths or handkerchiefs available.
Headaches: Give yourself a head self massage, or ask a friend or partner to do so. Massage across your forehead and temples, then massage and lift your occiput and the neck muscles descending from there, finally massage your entire skull with your fingertips. Try putting pressure on the acupressure spot in the fleshy space between your thumbs and forefingers, especially if that feels tender. Hold that for 2-3 minutes per side. Heat a flaxseed or rice neck pillow and eye pillow. Lie down in a dark room with the warmed pillows behind your neck and over your forehead and eyes with your legs covered with a few blankets for 20 minutes. Be in a comfortable restorative pose (Supta Baddha Konasana/Reclined Bound Angle, Viparita Karani/Legs Up the Wall or Savasana/Corpse Pose are all good options) and place a weight (like a sandbag) on your forehead. The herbs Skullcap and Motherwort in tea or tincture are good for relieving headaches.
Fever: Usually if you have a fever, it is best to allow it to continue to fight off the bacteria or virus that is making you sick. However, if your fever goes too high or you start having bad symptoms like hallucinations, place your feet in very warm water for 20-30 minutes. Then massage your calves down towards your feet with long strokes. This will bring the fever down from your head. Slippery elm is an herbal remedy for fevers.
Body aches: Practice abhyanga, or an Ayurvedic oil self massage. Use a basic carrier oil or an oil that is good for your constitution and massage your entire body from your extremities towards your heart in circular patterns. Sit in a warm bath with sea salts. Do a short, restorative yoga session to enhance your circulation and stretch out your muscles. Five minutes each in Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle), Adho Mukha Virasana (Child’s Pose) with support, a reclining twist, and Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) should do it. If there are specific places in your body that are achy, use a heating pad on those places.
Chest congestion: Self-massage beginning under your collarbones working towards your sternum, then down the sides of your sternum, then outwards from there. You can use a bit of peppermint essential oil diluted with a carrier oil for the massage. Try the steam bath described above under nasal congestion, but breathe in and out through your mouth. Practice a few heart opening restorative poses, like a supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall), Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle), Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero’s Pose) or even a chair Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) if you feel up to it. If you know how, you can use a yoga rope to “harness” your shoulders and back to open your chest and breathe more fully. Practice simple pranayamas, like the series of Ujjayi (Breath of the Conqueror) and Viloma (Against the Grain). Use a humidifier in the room you are resting in. Mullein leaf in an herbal tincture is a natural expectorant and works quite well for relieving chest congestion as a last resort or for asthmatics and those that need to be able to breathe more normally right away.
Sore throat: Gargle with salt water, then wait thirty minutes and have several cups of warm tea with honey. Honey lozenges are also nice. You can place a few drops of any warmed carrier oil into your ears as you would for an ear ache. Using Ayurvedic nasya oil in your nasal cavities, then sniffing can also help alleviate a sore throat.
6. Don’t give up too soon. If you do numbers 1-5 above, you will start to feel much better after one or two days. Do not let that fool you into thinking you are completely well. Keep up your routine of rest, hydration and eating easily digested foods. Gradually, over some number of days, work back up towards working, sleeping a bit less and eating more foods, but be aware that it may be that your normal routines are just too much for your body and that is why you were susceptible to illness in the first place. Do not hesitate to re-evaluate your lifestyle and make ongoing changes to improve your health. Learn from the time that you spent sick and bring healthier habits into your normal life.