Should you really feed a cold and starve a fever?

We are well into cold and flu season. And there are lots of different viruses making their way around. In fact, as I pointed out in a Daily Dispatch earlier this month, the actual influenza virus only causes about 7 percent of “flu-like” illnesses. Other viral agents cause the remaining 93 percent of all coughs, sniffles, and fevers. Which is really notable, when you consider all the government-medical hoopla they make about the importance of getting the annual flu vaccine. Even if it does work, the vaccine only targets a small percentage of the viral agents out there causing flu!

Chances are, you will pick up something this winter. Even if it’s not the influenza virus itself. And when that happens, what should you do? Should you really “feed a cold, starve a fever” as the old saying goes?

That adage probably dates back to 1574 when dictionary writer John Withals wrote, “fasting is a great remedie of feuer.” Indeed, doctors in the 1500s and 1600s thought that getting a fever meant your metabolism had gone into overdrive. And they thought that eating would increase your fever by activating digestion. They also believed that the body expended energy during digestion, so it had less energy to fight the fever.

Well, we now know that those early theories were more wrong than right.

When you eat a meal, you do take in and create a certain amount of “heat.” Because a “calorie” is fundamentally a unit that measures heat energy.

And eating does change how your body uses blood flow and energy. For example, when you eat, blood shifts from the rest of the body to the portal system–your intestines and liver–to help digest and metabolize your food. But eating when you already have a fever won’t raise your body temperature. And you may need that extra fuel.

You see, the body uses lots of energy to create and assemble the large numbers of immune cells needed to fight any infection. So eating less when you have a fever, or during the early stages of an infection, can actually be counter-productive.

Of course, fevers often naturally decrease your appetite, as part of the body’s defenses. This allows the body to focus on fighting cold and flu pathogens.

But the truth is, you really don’t need to starve a fever. Or do anything to get rid of it, for that matter, if it stays in the range of 99 to 101 degrees.

The best advice is to follow your natural inclinations. The body knows what it needs. If you’re not hungry, don’t push it. But if you have a fever and you’re hungry, go ahead and eat something. And don’t feel like you’re breaking some golden rule.

Most of all, try to let the fever run its course without intervention. A fever actually helps your body fight the infection. It slows the rate of microbial multiplication. If you’re very achy, go ahead and take ibuprofen to ease some of the discomfort. But whatever you do, don’t take Tylenol to reduce a fever (or for any other reason).

If a fever gets high enough to be really dangerous, especially in children, above 102 degrees or so, make sure to consult a medical professional. You may need additional treatments such as intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and other interventions to bring your temperature down.

Now, let’s look at the other piece of that old adage. Where did the “feed a cold” advice come from?

Early physicians thought you could “catch” a cold by being exposed to cold weather. They believed when your body temperature dropped you developed a cold. And they thought you could get over the cold by eating and drinking. This would theoretically raise your body temperature.

Of course, now we know that you don’t “catch” cold by going outside without a coat. You catch a cold by being exposed to a virus. Sometimes you might feel a “chill” before coming down with a cold. But this is most likely your immune system reacting to an early stage of the viral infection.

So, again, don’t worry so much about what you eat when you have a cold or the flu. Instead, make sure to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. That’s especially important if you also experience nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.

I recommend drinking a tea made with red bush. It keeps you hydrated at the cellular level. And it has healthy levels of electrolytes. I recommend the Red Joe brand of red bush, which is available here on this website. It’s a good idea to keep a box or two of it on hand at all times, especially this time of year.

And when you do eat while you’re under the weather, make healthy choices. I recommend the Russian’s Bear’s cure-all chicken soup.  Nutritional experts warn that malnutrition leads to poor immune function. And this combination will make it harder for you to fight off a virus.

It’s also worth noting that you can naturally boost your immune system year-round with adaptogens such as Sutherlandia. And always keep up healthy levels of vitamins A, B, C, D, and E.

And when you feel like you’re coming down with a cold or flu, take extra vitamin C and zinc. In addition, the herbal remedies Echinacea and goldenseal can reduce the duration and severity of a cold…but don’t take them year round. Because of their strong effect on the immune system, you should only take them when you are coming down with a cold.

One last note to help you get through this cold and flu season. Most viruses spread by contact. So avoid crowded places if you can. And wash your hands frequently with plain old soap and water. But never use “anti-bacterial” agents. I’ll explain why in tomorrow’s Daily Dispatch.