…Starve a Cold?

20 Sep

One of the inescapable facts of life that us paleo-people sometimes have trouble with is acknowledging that, while we may be streets-ahead on many variables, we are not immune to common human diseases like cold and flu. I was reminded of my mortality this morning when I woke up tired, achy, with a sore throat and slightly elevated temperature. It seems early for disease season, but many of my close friends and coworkers have done a lot of travelling lately to the far corners of the continent so it’s likely they brought back some novel microbial souvenirs with them. Additionally, I can’t ignore the fact that I live in a major city, and cities have–throughout time–been cesspools of disease evolution and transmission.

In any event, I grumpily resigned myself to a day of working from home under a pile of blankets in bed. After a few hours of this, I noticed something interesting: I was tired, I was achy, but I wasn’t particularly hungry. Even the thought of some fresh baked bacon didn’t stir my appetite. Upon reflection, I realized that this might be a natural response of my body, using a short period of fasting to help my immune system and body cells deal with the stress of fighting…whatever the hell I’m dealing with right now.

Last year, Mark Sission did a multipart series discussing the various possible pros and cons of intermittent fasting. I was especially intrigued with his post that talked about the connection between fasting and improved immune response. He discussed it specifically through the lens of cancer, but I think a lot of the points can apply to other diseases as well. In the introduction, he points out:

“For thousands upon thousands of years (during most of which overweight, let alone obese, people were fairly rare), therapeutic fasting was a common protocol for the healing of many a malady. From famous sages like Plato, Aristotle, and the aforementioned Hippocrates and Plutarch to cancer patients unable to eat during chemotherapy to pet dogs and cats who suddenly lose once-voracious appetites upon falling ill, it seems like the natural response to – and perhaps therapy for – major illness is to stop eating for a while.

Now, “natural” is not always good. “Is” does not necessarily imply “ought.” But I think the persistence of this phenomenon throughout nature demands that we look a little more closely into whether or not there’s something to it.”

When I first read that, my mind immediately leaped to the bizarre old adage, “Feed A Fever, Starve A Cold.” Could this idea have come from hundreds of years of people observing that fasting helped improve immune response to some common maladies?

Now, Mark makes a good point that we should take these ideas with a grain of salt. I’m certainly not planning on starving myself all day as a way to get over my cold faster. Even as I write this, that bacon is starting to sound a little bit better. But I think the fact that I spent all morning awake but not hungry at all says something for my body’s instinctive response.

I also think with what we know now about nutrition and our body’s reaction to different macronutrients, we can leverage our treatment even more effectively. For example, there is a widely-accepted connection between insulin spikes and increases in systemic inflammation, which might both impede the immune system and make you feel worse. So maybe eating is ok so long as it isn’t something carb-ridden that is going to spike the insulin. Back in Ye Olden Times, though, most of the cheap, fast food they had around was probably bread and other grain-based things, so in those cases if the choice was between eating and fasting, fasting was the better one.

This idea is exceptionally frustrating when I consider what the standard “sick comfort food” fare was when I was younger. Without fail, as soon as I started feeling down, I would load up on saltine crackers, regular SevenUp/Sprite, sugary peanut butter, and boxed macaroni and cheese. So, wheat, HFCS, and sugar galore. Sometimes even when I wasn’t hungry I would be encouraged to force these things down since, “I had to keep my strength up,” when in reality they were probably having the opposite effect.

My sick foods today are interesting in that they fill a lot of those same categories, but in a more paleo way. For example, instead of soda, I’m drinking seltzer water with a splash of fresh lemon/lime juice. All the comfort of the fizzy drink with far less sugar and some actual honest-to-gods vitamins to boot. Saltine crackers and peanut butter are obviously a no, but lately I have become fond of bananas spread with almond butter and a little bit of sea salt. Much lower GI and, again, many more nutrients.

For now, though, Ill start with some bacon, and see where that takes me.

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3 Responses to “…Starve a Cold?”

  1. Rely September 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    Interesting points:) Definitely some things to think about as cold/flu season approaches.

    In addition to the foods you mentioned, I would also add a mug fulllllllaaahhh bone broth; lots of good nutrients/proteins in easily digestible forms.
    It almost ALWAYS makes me feel better. Another adage to remember, “A good broth can raise the dead!”

    ALSO! Feel Better! !!! I’m sure there are epic things happening in SF this weekend that you don’t want to miss 😀

    • Colleen September 20, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

      YES! Good point, I’m pretty sure I’m out of homemade broth right now but I will go dig around in the freezer just in case I missed one. Another thing I didn’t even get into is that supposedly chicken soup might actually have anti-inflammatory effects that help relieve cold symptoms. Skip the noodles and use bone broth instead? Baby, you got yourself a stew going! 😉

      And thank you! ;D

  2. happy gf September 20, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Awesome article! But fasting definitely isn’t for everyone. When I’m sick, the thought of most foods, especially meat, just makes me nauseous. But I have to force myself to eat regularly or I get low blood sugar, which leads to irritability, dizziness, and more. On the bright side, I get FAR fewer colds that are less severe and clear up sooner than pre-paleo days =)

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