Last winter I had a dreadful cold. The type of cold that seems to never end. The type of cold where your body aches, your head throbs, you can't ever seem to rid your nose of mucus and a restful night of sleep seems impossible. The type of cold where leaving the house is the last thing you'd ever want to do.
Nevertheless, I dragged myself to the pharmacy down the street and bought just about any over-the-counter remedy I could find. Nothing seemed to work except the passage of time.
When I returned to work a few days later, a colleague asked how I was feeling.
"Not good, but much better than I was," I replied.
"Next time, try a hot toddy," he said.
"Isn't that an old wives' tale?" I asked.
"Try it," he said.
The hot toddy - the simple hot cocktail consisting of hot water, honey, lemon and brown liquor - like chicken soup, has long been touted as a remedy for the common cold. But when I'm feeling awful, alcohol is the last thing I want to consume. That's why I had never tried a hot toddy when feeling under the weather - until I got another cold a few months later.
Before I had another restless night, I decided to give the hot toddy a try. I pulled out a mug, poured in 2 ounces of bourbon, a tablespoon of honey and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, then topped with a quarter cup of hot water and stirred.
My skepticism quickly faded. It seemed to work better than any of the over-the-counter products I had tried before. I slept through the night.
While it was no cure, it temporarily relieved my symptoms, which may make some sense, says Donald Hensrud, a physician in internal medicine who also serves as an associate professor of nutrition and preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science.
After all, even though there are few "good studies" on the hot toddy, if you look at the individual elements you can understand why the cocktail offers some relief.
"The warmth of the drink may provide symptomatic comfort," he says. That explains the effectiveness of other traditional remedies that also provide fluids, such as chicken soup, which also supplies nutrients, and tea, which also contains antioxidants.
Then there's hot lemon water with honey, which has long been used to soothe a sore throat and to act as a cough suppressant.
One study, which gave children who had upper respiratory tract infections and were at least 2 years old up to 2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime, found that the honey seemed to improve sleep and reduce nighttime coughing. In fact, it was just about as effective as the common cough suppressant ingredient dextromethorphan that's found in Robitussin.
While some have suggested the alcohol has medicinal benefits - such as its ability to fight infection - Hensrud is skeptical, noting that it can actually cause some congestion and may affect immune function.
But those negative effects may not matter in limited amounts. And there may actually be another effect: Like Nyquil, it can help you get to sleep.
And rest, along with fluids, are the key ingredients to cold relief.
Makes: 1 drink
1 ounce brown spirit (I prefer bourbon)
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 cup hot water
Pour ingredients in a mug and stir until the honey dissolves.
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