Friday, September 24, 2010

Green Man's Guide to Flu Season -- Part 1: Prevention

Driving around town today, I saw signs everywhere for flu shots -- at the supermarket, at the pharmacy, even at the newspaper.

The effectiveness of influenza vaccinations is questionable at best. Paul Bergner writes that among healthy adults, the percentage of individuals in a vaccinated population who develop severe disease, miss days at work, or require hospitalization is the same as in an unvaccinated population” A 2008 study in The Lancet found that flu vaccinations did not reduce the incidence of influenza-related pneumonia among the elderly. (Pneumonia resulting from secondary infections in a respiratory tract compromised by the flu is the most common cause of flu-related deaths.)

The effectiveness of the vaccine also depends on the virus relatively unchanged throughout the flu season – a highly unlikely prospect.

And influenza vaccines have been implicated in rare but very serious neurological damage.

If vaccination were the only way to prevent the spread of the flu and were demonstrated to be effective, I might be inclined to consider it a worthwhile risk.

But there are other, better ways to prevent infection. (And if you do choose to vaccinate, they are fully compatible.)

PREVENTING THE FLU WITH HERBS AND NUTRITION

The best way to prevent the flu is to support the immune system.

That begins with nourishing the body.

One of the great paradoxes of our time is that while we as a nation are struggling with obesity, we are also struggling with malnutrition. Often the two go hand in hand. Our agriculture policies have made calorie rich, nutrient poor foods cheap and plentiful. The diets of most Americans – and especially of poor people who don't have the option of buying more expensive foods – are dangerously deficient in several nutrients essential to immune function.

And because our soil has been so severely depleted of minerals, even someone eating a well balanced diet of whole, organic foods can have serious nutritional deficiencies.

Food is the best way to get most nutrients, but supplementation can play an important role in giving the body the nourishment it needs for proper immune function.

Vitamin D is a steroid hormone essential to healthy immune function in the respiratory system. The body naturally produces some of its own Vitamin D through sun exposure each day. each day is sufficient to provide the Vitamin D we need. But anywhere north of Atlanta, GA its nearly impossible to get enough sun exposure to produce the Vitamin D we need after October or so. Its no coincidence that colds and flus are more common in the fall and winter when its hard to get extended full body sun exposure at northern latitudes like ours.

For optimum health, an adult needs 10,000 IU of Vitamin D a day – the equivalent of the amount the body would produce through extended full body exposure to mid-day sun. Few foods have Vitamin D in usable forms – egg yolks and cod liver oil do, but its hard to consume either of them in sufficiently high levels. Leading Vitamin D researcher Dr. John Jacob Cantrell recommends daily doses of 1,000 IU of Vitamin D3 for children under the age of 2, 2,000 IU of Vitamin D3 for older children, and 5,000 IU of Vitamin D3 a day for adolescents and adults. I personally take 5,000 – 10,000 IU of Vitamin D3 a day from the Fall Equinox to the Spring Equinox with the amount depending on the amount of sun exposure I get each day. (Note that Vitamin D2 cannot be used by the body in the same way as D3.)

Speaking of cod liver oil, a number of studies have shown that daily doses of cod liver oil reduce the incidence of respiratory infections. Besides being high in Vitamin D, cod liver oil has high levels of Vitamin A and essential fatty acids which are deficient in the American diet and essential to immune function. Bergner suggests a tablespoon a day. Make sure you buy from a company that tests for heavy metals! Canned cod livers are equally beneficial.

Zinc and Selenium are also important for the immune system, and deficient in most people's diets. Vegetarians have an especially hard time getting enough Zinc because chemicals in grains and legumes (especially unfermented soy) block Zinc absorption. Bergner suggests that adults take 40 mg of Zinc and 200 mcg of Selenium daily. 4 Brazil Nuts a day can give you the Selenium you need. A can of Oysters will give you enough Zinc for a week.

Herbs can provide support to the immune system as well.

Echinacea is certainly the most well known herb for boosting immunity, but it is not appropriate for all people or all situations. Echinacea is an immune stimulant, kicking the immune system into action. This can be dangerous for people with auto-immune conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. I find Echinacea most effective when used in high, frequent doses at the onset of an infection. I shy away from its use as a daily tonic.

Echinacea is for sprints,. Flu season is a marathon.

There are a number of herbs that support the immune system without overtly stimulating it. Medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Shitake, Maitake, and Chaga provide deep nourishment to the immune system and are appropriate for daily use.

Astragalus is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to strengthen the body's defenses against respiratory infections. Astragalus is available as a tincture or a tea but is also sold as a vegetable in some places and makes a wonderful addition to winter soups. Discontinue use if an acute infection sets in.

Schizandra, Holy Basil, and Ashwagandha are also great herbs for supporting and modulating the immune system and most people respond well to them. I personally like to use Eleuthero for immune modulation in the fall and winter for the extra kick it gives me during the season when my metabolism begins to slow down, but people who run hot constitutionally tend to find it too stimulating for daily use. American Ginseng is great for immune support in elders and others who are somewhat depleted. Chinese and Koren Ginsengs tend to be too stimulating for all but the very frail.

Elderberry is a great immune modulator too. Its well known for its use in acute viral infections, but can be used to prevent infection as well -- 30 drops of tincture or a teaspoon of syrup 3-4 times a day. (The syrup is great in seltzer water!)

The very best way to support healthy immune function is to make sure you get enough sleep. 8 hours is the minimum amount of sleep an adult should get each night. Those who are in sleep debt (most of the adult population) really need 9 or 10 hours of sleep for their bodies to function well.

If you suspect you've been exposed to a flu virus, there are further steps you can take. Burning aromatic herbs like Sage (either Salvia or Artemesia spp.) or Juniper or using essential oils of Frankincense and Myrrh in a diffuser is a great way to kill airborne pathogens in your home. And daily saunas will help to kill any pathogens that are beginning to make their home in your respiratory tract before they actually make you sick.

If you begin to feel that first tickle in the back of your throat that lets you know an infection is setting in, begin taking large (60-90 drop) doses of Echinacea tincture hourly, and hourly doses of Elderberry tincture or syrup as well -- and go straight to bed! Using Echinacea to fight off recurrent infections without allowing the body to rest and recover can cause MUCH bigger problems down the road.

What do you do if all of this fails and you find yourself dealing with a full blown case of the flu? I'll deal with that in my next post .

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