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Fighting the Flu: Prevention and Treatment

The word “flu” is often thrown around to describe winter illnesses... But the flu is actually a very specific virus called Influenza that is extremely contagious- affecting the respiratory tract including the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. (It is not what many call the “stomach bug” or “stomach flu” which is a gastrointestinal illness that involves frequent vomiting and diarrhea). The severity of the flu depends on a lot of factors and although it can be a serious condition, for most it is just a pretty miserable week or two. Symptoms generally start suddenly. With the flu, one day you may be out and about, feeling wonderful, and the next morning you wake up and feel as though you were hit by a truck.

Most people with the flu have a fever (not everyone), a cough that sometimes starts a day or two into the virus and can stick around for weeks, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle and body aches, severe headache, fatigue, and occasionally nausea including vomiting - which is more common in children. At this time of year, the flu runs rampant. The CDC once thought the only way the virus spreads is through tiny droplets when those infected sneeze, cough or even talk. But newer research has shown that the flu can spread simply through breathing! Unfortunately, people are contagious a few days before symptoms appear and are most contagious 3-4 days into the illness.

So what to do? Are we all doomed to succumb to the flu year after year, accepting our fate to suffer through it?

Although vaccinations are available to protect against the flu, they aren’t without risk. Many of the flu vaccines are made with thimerosal which is a preservative that contains mercury- which can cause both brain and immune system dysfunction. The Flu-mist exposes people to a live virus which can in fact be transmitted to other people. The flu shot can also promote the flu to mutate into stronger versions of the flu. Consider how many conditions have become antibiotic resistant due to overuse. (The flu shot actually also contains antibiotics which can kill the good bacteria in your body that helps prevent you from getting the flu). In addition, various studies have shown that the vaccination does not work! The Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine has reported that giving young children flu shots appeared to have no impact on flu-related doctor visits or hospitalizations during two recent flu seasons. This year’s vaccination was only 10-30% effective in combating the flu.

The best way to prevent the flu is to make sure your body is ready to handle the battle! This can be done do by getting the immune system into optimal shape.

1. Wash Your Hands— As simple as this seems, keeping your hands germ-free is a key way to prevent the flu. But believe it or not- most of us don’t wash our hands correctly. It is important to wash your hands after you use the restroom, after using areas in shared public (door knobs, public transportation etc), after being outside or playing with your pets, and most importantly- before you eat! Soap and a FULL 20 seconds in warm water is all it takes to wash those pesky germs down the drain. So sing a round of Twinkle Twinkle Little star at every hand washing and be on your way!

2. Optimize Vitamin D Levels- Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health but it also plays crucial role in the immune system. Because we get most of our Vitamin D from direct sunlight, during the winter months, it is likely that we just aren’t getting enough. Try getting outside in the sunlight between 10am and 2pm daily or supplementing with Vitamin D3 can help to bring your levels up. You can get a simple blood test to see where your levels fall and try to aim to get your levels between 45 and 60 ng/mL.

3. Get your Z’s- Sleep is a crucial component to a healthy immune system. When we are sleep deprived- our immune systems are impaired and we are unable to adequately put up a fight against invaders. Getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night is needed for most adults to function optimally.

4. Eat your Nutrients and Hydrate- Prioritizing a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and fats and low in sugar, and refined, processed foods will help the body be at peak immunity when it comes into contact with any virus/bacteria. This also includes drinking enough water. Everyone should aim for half their body weight in ounces to ensure adequate hydration.

5. Exercise- Regular movement boosts the body’s defenses against viruses and bacteria by flushing away bacteria, raising body temperature which prevents bacteria from growing, by upping the immune system response, and slowing down the release of stress hormones which protect against illness.

So what happens if you’ve washed your hands, worked out, slept well and have perfect Vitamin D levels, and the flu still makes its way into your home? There are a few natural remedies that are backed by science that can help you to deal with the symptoms and help your body fight the flu and be on its way to feeling well again.

The conventional treatment for the flu includes fever reducers, pain relievers, and sometimes the prescription Tamiflu which is said to shorten the duration of the flu. An entire separate blog post can be done to discuss the serious side effects and dangers of Tamiflu, so we won’t go too far into that. I will say that when taking Tamiflu the duration improvement is only an average of a half of a day. In addition, side effects reported include vomiting, nausea, severe headache (sounds a lot like the flu, doesn’t it??) and serious side effects include psychotic episodes and hallucinations, especially in children. Japan has actually outlawed the use of Tamiflu in children. But, not to worry, there are other options to help you get well, keep you safe, and on your way to recovery.

1. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L)- Lining the shelves of any health store- you will find bottles of elderberry syrup claiming to be helpful in treating/preventing cold and flu. But how effective is it? Research has looked at the effect of elderberry against both the flu virus and typical cold viruses and found that elderberry has strong anti-microbial properties and inhibits the virus(es) inside the body. Another study from 2015, showed that a tea made with both elderberry and echinacea was just as effective (or more so) than Tamiflu in reducing both severity and length of flu symptoms. This herb can deactivate the flu virus, boost immunity and reduce bronchial inflammation. You can buy Elderberry syrup or make it yourself! Contact me to find out how.

2. Zinc- Zinc supports the immune system and can lessen symptoms of cold and flu.

3. Vitamin C- Everyone knows that vitamin C is good for your immune system. Eating whole fruits and vegetables with high vitamin C content is a great way to get this vitamin in. In addition, supplementing 1,000-4,000 mg per day can help the body fight both colds and the flu.

4. Probiotics- Inside our intestines, resides a community of bacteria called the microbiome that plays an important role in our health. In fact, the majority of our immune system is made in the gut! The balance of the bacteria is extremely important. Probiotics are good bacteria that can help to balance the microbiome. Studies have shown that probiotics reduce the amount of upper respiratory infections- including the flu virus. Probiotics can be found in naturally fermented foods such as kimchi or sauerkraut or from supplementation.

As mentioned above, eating right (avoiding junk foods) and hydrating are key components for health. The nutrients our bodies need are found in the foods that we eat. Hydration is extremely important in delivering nutrients to the body, assisting the immune system, ridding the body of the virus and regulating body temperature. The pillar of health starts with what you put in your mouth!

To sum it up: - The Flu is a contagious Respiratory Illness. - Natural Remedies can help prevent the flu and treat symptoms if you do catch the flu. - Remember, the flu can be a serious condition and can turn into pneumonia or other complications. It is important that if you come down with the flu, that you stay home from school and work, get lots of rest, eat well and hydrate and visit your doctor right away if you can’t get a fever down, have asthma or another chronic condition, are pregnant, have a young child, or just aren’t feeling right. And may you get through this Winter Season in good health and good spirits!

References: Mousa, H. A.-L. (2017). Prevention and Treatment of Influenza, Influenza-Like Illness, and Common Cold by Herbal, Complementary, and Natural Therapies. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 22(1), 166–174. Jawad, M., Schoop, R., Suter, A., Klein, P., & Eccles, R. (2012). Safety and Efficacy Profile of Echinacea purpurea to Prevent Common Cold Episodes: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial [Research article]. Rauš, K., Pleschka, S., Klein, P., Schoop, R., & Fisher, P. (2015). Effect of an Echinacea-Based Hot Drink Versus Oseltamivir in Influenza Treatment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy, Multicenter, Noninferiority Clinical Trial. Current Therapeutic Research, 77, 66–72. Szilagyi, P. G., Fairbrother, G., Griffin, M. R., Hornung, R. W., Donauer, S., Morrow, A., … New Vaccine Surveillance Network. (2008). Influenza vaccine effectiveness among children 6 to 59 months of age during 2 influenza seasons: a case-cohort study. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 162(10), 943–951. Martineau, A. R., Jolliffe, D. A., Hooper, R. L., Greenberg, L., Aloia, J. F., Bergman, P., … Camargo, C. A. (2017). Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. BMJ, 356, i6583. Cannell, J. J., Zasloff, M., Garland, C. F., Scragg, R., & Giovannucci, E. (2008). On the epidemiology of influenza. Virology Journal, 5, 29. Cannell, J. J., Vieth, R., Umhau, J. C., Holick, M. F., Grant, W. B., Madronich, S., … Giovannucci, E. (2006). Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiology and Infection, 134(6), 1129–1140. Cannell, J. J., Vieth, R., Umhau, J. C., Holick, M. F., Grant, W. B., Madronich, S., … Giovannucci, E. (2006). Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiology and Infection, 134(6), 1129–1140.

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