Sneezing, coughing, fever, aches and pains...
Worried about flu symptoms like these? As winter approaches, most of us are.
But this year, the flu seems even more alarming, thanks to increased health concerns about the H1N1 influenza strain, also known as the swine flu. Even though this strain doesn't appear to be particularly threatening, it has the potential to mutate into a more dangerous form.
The main question my patients have been asking is whether they should get vaccinated against H1N1 or against the regular flu.
This is not a simple yes or no answer. The guiding principle of functional medicine is personalized care, not the one-size-fits-all belief that everyone should have the same treatment. This applies equally to vaccines. There is risk and benefit to every medical treatment or procedure.
That is why in today's blog I want to review what you need to consider if you are thinking about vaccination, discuss some of the risks involved, and provide you with a comprehensive 7-step plan for preventing swine flu and staying healthy all winter long.
Should You Get Vaccinated?
The choice to get vaccinated is an individual one. Selective vaccination may be helpful for some groups of people--but not everyone. Here are the facts as I see them:
• The current strain of H1N1 is a generally mild strain of the flu. It sounds scarier, but, so far, fewer people have actually died from it than from the traditional flu. It may mutate but it hasn't yet. Pushing widespread vaccination on low-risk populations exposes them to unnecessary risks.
• If the H1N1 mutates, the current vaccine may not be effective against it.
• The studies on the H1N1 vaccine have been limited in the rush to market.
• The 1976 swine flu vaccine was linked to a serious neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes severe (but usually temporary) paralysis.
• The government has agreed to protect vaccine manufacturers from any lawsuits due to side effects of the vaccine, otherwise pharmaceutical companies would not make it.
• The Centers for Disease Control recommends vaccination for high-risk groups--not necessarily everyone. The key groups that would benefit most from the vaccine are healthcare workers, pregnant women, caregivers of children younger than six months, children and adults under age 24, and adults who have underlying medical conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes. If that doesn't describe you, you should think twice about having the vaccine.
• The multi-dose vials of the vaccine contain mercury as a preservative. If you are a pregnant or nursing woman I would insist on the single-dose vial, which does not contain mercury. Unfortunately, the number of mercury-free vaccines is limited.
For these reasons, I only recommend vaccination for high-risk individuals. But whether you get vaccinated or not, it is critical to support your immune system through natural means to help prevent the flu. Here are 7 simple steps you can take to do that.
7 Steps to Staying Healthy All Winter Long
This list of natural remedies was put together by all the doctors and nutritionists at the UltraWellness Center to help keep you healthy through the flu season:
1. Drink plenty of fluids, especially warmer fluids. With dry air inside and out, winter can be a particularly challenging time to stay hydrated. Consuming adequate fluids supports all your body's functions, including the immune system. Make soups and broths (from scratch with fresh vegetables, if possible) and drink them throughout the week. Drink herbal teas like ginger and echinacea daily. Keep a bottle of filtered water with you at all times. Avoid concentrated fruit juices and sweetened beverages, as the sugar content is harmful for the immune system. If you do drink juice, dilute it with two-thirds water.
2. Try a daily saline flush. Along with staying hydrated, flushing your sinuses with mild salt water helps to keep mucous membranes moist, which protects you from microbes. You can use a neti pot or easy-to-carry plastic bottles that come with saline packets to take with you to the office or when traveling.
3. Avoid simple sugars as much as possible. This includes sweet treats and desserts but also white flour and refined grain products, which turn into sugar quickly. Studies have shown that refined sugars can suppress your immune system for hours after ingested.
4. Have protein with each meal. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, including your immune and detoxification systems. It's important to eat organic, clean, and lean animal protein, as well as plant-based proteins (legumes, nuts/seeds), with each meal and snack.
5. Add garlic, onions, ginger, and lots of spices (oregano, turmeric) to your meals. Add these to your soups and vegetable dishes, as well as to bean dips and sauces. Garlic and onions offer a wide spectrum of antimicrobial properties.
6. Eat multiple servings of colorful fruits and vegetables high in vitamins C and A and phytonutrients, which support the immune system. Choose more leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower), peppers, sweet potatoes, and squash. Aim for 3 to 4 servings of fruits and 5 or more servings of vegetables a day.
7. Get sufficient sleep. We all know sleep restores and heals the body. Without adequate sleep, optimal immune function is next to impossible. Get in a better rhythm and head to bed earlier on dark winter nights; aim for 7 to 8 hours a night. Incorporating various relaxation and breathing techniques throughout the day to help with stress and allow the mind to rest is also very helpful.
Supplements for Immune Support
In addition to the steps above, I also strongly encourage you to take the following supplements to support your immune system:
• Vitamin D3: Adequate vitamin D status is critical for optimal immune function, which cannot be achieved without supplementation during the winter months. For accurate dosing, get your levels of 25 OH vitamin D checked. The ideal blood level is 50-75 ng/dl. Many of us need 5,000 IU or more of vitamin D3 a day in the winter. Start with 2,000 IU a day for adults, 1,000 IU for children.
• Buffered vitamin C: We've long known the role of vitamin C in supporting the immune system. Take 500 to 1,000 mg through out the day with meals and snacks.
• Zinc citrate: You can take an additional supplement or consume more foods high in this powerful immune supporting nutrient. Oysters and pumpkin seeds are the best food sources.
• Fish oil (artic cod liver oil): This old-time remedy for good health and robust immunity still stands true. Arctic cod liver oil contains additional vitamin A and D for added immune protection.
• 1-3, 1-6 Beta glucans: Much research has shown that these compounds up-regulate the function of our innate immune system. This part of your immune system is the first line of defense against viruses and bacteria. It helps your white blood cells bind to and kill viruses and bacteria.
• Antiviral/anti-bacterial herbs: Many herbs have broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects or immune-enhancing effects. Formulas contain different immune boosters such as astragalus, echinacea, green tea extract, elderberry, andrographis, goldenseal, monolaurin, various immune enhancing mushrooms, and beta 1, 3 glucan.
• Cordyceps and other mushroom extracts: These possess immune-supporting properties. Look for supplements that that contain these, as well as zinc and vitamin C for a three-pronged approach to immune support.
By following this plan, you should enjoy vibrant health, all winter long.
Now I'd like to hear from you...
Will you get a flu shot this year?
Have you or a loved one gotten the H1N1 virus?
What immune-boosting measures do you swear by?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.