It’s a question asked of me frequently, and not an easy one to answer. A review of recent research suggests a decent 42% effectiveness for last year’s vaccine[i],[ii], but also with little to no impact on days of work lost, hospitalizations, or complications from influenza in generally healthy people[iii]. A review last year even noted lack of benefit to the elderly in long term care facilities when healthcare workers were routinely immunized [iv]. Despite the confusion, prevailing medical opinion continues to promote the flu shot as the best way to protect ourselves and the vulnerable members in our community. So, while I struggle to offer clear advice regarding the flu vaccine, here’s what I can tell you about the flu virus:
Viruses and bacteria mutate. Quickly. They evolve far more quickly than we do with our science and our healthcare approaches. The only thing I know of capable of adapting as quickly as these bugs, is our immune system. And though we use vaccines to “teach” our immune system to eradicate particular influenza strains, it still leaves us vulnerable to the other 199 circulating influenza and influenza-like viruses, not to mention cold viruses. Is your immune system ready to fight these infections too? Incredibly, a whopping 77% of people who catch the flu fight the bug so efficiently, they experience no symptoms at all[v]. What’s the secret behind their incredible immune defences (and why aren’t we studying those people)?
As a Naturopathic Doctor, my goal includes identifying and resolving the circumstances that prevent someone from being one of those 77%. My process includes ruling out contributing nutrient deficiencies and hormone imbalances, buffering the negative impact of stress hormones on immune system function, and optimizing organ function. But sometimes the foundational pieces are plenty to help an otherwise healthy person thrive during the winter months. A global news report in October suggested that we’re in for a more severe flu season than last year, so it’s time to get serious about covering these basics as we head into 2018:
- Ensure that your vitamin D levels are optimal. The Life Labs test only costs $33 (via your ND or MD), and is particularly helpful for people who supplement, but whose blood levels don’t respond to supplementation easily. At least a couple of studies and a review of research has found this approach to be slightly more effective than the flu vaccine[vi].
- If you have difficulty consuming 8 servings of veggies and berries daily, consider adding a greens powder to your routine. Many people notice a good improvement in their energy levels and health, which makes up for the less than desirable taste of most products.
- Don’t reduce your water intake just because it’s cold outside! Hydrated mucous membranes (in our nasal passages and throat), are unwelcome places for cold viruses. Some people find warmer drinks (e.g. herbal teas, ginger and cinnamon drinks, hot lemon water), more tolerable in the winter than cold drinks.
- Know that if you cheat with that sweet treat or drink, you’re far more likely to catch the cold or flu you’ve been exposed to. The original 1973 research suggests that 100g of sugar can suppress your immune system by 40%, for 5 hours[vii]. (2 coconut macaroon cookies, for example.)
[ii] Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness, 2005-2017. (2017, August 24). https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/vaccination/effectiveness-studies.htm
[iii] Demicheli V, et al. Vaccines for preventing influenza in healthy adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD001269. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001269.pub5.
[iv] Thomas RE, et al. Influenza vaccination for healthcare workers who care for people aged 60 or older living in long-term care institutions. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 6. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005187.pub5.
[v] Hayward, Andrew C et al. (2014). Comparative community burden and severity of seasonal and pandemic influenza: results of the Flu Watch cohort study. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine 2(6), 445 – 454. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(14)70034-7
[vi] Martineau et al. (2017). Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. British Medical Journal 356(i6583). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6583
[vii] Sanchez et al. (1973). Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 26(11), 1180-1184.