What can you do when there's an epidemic of flu sweeping the country and the CDC has warned that the flu vaccine may not be as effective as in other years for this year's strain of the virus?
Here are five things my family and I are doing to protect ourselves from the flu ...
1. Make sure your vitamin D levels are adequate.
In addition to helping you maintain healthy bones, vitamin D also stimulates your immune system to produce factors called defensing and cathelicidins that kill viruses. Most of the vitamin D in our bodies comes from sunlight, so there is almost always drop in vitamin D levelsduring the winter. Even if you went south and basked in the sun over the holidays, within three weeks of leaving the beach your blood levels of vitamin D will have dropped substantially. Plus, if you're north of Atlanta, the winter sun is too weak to generate vitamin D in your skin, no matter how much sunlight you get.
Many researchers have theorized that the increased incidence of colds and flu in winter is due to the winter decline of vitamin D levels. Vitamin D supplements at doses of 1200 to 2000 IU/day have been shown to reduce the incidence of winter respiratory infections in children and adults by 40 to 50%. Benefits of vitamin D supplementation, 2000 IU a day, for teenagers were most evident during the first month of supplementation, so it's never too late to start. Vitamin D supplements should be taken with the main meal of the day to ensure optimal absorption.
2. Take NAC (N-acetylcysteine) through the winter.
An amino acid and an antioxidant, NAC is sold as a nutritional supplement. NAC has also been used medically for the past 50 years to loosen mucus in patients with chronic bronchitis and to protect the liver in cases of poisoning with acetaminophen (Tylenol and other brands). NAC is needed for production of glutathione, the most important antioxidant produced by the cells of your body.
NAC was shown in an Italian study to help prevent symptoms of H1N1 flu in almost two-thirds of the people taking it, when compared to a placebo. In the Italian study, which was done with adults over the age of 65, people received either a placebo or NAC 600 milligrams twice a day for six months. During this time, a little over a quarter of all these people developed antibodies to the H1N1 flu strain in circulation, indicating that they had become infected with the virus. Among the people receiving the placebo, 79% developed symptoms of flu. Among the people taking NAC, only 25% developed symptoms. In addition, the symptoms that developed were significantly milder in the group taking NAC. And there was a significant improvement in measures of immune function in the NAC group compared to the placebo group over the 6 months of the study. In the laboratory, NAC inhibits the growth of influenza virus.
3. Use American ginseng (Panax cinquefolium) from now until spring.
American ginseng is an herb with immune stimulating effects. In a controlled study among elderly adults, taking an extract of American ginseng, 200 milligrams twice a day, for three months, decreased acquisition of influenza virus infection by 84%. Among the placebo group, 7% developed a new influenza infection (confirmed by laboratory testing); in the American ginseng group only one person out of 97 (1%) developed an influenza infection. American ginseng also decreased the development of other respiratory viral infections in the study participants. (Note: All these people had been vaccinated for influenza.) In another study, done with young and middle aged adults, American ginseng decreased the incidence and severity of colds by about 50%.
4. Take elderberry (Sambucus nigra) at the first sign of respiratory symptoms.
Elderberry is an herb with potent anti-influenza activity. It inhibits the growth of influenza virus in laboratory studies as effectively as prescription medications like Tamiflu and amantadine. Taken for five days at the onset of respiratory symptoms during flu epidemics, elderberry syrup produced a rapid improvement in symptoms when compared to placebo. Elderberry is unique in being effective against both influenza A and influenza B.
5. Make regular self-care routines.
There are also many simple things you can do to keep your immune system in check this winter. Get a good night's sleep every night. Exercise regularly, about 30 minutes a day, and don't overdo it. Intense exercise impairs the immune response rather than boosting it. Wash hands frequently, especially when returning home and before eating. Avoid sugar, limit alcohol and eat a well-balanced nutritious diet.
Here's a recipe for a delicious, nutritious soup, created by my son, Jonathan Galland, for our book, The Fat Resistance Diet. It's great for winter. We call it Immune Power Soup.
Immune Power Soup
You can make this in advance and freeze it in single-serving containers for later use. Serves five.
- 2 cups carrots, sliced
- 1 cup leeks, chopped
- 1 cup celery, chopped
- 1 cup onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup parsley, chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, finely sliced
- 1/4 cup fresh chive, chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
1. Coat a large pot with olive oil. Add onion and garlic, sauté for 5 minutes on medium heat. Add carrot and shiitake mushrooms, then sauté for 5 more minutes.
2. Add celery, leek, parsley, basil and 8 cups of water. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve in a bowl or mug and garnish with chive.
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