Your Definitive Guide To The Seasonal Flu

Photo: Michela Ravasio

Yes, what you've heard is true: This year's flu season is the worst since the 2009 swine flu epidemic. But that doesn't necessarily mean you're doomed to be bedridden this winter. Whether or not you've decided to get the flu shot (I recommend it to my patients at Parsley Health who are over the age of 65, immunocompromised, have a history of severe asthma or other respiratory condition, or are a health care provider), there are measures you can take to prevent contracting the virus.

Here's what you need to know about the flu.

Remember, even if you've gotten the flu shot, you're not immune to contracting the flu. In fact, recent studies show the flu shot reduces the risk of flu by 40 to 60 percent when the vaccine virus is closely matched to the circulating virus, but this year the CDC estimates that the shot reduces risk by around 32 percent, while other reports put this number closer to 10 percent. Even in a good year, that leaves a large margin for illness.

For starters, it's important to remember that the flu is viral—meaning antibiotics aren't effective at fighting it. It also has two different strains, types A and B, and subtypes within them. There can be multiple sub-types of the flu circulating at the same time, and the virus can change over time, either slowly (which is called an antigenic drift) or rapidly (called an antigenic shift). This is why it can be hard to formulate a perfect flu vaccine year after year—and why protecting yourself in other ways is vital.

How to prevent the flu.

Luckily, there are a lot of ways you can reduce your risk of getting sick from the flu this year. Most of them have everything to do with strengthening your immune system by healing your gut and reducing stress. Here's where to start:

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1. Simply wash your hands.

Hand washing is your first defense against any infection, including the flu. Use warm water and soap and wash your hands thoroughly. If you don’t have access to soap and water, hand sanitizer if your next best bet. Remember to wash your hands before meals and after commuting or being in other public spaces, like the gym, grocery store, or library. Cleaning your cellphone regularly is also a smart move.

2. Reduce stress.

Chronic stress can decrease your immune cell numbers and increase certain mechanisms that suppress your immune system. It also promotes inflammation, which makes you more susceptible to illness. Activities like meditation, journaling, exercise, and spending time outdoors are all proven ways to relieve stress.

3. Prioritize gut health.

We should focus on our gut health year-round, but it’s particularly important during flu season because a thriving microbiota leads to greater immune response. Taking a daily probiotic containing lactobacillus and bifidobacteria can improve your gut health. Eating whole foods, including lots of greens and other veggies, also helps to feed your gut bacteria beneficial prebiotics.

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4. Get your vitamin D.

An estimated 42 percent of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency, and this number may be higher during the wintertime, when we get less sunlight, which is necessary to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased susceptibility to infection due to its role in immune function. Get your levels checked and ask your doctor about supplementing if you’re low. Fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are also good natural sources of vitamin D.

If you do get the flu: Here are your go-to natural flu remedies and treatments.

If you find yourself feeling ill this flu season (which runs through March), symptoms may include fever, chills, runny or stuffy nose, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Not everyone will have all of the symptoms, and the severity of symptoms can range from mild to severe. If some or all of these symptoms sound all too real, try these natural remedies to combat flu symptoms, and contact your doctor if symptoms worsen:

1. Stay home.

Once you have the flu, you’re contagious for one day prior to experiencing symptoms and up to seven days after you start feeling sick. The virus can spread to others up to 6 feet away through droplets in the air just by breathing and also through coughing or sneezing. Touching a contaminated object can also spread the flu. Staying home is the best way to prevent spreading the flu to other people.

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2. Get extra rest.

Don’t feel bad about sleeping in or napping while you’re home sick: It can actually help you recover faster from the flu. A recent animal study discovered there is a specific protein found in mammal brains that interacts with the sleep-regulating protein interleukin 1 to signal the body to sleep more when infected with the influenza virus. The extra sleep may help the body to bounce back more efficiently by facilitating an immune response, according to research in Sleep.

3. Get upright.

Yes, you want to sleep more, but you also need to spend some time with your lungs in a vertical position, even if you are just watching Netflix. Influenza is a respiratory virus, so allowing your lungs to open up by being upright can make coughing more productive. You can also lie on your back propped up on yoga blocks under your upper spine and back of the head, breathing deeply, which can help the lungs open. This is important for preventing complications from the flu, like pneumonia. A vertical posture will also aid with lymphatic drainage, which helps to remove toxins.

4. Stay hydrated.

When you’re sleeping more, feeling lousy, and outside your normal routine, it’s easy to forget to drink water throughout the day. But hydration will ensure that your kidneys have enough water to do their job of eliminating waste and fluids and also keep the rest of the processes in your body running normally, allowing your natural defenses to take over. If you have a fever, it can also worsen dehydration and vice versa, so fluids are key. Hot liquids, like broth or herbal (noncaffeinated) tea, will help to loosen mucus and are easier for the body to absorb.

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5. Try immune-boosting foods.

There’s no cure-all food for the flu, but it won’t hurt to try foods known to assist the immune system or ease symptoms. Fresh ginger has been shown to have antiviral properties, while turmeric (with a pinch of black pepper to aid absorption) is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Berries are another good source of inflammation-fighting compounds. In general, try to stick to whole foods with lots of fruits and veggies to get a dose of vitamins and minerals that will strengthen your defenses.

6. Take these supplements.

At Parsley Health we recommend professional-grade supplements including vitamin D3/K2, which we recommend increasing to 10,000 units daily when you are sick (and then reducing this back to 5,000 units for day-to-day). We also recommend high-dose buffered vitamin C, at 2,000 mg twice daily, which has antiviral properties, especially against the flu during early stages, and an herbal immune-booster.

And always, if you have a fever above 102 degrees F, are unable to keep down liquids, or are in respiratory distress, visit your doctor or the emergency room. The above does not replace your personal doctor’s medical advice.

And are you ready to learn more about how gut health is the foundation for the health of your entire body? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Vincent Pedre.

Robin Berzin, M.D.

Doctor & Founder Of Parsley Health
Robin Berzin MD is a functional medicine physician and the founder of Parsley Health. Her mission is to make functional medicine affordable and modern, so that more people can access this holistic, root-cause approach to health. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Robin went to medical school at Columbia University and later trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is also a certified yoga instructor and a meditation teacher, and has formally studied Ayurveda. Robin writes for a number of leading wellness sites, and speaks regularly for organizations including the Clinton Foundation, Health 2.0, Summit, and the Functional Forum, on how we can reinvent health care. She's also an mindbodygreen courses instructor, teaching her Stress Solution program designed to help you tune down the stress in your life and tune up your energy and happiness.
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Robin Berzin, M.D.

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