Last week, I wrote to you about why I won’t be getting the flu shot. My basic reasoning is that a) it’s not actually as effective for preventing the flu as we’ve been led to believe, and b) the documented risks associated with getting the vaccine are not worth any potential protection it may confer.
I also provided a brief list of strategies for preparing your immune system for flu season, which, based on my research, are more effective and safer than getting a flu shot. Here are some more detailed explanations of these strategies and why they work.
1. Optimizing your vitamin D levels
This may be the single most important thing you can do to avoid getting the flu, save for maybe washing your hands. Vitamin D deficiency is now considered pandemic and worsens in the fall and winter months in the Northern hemisphere when people begin to spend less time in the sun.
In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that widespread drops in vitamin D levels may be the long-overlooked trigger for flu season. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Virology led by John Cannell, MD, founder and executive director of the Vitamin D Council, investigated this theory and concluded that vitamin D supplementation may indeed have a “profound effect on [seasonal flu] prevention.”
Additional research has shown that maintaining blood levels of vitamin D in the 50-80 ng/ml 25-OH range is essential for resistance to infection. Vitamin D is critical to the activation of what is known as the innate immune system. Innate immunity differs from the resistance you build when exposed to a particular pathogen (acquired or adaptive immunity). It’s your body’s natural defense system, which protects your mucous membranes from pathogenic invaders by creating a shield of antimicrobial peptides. If your blood levels of vitamin D decrease rapidly, as often happens when the weather gets colder, your innate immunity suffers.
To achieve blood levels of vitamin D in the 50-80 ng/ml 25-OH range during the fall and winter months, you probably need to take between 2,000 and 5,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D3 daily. Dr. Cannell recommends 1,000 IU per day for every 25 pounds of body weight. He also suggests having enough 50,000 IU capsules of vitamin D3 on hand to take at the first sign of the flu. You can have your doctor check your blood levels to make sure that you’re taking the right amount. Or you can order an inexpensive home testing kit through the vitamin D council to monitor your levels.
2. Getting a good night’s sleep
Most experts agree that getting 6-8 hours of restful, rejuvenating sleep each night is essential to maintaining optimal immunity and overall health. Just as your energy for accomplishing tasks during the day suffers if you don’t get enough sleep, so to does your immune system’s ability to fight off infection.
During the day, the stress hormone cortisol circulates at high levels in the body. While its primary function is to support the body’s energy demands during the day, it also suppresses immune function. Cortisol falls to its lowest levels at night, which triggers the release of human growth hormone (HGH). The role of HGH is to increase immune function and to undo the physical stress exerted on our bodies by cortisol and injury incurred throughout the day. We literally heal while we sleep, which is why most people tend to feel worse or experience higher fevers at night when they are sick.
Millions of people suffer from mild to moderate sleep problems, and often turn to pharmaceutical sleep aids to help them get the sleep they need to feel healthy and energetic. However, these drugs often do not promote the deep, rejuvenating sleep that your body requires for optimal immunity and vitality. One of the best ways to improve the quality of your sleep is to improve your “sleep hygiene.” To learn more about what this means, be sure to check out sleep expert Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum’s article on how to get a great night’s sleep.
3. Exercising regularly
Exercise increases circulation, which promotes the elimination of toxins and helps to move immune cells throughout your bloodstream more quickly, which means that your immune system has a better chance of finding an pathogen before it has a chance to spread. As a bonus, exercise reduces stress and anxiety, which in itself benefits your immune system.
Regular, moderate exercise — activities such as walking, dancing, yoga or tai chi — seems to be most effective. Research shows that women who walk 45 minutes a day are half as likely to catch a flu or cold as sedentary women, and that active women in their 70s had immune systems that were as healthy as women in their 30s and 40s.
A study conducted by Michaell Irwin, MD, the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA, showed that the regular practice of tai chi boosted the immune systems of older adults against the virus that leads to shingles as effectively as a standard vaccine. As an added bonus, the tai chi group also improved physically and showed increased vitality, mental health and reduced pain.
It’s important not overdo it, however. Strenuous exercise has actually been shown to suppress immunity temporarily, which is why endurance athletes are often prone to infection. So unless you are accustomed to a high level of physical activity, start slowly and build up your endurance.
4. Consuming probiotic food and supplements
It’s been said that 80% of your immune system is found in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which means that it is actually a major focal point when it comes to maintaining optimal immunity. Ingesting probiotics (friendly bacteria and yeasts) is an effective way to improve your digestion and strengthen your immune system. These friendly microbes work to stimulate the immune system and crowd out pathogenic microbes. Just how probitocs interact with the immune system isn’t fully understood, but there is plenty of compelling evidence that supports the notion that intestinal bacteria bolster the immune system. Research published just last month in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that ingesting probiotics may raise levels of the immune system antibody IgG3 by as much as 66%.
So how can you be sure that you’re getting plenty of probiotics as cold and flu season approaches? Cultured foods, such as unpasteurized sauerkraut or kimchi, miso soup, yogurt, kefir and raw milk and cheeses, are all good sources. Probiotic supplements are another great way to get the beneficial bacteria your body needs. Look for a multi-strain formula with at least 10 billion CFU count of friendly bacteria.
5. Avoiding sugar
Simply put, sugar — in all forms — suppresses the immune system by inhibiting the ability of white blood cells to engulf bacterial and viral invaders. High glycemic foods blunt your immune system’s response to pathogens and open the door to infection. The results of a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the amount of sugar found in two sweetened beverages lowers immune response by 50% for up to five hours after its consumed.
Eliminating refined carbohydrates — with high glycemic sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and refined cane sugar being the worst offenders — is a good place to start. You may also want to consider eliminating or at least being mindful of your consumption of less refined (but still high glycemic) sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, fruit juices and high glycemic fruits like bananas, dates and mangoes. Opt for lower glycemic fruits like berries, green apples and grapefruit, and consider using stevia or xylitol (both zero glycemic and relatively natural) to sweeten beverages. Learn more about the glycemic index of foods at glycemicindex.com.
6. Managing your stress
Stress can make you sick. We all deal with stress, but if stress becomes chronic and overwhelming, it can cause your levels of stress hormones to become chronically elevated, which can impair your immune system’s ability fight off infection. Stress hormones also sap the body of important nutrients, such as B vitamins, vitamin C and the mineral magnesium, increase blood pressure and heart rate, destabilize blood sugar and can cause body-wide inflammation, setting the stage for chronic disease. It has been estimated that up to 90% of all disease is stress-related, so it’s absolutely essential to your well-being to learn techniques for keeping stress under control!
Mindfulness-based activities like meditation and yoga are excellent tools for managing stress, as are exercise, spending time in nature, prayer and psychotherapy or counseling. Not sure where to start? Here are three really simple relaxation techniques that you can do anywhere, anytime. Also check out this article by nutritionist, Gale Maleskey, MS, RD, on nutritional strategies for stress relief.
7. Consuming immune-supporting foods, herbs and teas
We’ve already touched on probiotic foods, but there are plenty of additional foods that have been used by humans for millennia to support immune health. Garlic, onions and all of their allium cousins are among the top immune-boosting foods. They help to fight infection in the respiratory tract. Garlic is known as “Russian penicillin” and onions are the top choice for healthy lungs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. If you don’t like smelling garlicky, try a deodorized garlic supplement. Hot peppers and culinary herbs like ginger, oregano and cilantro also have antimicrobial properties.
Medicinal mushrooms like reishi, maitake, shiitake, cordyceps and chaga, are extremely valuable for building up your innate immunity. In order for mushrooms to provide medicinal benefits, they must decocted (boiled until their cell wall breaks down). One of the best sources for reishi and chaga extracts is Surthrival.
There are many medicinal herbs that you can use to support your immunity, and I won’t go into a lot of detail about how they all work here, but based on what I have been told, the best overall strategy for using them is to use them in rotation. Astragalus, goji berry, olive leaf and echinacea are among my favorites.
I am also a strong proponent of making medicinal bone broth containing a variety of immune-supporting ingredients and freezing it so you have it on hand in case you start to feel something coming on.
(8.) Washing your hands
This one should be a no-brainer. Washing your hands with soap and water is a great way to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Doctors and nurses discovered this decades ago when they found that by simply washing their hands in between patients, the incidence of infections in hospitals was greatly reduced. Washing your hands will decrease the likelihood of a virus coming in contact with your mucous membranes.
Using antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and common household cleaners to kill germs, however is NOT a good way to prevent infection. Despite what many people have been brainwashed to believe, these types of antibacterial products actually do more harm than good by killing off the good bacteria that keeps your immune system strong. Instead of using antibacterial hand soap, use a natural cleanser like castile soap.
A strong immune system should be able to fight off a virus if it does manage to get inside your body, but washing your hands provides a bit of extra protection for yourself and others.