By Dr. Mercola
The cold and flu season got off to an early start this year in the US, and everywhere you turn, you've undoubtedly seen ads and media reports urging you to get the flu vaccine.
Meanwhile, scientific reviews by the independent Cochrane Database1, 2 published last fall again refuted pervasive "expert" health and media claims that the flu vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself against the flu, and that it is a safe way of doing so...
Fortunately, there are many alternatives available, from optimizing your vitamin D levels and taking zinc at the first sign of infection, to incorporating immune boosting foods into your daily diet.
Why the Flu Vaccine is Your Least Effective Option...
Last fall, the Cochrane group released two new scientific reviews on flu vaccines. Their review of all trials comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated adults3 found that, at best, vaccines might be effective against only influenza A and B.
This represents only about 10 percent of all circulating viruses. Under ideal conditions, where the vaccine completely matches the circulating viral configuration, 33 healthy adults need to be vaccinated to avoid one set of influenza symptoms.
In average conditions (partially matching vaccine) 100 people need to be vaccinated to avoid one set of influenza symptoms.
They also found that vaccine use did not affect the number of people hospitalized or working days lost, but did cause one case of Guillain-Barré syndrome (a major neurological condition leading to paralysis) for every one million vaccinations. So please, carefully weigh the risks versus benefits before you opt for vaccination. Also do your research on risk free alternatives, such as those discussed here.
Garlic – As Good or Better Than Tamiflu?
A recent article by PreventDisease.com4 highlighted the use of garlic, which has natural antiviral, antibiotic, and antifungal activity.
"Forget the flu shot. A soup based on more than 50 cloves of garlic, onions, thyme and lemon will destroy almost any virus that enters its path including colds, flu and even norovirus," John Summerly writes.
Garlic has long been hailed for its healing powers, especially against infectious diseases like cold and flu. This is likely due to its immune boosting effects. According to the featured article:
"...Compounds in this familiar bulb kill many organisms, including bacteria and viruses that cause earaches, flu and colds. Research indicates that garlic is also effective against digestive ailments and diarrhea... A recent and significant finding from Washington State University shows that garlic is 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics at fighting disease causing bacteria commonly responsible for foodborne illness."
The respected research organization The Cochrane Database, which has repeatedly demonstrated that the science in support of the flu vaccine is flimsy at best, has also reviewed studies on the alternatives, such as the use of garlic.5 Unfortunately, such research is harder to come by, as there's no financial incentive driving it.
Still, in the singular study identified by the Cochrane group, those who took garlic daily for three months had fewer colds than those who took a placebo, and, when they did come down with a cold, the duration of illness was shorter – an average of 4.5 days compared to 5.5 days for the placebo group.
While this may not seem overly impressive, it's still better than the results achieved by the much-advertised flu drug Tamiflu. If taken within 48 hours of onset of illness, Tamiflu might reduce the duration of flu symptoms by about a day to a day and a half. That's the extent of what this $100-plus treatment will get you. It's virtually identical to just taking garlic on a regular basis...
However, some patients with influenza are at increased risk for secondary bacterial infections when on Tamiflu, which of course would defeat the plan of being able to jump out of bed a day sooner. Furthermore, adverse events reported include pediatric deaths, serious skin reactions, and neuropsychiatric events, including suicide committed while delirious – side effects you won't experience if you're taking garlic.
Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the veracity of Tamiflu's claims. In 2009, conflicts of interest within WHO were unearthed, showing links between Roche, the manufacturer of Tamiflu, and those responsible for creating pandemic flu planning guidelines. Tamiflu is currently on the organization's list of "essential medicines." But the Cochrane team could find "no evidence" to suggest that Tamiflu actually reduces complications in cases of influenza. In fact, eight out of 10 clinical trials on Tamiflu are still "missing in action," as Roche has doggedly refused to release them.
Kind of makes you wonder why, doesn't it?
If you love garlic, the featured article includes a hearty garlic soup recipe, consisting of unpeeled garlic cloves, olive oil, organic grass-fed butter, cayenne, ginger, onions, thyme, coconut milk, organic veggie broth, and lemon wedges. For the recipe, please refer to the original article.6 If you don't enjoy garlic, you could opt for a high-quality supplement.
Understanding What Causes Colds and Influenzas Can Help You Prevent Them
Both colds and various influenzas are caused by a wide variety of viruses (not bacteria). While the two ailments typically affect your respiratory tract, there are some differences between them. Common symptoms of a 'regular cold' include runny nose, congestion, cough, and sore throat. The symptoms of the flu tend to be far more severe, as the influenza viruses are capable of causing severe lung infection, pneumonia and even respiratory failure. They also tend to affect your joints – hence that allover achy feeling.
The following video offers an excellent, rapid-fire cliff-notes-type education on flu viruses, where the "H" and "N" flu classifications come from and their transmission, along with common flu symptoms. (Bear in mind that I obviously do NOT recommend or advise getting a flu vaccine, which is listed as one of the prevention methods at the end of this video.)
The most common way these viruses are spread is via hand-to-hand contact. For instance, someone with a cold blows their nose then shakes your hand or touches surfaces that you also touch. However, the key to remember is that just being exposed to a cold virus does not mean that you're destined to catch a cold. If your immune system is operating at its peak, it should actually be quite easy for you to fend off the virus without ever getting sick. If your immune system is impaired, on the other hand, they can easily take hold in your body.
So, it's important to understand that the reason you catch a cold or flu is because your immune system is impaired. It's not an inevitable event based on exposure alone. Lifestyle factors that can depress your immune system, alone or in combination, include:
- Eating too much sugar and grains. The average person consumes about 75 grams of fructose per day (primarily in the form of high fructose corn syrup found in virtually all processed foods), and when fructose is consumed at that level it can devastate your immune system.
One of the ways it does this is by unbalancing your gut flora. Sugar is 'fertilizer' for pathogenic bacteria, yeast, and fungi that can set your immune system up for an assault by a respiratory virus. Most people don't realize that 80 percent of your immune system actually lies in your gastrointestinal tract. That's why controlling your sugar intake is CRUCIAL for optimizing your immune system.
It would be wise to reduce your total sugar intake, and limit your fructose consumption to below 25 grams a day if you're in good health, or below 15 grams a day if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or are insulin resistant or are seeking to recover from an acute illness like the flu.
- Vitamin D deficiency. In the largest and most nationally representative study7 of its kind to date, involving about 19,000 Americans, people with the lowest vitamin D levels reported having significantly more recent colds or cases of the flu -- and the risk was even greater for those with chronic respiratory disorders like asthma. At least five additional studies also show an inverse association between lower respiratory tract infections and vitamin D levels.
- Insufficient sleep. If you aren't getting enough restorative sleep, you'll be at increased risk for a hostile viral takeover. Your immune system is also the most effective when you're not sleep-deprived, so the more rested you are the quicker you'll recover. You can find 33 secrets for a good night's sleep here.
- Insufficient exercise. Regular exercise is a crucial strategy for increasing your resistance to illness. There is evidence that regular, moderate exercise can reduce your risk for respiratory illness by boosting your immune system. In fact, one study8 found that people who exercised regularly (five or more days a week) cut their risk of having a cold by close to 50 percent. And, in the event they did catch a cold, their symptoms were much less severe than among those who did not exercise.
Exercise likely cuts your risk of colds so significantly because it triggers a rise in immune system cells that can attack any potential invaders. Each time you exercise you can benefit from this boost to your immune system. Ideally, establish a regular fitness program, such as Peak Fitness, now, to help you ward off colds and other illness. Exercise can also help boost your immune system acutely, by increasing your body temperature. This helps kill off invading pathogens, similarly to the fever your body produces when sick.
- Using ineffective strategies to address emotional stressors. Emotional stressors can also predispose you to an infection while making cold symptoms worse. Finding ways to manage daily stress as well as your reactions to circumstances beyond your control will contribute to a strong and resilient immune system. Effective strategies include a variety of energy psychology tools, such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
Zinc – Another Trusted Cold-Fighter
A Cochrane Database Review of the medical research on zinc found that when taken within one day of the first symptoms, zinc can cut down the time you have a cold by about 24 hours. The review included 15 randomized control trials, consisting of 1,360 participants of all age groups. Zinc was also found to greatly reduce the severity of symptoms.
The review stopped short of recommending any specific dose of zinc, citing the need for further studies to establish optimal formulations and durations of treatment. However, some of the studies showed the beneficial qualities of zinc in fighting the common cold used between 50 and 65 mg a day. The people taking lozenges were more likely to experience adverse effects than those taking syrup, including a bad taste in their mouth and nausea.
Zinc was not recommended for anyone with an underlying health condition, like lowered immune function, asthma or chronic illness.
Also keep in mind that any time you isolate one mineral and ingest it independently of the others, the potential exists for imbalance, or in the worst case, overdose. Therefore, I wouldn't currently recommend taking more than 50 mg a day, and I do not recommend taking large doses of zinc on a daily basis for preventive purposes as you could easily develop a copper imbalance that way. You can also activate the "Reverse Effect" in which too much of a good nutrient can actually cause the opposite of what it's supposed to do. So leave zinc for acute, short-term use only. Foods like garlic, on the other hand, can safely be consumed regularly to maintain a robust immune system.
'Let Food Be Thy Medicine'
As mentioned earlier, the first thing you want to do when you feel yourself coming down with a cold or flu is to avoid ALL sugars and processed foods. (I also recommend avoiding all artificial sweeteners, as they can have a detrimental effect on immune function as well.) Sugar is particularly damaging to your immune system -- which needs to be ramped up, not suppressed, in order to combat an emerging infection. This includes fructose from fruit juice, and all types of grains (as they rapidly break down to sugar in your body).
Make sure to drink plenty of pure water. Water is essential for the optimal function of every system in your body and will help with nose stuffiness and loosening secretions. You should drink enough water so that your urine is a light, pale yellow. Ideally, you'll want to address nutrition, sleep, exercise and stress issues the moment you first feel yourself coming down with something. This is when immune-enhancing strategies will be most effective. Foods that will help strengthen your immune response include:
Raw, grass-fed organic milk, and/or high-quality whey protein
|| Fermented foods such as raw kefir, kimchee, miso, pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables
|| Raw, organic eggs from pastured chickens
|| Grass-fed beef in small quantities of a few ounces
|| Coconuts and coconut oil
|| Organic vegetables
|| Garlic. Ideally consumed raw and crushed just before eating
|| Turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, cloves
|| Mushrooms, especially Reishi, Shiitake, and Maitake
Does Chicken Soup Really Work?
Short answer, yes, chicken soup can be helpful against cold and flu symptoms. Chicken contains a natural amino acid called cysteine, which can thin the mucus in your lungs and make it less sticky so you can expel it more easily.
Processed, canned soups won't work as well as the homemade version, however. For best results, make up a fresh batch yourself (or ask a friend or family member to do so) and make the soup hot and spicy with plenty of pepper. The spices will trigger a sudden release of watery fluids in your mouth, throat, and lungs, which will help thin down the respiratory mucus so it's easier to cough up and expel. Making it from scratch is easy. Below, I demonstrate a simple recipe for making your own chicken soup and stock
- Put the chicken bones in a large stock pan (use bones from organically-raised chicken)
- Cover the bones with water
- Bring to a boil and lower the heat
- Simmer for about an hour or longer
Vitamin D – An Excellent Cold and Flu Prevention Strategy
Vitamin D is an amazingly effective antimicrobial agent, producing 200 to 300 different antimicrobial peptides in your body that kill bacteria, viruses and fungi. So optimizing your levels will not only help send a cold or flu virus packing, it can prevent them from invading your body in the first place. Contrary to flu vaccines, this recommendation has been steadily gaining scientific validation. In fact, there's compelling evidence suggesting cold and flu may actually be symptoms of vitamin D deficiency.
Dr. John Cannell, founder of the Vitamin D Council, was one of the first to introduce the idea that vitamin D deficiency may actually be an underlying cause of influenza, which would help explain its apparent benefits as a flu-fighter. His hypothesis was published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection in 2006,9 which was followed up with another study published in the Virology Journal in 2008.10 His hypothesis received further support and confirmation when, in the following year, the largest and most nationally representative study of its kind to date discovered that people with the lowest blood vitamin D levels reported having significantly more recent colds or cases of the flu.11
In another study, published in 2010,12 researchers investigated the effect of vitamin D on the incidence of seasonal influenza A in schoolchildren. Over the course of a year, influenza A occurred in just 10.8 percent of the children in the vitamin D group, compared with 18.6 percent of the children in the placebo group. According to the authors:
"This study suggests that vitamin D3 supplementation during the winter may reduce the incidence of influenza A, especially in specific subgroups of schoolchildren."
Revised and Updated Recommendations for Optimizing Your Vitamin D Levels
Research on vitamin D is moving swiftly, so you'd be well advised to stay on top of the latest developments as recommendations are refined and updated. I will cover the latest developments here, so you may want to share this article with your peers. First, it's important to remember that sun exposure is the best way to optimize your vitamin D levels as your body has built-in "fail-safe" mechanisms that prevent detrimental side effects from occurring. Last year, I created a video to help you determine if you can get enough vitamin D from sun exposure in your area at different times of the year.
Based on additional information received, I now believe that my previous position was too strict... The good news is, you can likely get vitamin D under far less ideal conditions than previously suggested.
The radiation from the sun that reaches the earth's surface (and hence your body) is partially filtered out by the atmosphere. I had previously stated that UVB rays will only penetrate the atmosphere when the sun is above an angle of about 50° from the horizon, and that when the sun is lower than 50°, the ozone layer will absorb vitamin D-producing UVB-rays while allowing the longer, and more harmful, UVA-rays to get through, which would defeat the purpose of spending time in the sun.
This recommendation is likely too strict. According to experts in the field, you can likely get sufficient amounts of UVB radiation when the sun is as low as 30 degrees above the horizon, or whenever the temperature is warm enough to expose large amounts of skin.
I thank John Hochman, MSME, for bringing this to my attention. According to Dr. Ola Engelsen with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, the creator of a calculator13 that takes a number of factors into consideration give you an estimate of how many minutes of exposure you need to produce the equivalent of 1,000 IU's of vitamin D, the sun must be more than 15 degrees above the horizon during cloudless conditions.
If You Take Vitamin D Supplements, Remember to Take Vitamin K2
Second, based on the latest investigations by Carole Baggerly, director of GrassrootsHealth, the average adult dose required to reach healthy vitamin D levels is around 8,000 IU's of vitamin D per day if you're taking an oral supplement. For children, many experts agree they need about 35 IU's of vitamin D per pound of body weight. Here, it's important to remember that if you're taking high dose vitamin D supplements, you ALSO need to take vitamin K2.
The biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, such as your bones and teeth. It also helps remove calcium from areas where it shouldn't be, such as in your arteries and soft tissues. Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the symptoms of vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries. The reason for this is because when you take vitamin D, your body creates more vitamin K2-dependent proteins that move calcium around in your body. Without vitamin K2, those proteins remain inactivated, so the benefits of those proteins remain unrealized.
So remember, if you take supplemental vitamin D, you're creating an increased demand for K2. Together, these two nutrients help strengthen your bones and improve your heart health.
While the ideal or optimal ratios between vitamin D and vitamin K2 have yet to be elucidated, Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue, author of Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life, suggests that for every 1,000 IU's of vitamin D you take, you may benefit from about 100 micrograms of K2, and perhaps as much as 150-200 micrograms (mcg). So, if you take 8,000 IU's of vitamin D3 per day, that means you'd need in the neighborhood of 800 to 1,000 micrograms (0.8 to 1 milligram/mg) of vitamin K2.
Lastly, remember that your vitamin D requirements are highly individual, as your vitamin D status is dependent on numerous factors, so while 8,000 IU's of vitamin D3 per day may put you closer to the ballpark of what most people likely need, it is impossible to make a blanket recommendation that will cover everyone's needs. The only way to determine your optimal dose is to get your blood tested. Ideally, you'll want to maintain a vitamin D serum level of 50-70 ng/ml year-round. For an in-depth explanation of everything you need to know before you get tested, please read my latest updates in Test Values and Treatment for Vitamin D Deficiency.
Other Supplements that Send Pathogens Packin'
There are a number of supplements that can be beneficial for colds and influenza, but I believe they should be used only as an adjunct to other healthy dietary and lifestyle measures discussed in this article. Some of the more helpful options for cold and flu – above and beyond vitamin D, garlic, and zinc – include:
Vitamin C: A very potent antioxidant; use a natural form such as acerola, which contains associated micronutrients.
A tea made from a combination of elderflower, yarrow, boneset, linden, peppermint and ginger: Drink it hot and often for combating a cold or flu. It causes you to sweat, which is helpful for eradicating a virus from your system
Oregano Oil: The higher the carvacrol concentration, the more effective it is. Carvacrol is the most active antimicrobial agent in oregano oil
Medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake, reishi, and turkey tail
Propolis: A bee resin and one of the most broad-spectrum antimicrobial compounds in the world; propolis is also the richest source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two very important compounds that aid in immune response
Olive leaf extract: Ancient Egyptians and Mediterranean cultures used it for a variety of health-promoting uses and it is widely known as a natural, non-toxic immune system builder
So please, carefully review the evidence against flu vaccines, and consider using all-natural immune boosting lifestyle strategies as your first line of defense against colds and flu. As you can see, there are many alternatives available, from optimizing your vitamin D levels and taking zinc at the first sign of infection, to incorporating immune boosting foods like garlic into your daily diet.
How Vitamin D Performance Testing Can Help Optimize Your Health
Additionally, a robust and growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for good health and disease prevention. Vitamin D affects your DNA through vitamin D receptors (VDRs), which bind to specific locations of the human genome. Scientists have identified nearly 3,000 genes that are influenced by vitamin D levels, and vitamin D receptors have been found throughout the human body.
Is it any wonder then that no matter what disease or condition is investigated, vitamin D appears to play a crucial role? This is why I am so excited about the D*Action Project by GrassrootsHealth. It is showing how you can take action today on known science with a consensus of experts without waiting for institutional lethargy. It has shown how by combining the science of measurement (of vitamin D levels) with the personal choice of taking action and, the value of education about individual measures that one can truly be in charge of their own health.
In order to spread this health movement to more communities, the project needs your involvement. This was an ongoing campaign during the month of February, and will become an annual event.
To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. (Please note that 100 percent of the proceeds from the kits go to fund the research project. I do not charge a single dime as a distributor of the test kits.)
As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five-year study, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee every six months for your sponsorship of this research project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."