By Molly Freeman
Flu season is upon us once again. Every year, the media inundates the public with reasons for getting a flu shot because it is apparently the only way to prevent getting the illness. However, there are other ways to stay healthy, even amid the yearly epidemic known as flu season.
Photo by Daniel Paquet.
The most common natural alternatives to the flu vaccine can be grouped into two categories: supplements and lifestyle. Supplements are vitamins, minerals, etc. that help to boost a person’s immune system. These can be paired with healthy lifestyle choices to help prevent contracting the flu virus. A notable alternative to the flu vaccine is the naturopathic approach, which according to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, “works with nature to restore people’s health.”
The AANP recommends vitamin C, vitamin A, and zinc for flu prevention as these vitamins enhance the immune system’s ability to fight off infections; zinc and vitamin A are associated with the functionality of T cells, a type of white blood cell that helps fend off infections. Another important vitamin that naturopathic doctors recommend is vitamin D.
In his column for Better Nutrition, Dr. Michael T. Murray tells readers boosting their vitamin D levels is very important not only for flu prevention but for one’s overall health. Low levels of vitamin D “are a major factor in the development of at least 17 varieties of cancer,” as well as a many other health conditions, including the flu. Women and children who took vitamin D on a daily basis dramatically reduced their risk of developing the flu. However, the amount of the vitamin counts for something: Dr. Murray recommends taking 2,000-5,000 IU daily.
Other supplements suggested by the AANP include elderberry and Echinacea. Research shows that elderberry extract has properties that stop the activity of viruses and prevents the virus from replicating. The extract also contains immune function boosters like vitamins A and C. Echinacea contains immune stimulating polysaccharides that “naturally enhance the body’s resistance to infection.” Although the AANP recommends Echinacea, other doctors, such as Brent A. Bauer in his Q&A with MayoClinic, aren’t convinced it has been sufficiently proven effective in preventing the flu.
The makers of the documentary Food Matters also recommend probiotics to “trigger appropriate white cell reactions to invaders and influence your mental/emotional state.” They suggest taking probiotics in an effort to counteract all the bad bacteria in the body with good bacteria.
While all of these supplements can be found at grocery or drug stores, the recommended lifestyle changes might take a little more effort to enact than picking up a couple bottles during your next shopping trip.
The most popular lifestyle tips offered are to sleep well, reduce stress, and eat a healthy diet. Consistently inadequate or erratic sleep decreases the body’s defenses and can hinder its ability to fight off a viral infection. The AANP advises adults to get between seven to nine hours of sleep every night in order to keep the immune system healthy.
Excessive stress can also lower the immune systems functionality, so it’s important to develop stress management techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or exercise. Lastly, a healthy diet is important to providing your body with all the vitamins it needs to fight off the flu. This means avoiding sugary snacks as well, which research has shown to “depress the immune system for several hours.”
WebMD recommends not smoking and cutting alcohol consumption as those can also suppress the immune system. It’s not enough to take vitamins, it’s also important to make sure nothing bad is going into your body as well. In addition, WebMD also suggests not coughing and sneezing into your hands, and, of course, washing your hands regularly to prevent the spread of germs and viruses.
Just because it might be easier to get a flu shot than remember all the vitamins and make an effort to get a full night’s sleep, doesn’t mean the vaccine is the best prevention of the flu virus.
Dr. Sarah Cimperman, who practices naturopathic medicine, says, “Healthy adults don’t need the flu shot and for most people, the risks outweigh the benefits.”
In between 80 and 90 percent of flu vaccines there is a mercury-based preservative, thimersol, which the Material Safety Data Sheet calls toxic and lists effects of exposure as: “numbness of extremities, fetal changes, decreased offspring survival, and lung tissue changes.” Dr. Cimperman is equally concerned about Flublok, a new mercury-free vaccine, because it uses genetically modified ingredients. Although this is the first genetically engineered flu vaccine, research from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has shown there are side effects to genetically modified foods such as infertility, accelerated aging, changes in the liver, kidneys, and other organs.
When it comes to flu prevention, Dr. Cimperman recommends taking the appropriate vitamins, minerals, and probiotics along with eating well, getting plenty of sleep, exercising, managing stress, and addressing any underlying health problems.
She says, “It’s still important to wash our hands, minimize contact with shared surfaces and exposure to sick people, etc., but it’s equally important to maintain good overall health so we are less likely to get sick when we are exposed.”
Whether you get the flu shot or not, it’s important to understand the risks of the vaccine. There are plenty of other options that are more natural that might be healthier in the long run.