The peak of the 2018 flu season is upon us with outbreaks being reported across North America. The influenza virus has hit every state in the continental United States and the media reports that Canadian emergency rooms are overcrowded with sick patients. A number of schools have canceled classes due to a rapid rise in flu-related absences. The flu shot has been a miserable failure, particularly since the mutated H3N2 strain that is spreading is difficult to prevent with the vaccine. And people are missing work, negatively affecting businesses. With the significant effects of the flu this year, some are wondering whether they should isolate themselves at home until the peak flu activity ends in April.
What is the flu and what are the symptoms?
Influenza is a contagious respiratory infection caused by a group of viruses known as influenza. There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C, and D. Influenza D primarily affects cattle and does not cause illness in humans. Human influenza A and B are responsible for the seasonal flu. Influenza C generally only causes mild respiratory symptoms and is not believed to cause seasonal epidemics.
Influenza A is further divided into different strains based on the presence of two proteins on the surface of the virus: hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N). There are 18 different H subtypes and 11 different N subtypes. Influenza A also involves different strains due to virus mutation. H1N1 and H3N2 are two of the most common strains responsible for seasonal flu. They may be labeled according to the year they were most virulent, such as 2009 H1N1 Influenza.
The flu can cause mild to severe illness depending on the age and current state of health of the individual. It usually comes on suddenly and includes the following symptoms:
• Headache and body aches
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy noise
The role of the immune system
Whether or not you get the flu depends on the strength of your immune system. This is why the elderly, very young, and people with chronic medical conditions tend to be hit the hardest by the flu — both in incidence and severity.
The immune system is relatively immature at birth and has to adapt during life through exposure to multiple foreign challenges (viruses, bacteria, etc.). Babies produce their own antibodies each time they are exposed to a foreign challenge. Infants rely upon antibodies passed from their mother to protect them against germs for their first few months of life. Breastfed babies continue to receive a boost of disease-fighting antibodies through breast milk that is rich in cells that fight infection. By age one, their immune system has developed significantly but not fully. An immature immune system obviously increases the risk of influenza infections in infants.
The effects of aging on the immune system include a reduced production and diminished function of key immune cells. (1) In other words, the immune system detects and responds to foreign challenges more slowly with fewer cells performing this vital function. The body also heals more slowly in aged adults. As a result, elderly individuals experience a decline in immune function that makes them more susceptible to illness and a greater risk for complications.
Prevention is a far better strategy than treating the flu, especially if you are in the more vulnerable populations. Flu-related complications — such as pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), and more — resulting in hospitalization and sometimes death are more likely in the elderly, very young, and chronically ill. Here are some tips to reduce your risk of infection:
• Wash your hands with soap and warm water regularly. The flu virus is spread via contact with respiratory droplets. This contact can occur through direct contact with the virus or by contact with a surface the has the virus (like a door handle or shopping cart). Washing your hands frequently can reduce your risk of infection.
• Eat real whole foods (not packaged, processed foods). Your body relies on a daily infusion of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients necessary for proper immune function. Inadequate supply of nutrients weakens your immune defenses and makes you more susceptible to illness. On the contrary, eating fresh fruits and veggies improves your immune defenses. (2)
• Reduce sugar intake. Sugar depresses the activity of white blood cells, (3) which not only protect your body from viruses and germs but help prevent some medical conditions. Indeed, recent research suggests that drinking 1 liter (33.8 ounces) of sugary soda — or 100 grams of sugar — can disable the immune system for up to five hours. (4) Sugar also has a similar structure to vitamin C and competes with C, resulting in less vitamin C in white blood cells. Vitamin C is important for both the production and function of white blood cells.
• Be physically active. Regular physical activity isn’t just good for your heart, body, and mind. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week may reduce the risk of respiratory infections. (5) Regular low to moderate activity also decreases flu-related mortality. (6)
• Take a vitamin D supplement daily. Research has made it abundantly clear that vitamin D plays an important role in immune system regulation. (7) Experts concluded that about 41.6% of U.S. adults are deficient in vitamin D, with those of African American decent reaching 82.1%. (8) Individuals who are deficient can see up to a 50% reduction in influenza risk by taking vitamin D according to a 2011 study. (9) Ideally, people would have their vitamin D status determined by a blood test. However, in the absence of a test it is not unreasonable for elementary aged children to take 1,000 to 2,000 IU daily during flu season, and older teens and adults 2,000 to 5,000 IU daily.
• Take probiotics daily. You may not realize it but about 70% of your immune system lies within your gut as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT. (9) Probiotics play a vital role in the gut microbiome and therefore significantly impact immune function. A review of 13 randomized controlled trials concluded that probiotics reduced the number of people who experienced an acute upper respiratory-tract infection. (10) Another review that included 23 trials and 6,269 children determined that probiotic consumption reduced the incidence of respiratory tract infections in children. (11) Look for a multi-strain probiotic with at least 10 to 15 billion CFU and take one to two daily.
• Wear a mask if you choose. Although not very attractive, wearing a respiratory mask has proven significantly effective in reducing the risk of influenza. (12)
Natural solutions if you get the flu
Despite your best efforts, you may still get influenza. If this happens, a number of natural solutions exist to help speed your recovery.
• Rest. Your body needs time to heal and recover, so take it easy. Stay home from work or school. Not only does this provide much needed rest but you reduce the spread of the virus.
• Drink plenty of fluids. Water, herbal teas, and broth keep your respiratory system hydrated and thin mucus for expulsion. Don’t drink sodas, sugary sports-drinks, or other sugary beverages that will depress your immune system.
• Take elderberry syrup. Preliminary research suggests that taking elderberry syrup reduces both the severity and duration of the influenza A and B. (13) Thousands of individuals can also attest to its effectiveness. As outlined in SuperCritical Essential Oils, typical doses are as follows: teens/adults: 10–15mL, 4 times daily for 5 days; children 1–6 years old: 5mL, twice daily for up to 5 days; children 7–12 years old: 5 mL, 4 times daily for 5 days.
• Use essential oils. Teens and older adults can take a few drops of an immune-supporting blend with two drops of one or two SuperCarrier oils (balsam fir, lavender, lemongrass, ginger, and ylang ylang) in a capsule up to three times daily. This will help support normal immune activity to identify and eliminate the virus. Be sure to diffuse a respiratory blend to support mucus expulsion and respiratory function as well. Younger children can have an immune-supporting blend rubbed onto their feet with carrier oil. Diffusing respiratory supportive oils is also helpful in children three and older. For more information on how to use essential oils see Surviving When Modern Medicine Fails, Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy, or Medicinal Essential Oils.
• Take homeopathic Oscillococcinum. If you catch the flu within the first 12 hours — even better within the first two hours — then you may have success with Oscillococcinum. It is designed to reduce flu-like symptoms such as body aches, fever, chills, fatigue, and headache. Take as directed in the supplement box.
You don’t need to panic and sequester yourself until Spring. Take reasonable and appropriate measures to protect you and your family and life will continue without inviting the dreaded flu into your home.