With the holidays here, families are gathering in one place to celebrate from distant places-- exposing family members to germs from across the country. We can expect colds and flu to make the rounds. Flu vaccine—the most effective way to prevent the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—remains a controversial subject. Why?
First, most flu vaccines still contain thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. This preservative is found in many household and over-the-counter preparations, including many contact lens solutions. It is not uncommon to have or develop an allergy to this preservative.
Second, because of the unpredictability of flu strains, the available vaccine often doesn't match the strain of flu that hits the population. The composition of each flu vaccine is based upon someone's best guess as to which strains will appear the year after the flu vaccine is produced. Even if the guess is correct, and the vaccine corresponds with the circulating flu strain, it is not that effective. A recent study found that the overall effectiveness of vaccines against flu-like illness in the elderly was 23% when vaccine matching was good, and "not significantly different from non-vaccination when matching was poor or unknown." Another study shows about a 1% prevention of the complications of pneumonia after flu, which is the life-threatening part of this illness. If that is the best the vaccines can do, the risk – benefit ratio for taking the vaccine does not look attractive.
Recent research shows that the best protection from flu may be flu itself. In the past 20 years, deaths from flu in the elderly have decreased. At the same time, flu vaccination has increased by 45 to 50%. Researchers concluded that flu vaccine didn't help decrease deaths from flu—people simply acquired natural immunity to the emerging strain of flu.
Many people are looking into natural ways to prevent viruses. Some methods are supported by research, and I will share a couple of these.
Garlic has been used as a health food for more than 5,000 years and is touted for its antibiotic properties and effect on general immunity. A recent study found that a group of people treated with an allicin-containing garlic supplement for a period of 12 winter weeks had significantly fewer colds than the group that took a placebo (24 colds vs. 65) and recovered faster if infected. In the group treated with the garlic supplement, 24 people came down with the common cold, which lasted for 1.52 days, compared with 65 people in the no-treatment group who had colds that lasted 5 days on average.
Garlic therapy should be discontinued at least two weeks prior to surgery to prevent excessive bleeding. People on anticoagulants should consult their physicians.
Green and black teas have been studied for their effects on the cardiovascular system and cancer. A recent Harvard study looked at tea's role in boosting the immunity system. Participants who drank five cups of black tea a day for 2 to 4 weeks increased their levels of interferon, an important immune defense hormone—up to 4 X normal levels. Drinking the same amount of coffee for 12 weeks produced no such effects. The researchers suggest that the key was in L-theanine, a substance in tea that increases immune response in fighting bacteria, infection, viruses and fungi. Excessive doses may cause insomnia, headache, dizziness, and diarrhea. I enjoy tea personally, but I use a bit of cream.
The role of vitamin C in the prevention and treatment of respiratory infections has been widely researched. Some studies suggest that vitamin C can affect duration or severity of symptoms. Others have shown no effect on the symptoms, but suggested that vitamin C can reduce susceptibility to colds.
A recent study compared 29 clinical trials in which participants received 200 mg or more of vitamin C daily. The researchers found that vitamin C prevented flu or
colds in people who were exposed to "brief periods of severe physical exercise and/or cold environments." In those who regularly take vitamin C, they concluded
that vitamin C plays some role in their defense mechanisms, helping them to recover from their colds faster and reducing the severity of symptoms. People with kidney disease, however, should not use vitamin C.
Zinc lozenges are another home remedy for fighting winter viruses. Although research on this remedy is conflicting, a recent study on zinc gluconate glycine
lozenges in school-aged children showed shorter cold duration and fewer colds with the therapy. Zinc lozenges, however, come in different formulations, and
more research is needed to assess their effectiveness. In addition, long-term use of zinc lozenges may lead to problems, including impairing the body's immune responses. Excessive zinc in the diet can lead to copper deficiency and may also decrease the levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol in the blood.
While I do not have a good study for this one, we have had access in our clinic with people who have upper respiratory infections using far infrared light treatment. This increases blood flow and increases your temperature, creating an artificial fever. This will boost the immune response. Taking a few moments for a sauna will also reduce your stress at this time of the year. Stress will compromise your immune system and make you more susceptible to colds and flu.
So, what can I do to stay healthy? Eat wisely. Get plenty of rest. Control your stress. Keep your distance from those you know are infected with something. Drink some tea, and take your vitamin C. Have a Merry Christmas, too.