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The Flu and what you can do

I write a lot about seasonal health, but what about seasonal disease? Flu is unusual in this regard as it typically appears in northern latitudes between November and March having travelled to the US from Southeast and East Asia where the majority of flu viruses originate each year.

These flu viruses change a bit each year – just enough to evade the human immune system that has adapted to fight off previous strains. The World Health Organization, the US government, and private sector scientists who are engaged in creating the vaccines must guesstimate which specific viruses will be in circulation, often more than a year before the disease arrives in the US. Therefore the results from each year’s flu vaccine vary quite a bit and in some cases the effectiveness can be as low as low as 10-15%, which means that many people get the flu even after having their shot.

So the flu is a seasonal disease but why does it appear in the winter rather than autumn or spring? There are several theories:

  • It is a result of less physical activity and more time spent indoors close to others, especially with children and their exposures in school.
  • It involves suppressed immunity from lowered Vitamin D levels because of less sunlight and shorter days (and maybe lowered melatonin levels as well).
  • Or is it the stress of the holidays and excess sugar and alcohol as examples of nutritional imbalance that lowers our immune resistance?

These are all certainly part of the story, but some researchers have proposed that the crucial factor is the cold winter climate itself; so, it is interesting that the name “influenza” is an Italian word that originated in the mid-18th century as “influenza di freddo”, or “influence of the cold.”

Flu viruses spread through the air in little respiratory droplets that are more stable in cold air. Low humidity also helps the virus particles remain airborne longer. These factors contribute to the virus infecting more people. In warmer, damper weather the droplets pick up water, get larger and fall to the ground more quickly reducing their infectious potential.

By contrast, common cold viruses are spread primarily by direct contact such as shaking hands with an infected person, or touching a surface that has itself been touched by someone with a cold.

The Inner Climate

From the Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, we get out of balance not just from exposure to outer conditions, but also from internal emotions (inner weather) like worry, fear or anger, which stress our organs and weaken our tissues. In addition, there are the external factors that include extreme climates like cold and damp, heat or wind that can disturb our body/mind and disrupt our energies. The winter climate seems to stress us more than most other seasons, which can lead to symptoms, and susceptibility to diseases like the flu. This is not the Western medicine conceptual model, but I have found useful to think about the causes of disease from the inside out and not just from the outside in as we tend to do when we talk about germs and viruses.

The Best Approach is Prevention as with many diseases.

  • I try to stay warm inside and out by keeping up my stretching and exercise program, eating well and getting enough sleep.
  • I take vitamin C, D, some A and zinc, and various herbs, and use fresh garlic and ginger in my diet. and I put cayenne pepper on most dishes.
  • This is for prevention and there are also many natural approaches to consider, which I detail below, if we start to feel sick.
  • After the Holiday season, which can be quite challenging healthwise, I simplify my diet and do a general detox program in January or February, avoiding rich foods, sugar, wheat (gluten), and alcohol.

Tips on the Prevention and Treatment of Colds & Flu

I mentioned these tips in my recent 10 Tips for a Healthy Autumn, but I think they’re always worth repeating at this time of year.

Here’s what you can do if you start to get a cold or the flu. It is best to jump on it immediately.

Vitamin C – I start with hourly vitamin C of 500-1000 mg,

Vitamin A – I take and often suggest increased doses of vitamin A (not beta-carotene) – 25,000-30,000 IUs 3-4 times daily for just 3-4 days and then lower that dosage to 10-25,000 IUs twice daily for about a week. Then take a break since excess vitamin A can be toxic if taken too long in these higher amounts. Although when we are fighting off infections, it doesn’t seem to be problematic and these higher amounts help us fight off germs at our mucous membranes.

Garlic – I also use fresh garlic, taking several cloves at a time, dipping them in honey and chewing them. I may repeat this several times for the first day; alternatively, you can press a few cloves into a hot bowl of soup. Garlic is a spicy and aromatic natural antibiotic and immune defender; you could also use the odorless garlic caps, several capsules 3 times daily, if you do not want the smell, but they are not quite as effective.

Echinacea and Goldenseal – an extract (in alcohol) can also be used to support immunity and cleanse the membranes; even the alcohol in them is a disinfectant.

Olive leaf, Oregano Oil or Elderberry extracts – these herbs have some anti-viral properties and can provide some support as well.

Zinc – is an immune supporter and can help with sore throats. A variety of zinc lozenges are available in the stores.

For chest congestion, drink ginger root tea (simmer a few slices of root in a cup or two of water). Also, use some of the hot ginger tea to make a compress and place the soaked cloth over your upper chest. This is warming (which tends to stimulate blood circulation) and helps break up congestion. There are both natural and over-the-counter medicines for colds and coughs.

Hydration – of course, drink lots of water, herbal teas, and hot soup.

Rest – and remember that extra rest helps in healing. Often, we get sick when we are out of balance or overdoing it, so a cold gives us the opportunity to rest and sleep.

Elson Haas, MD.

Integrative Family Medicine Physician, Author and Educator

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