Winter is synonymous with the Cold and Flu season – a period during the year when people are most susceptible to getting either the common cold or the flu.
In a typical flu presentation an individual rapidly experiences chills and high fever, prostration, cough, body aches and pains, headache (particularly behind the eyes), increased sensitivity to light and generalized malaise. Respiratory symptoms include sore throat, coryza, and a productive or non-productive cough. Because the flu is usually self-limiting, unless serious complications arise, conventional treatment tends to focus on reducing symptoms via an antipyretic (to reduce fever), antitussive (to reduce cough), anti-inflammatory (to reduce pain) and/or decongestants (to facilitate easy breathing). Nevertheless, it can take weeks for an individual to fully recover from the flu.
From a Naturopathic perspective, the focus always is on supporting the immune system. Having a weak or dysfunctional immune system (vaccinated or not) can be likened to entering a battle carrying only knives while the enemy is outfitted with bombs and machine guns. Therefore, it is vital that every person support their immune system through healthy lifestyle and equip themselves with the appropriate tools per chance they develop the flu for a quick recovery.
In addition to some of the common suggestions regarding flu prevention, such as proper hand washing, the following highlights some key lifestyle modifications aimed at flu prevention.
Physical activity – In addition to feeling good and looking good, exercise and physical activity will help keep you healthy. The lymphatic system, similar to the circulatory system, runs throughout the body and is responsible for collecting and destroying toxins, bacteria/viruses and abnormal cells that invade the body. In order for foreign particles to be eliminated quickly and efficiently, the lymphatic system needs to flow continuously. Unlike the circulatory system, which has the heart to continually pump blood, the lymphatic system does not have a pump and relies on the contractions of our muscles (via physical activity and exercise) to circulate its fluid throughout the body. Therefore, it is vitally important to keep moving for at least 30 minutes per day to keep the flu virus at bay.
Fresh air and the outdoors – As the cold weather becomes unbearable, it is natural to want to stay in the warm indoors. Keep in mind that artificially controlled environment with recycled air or poor air circulation increases exposure to germs. Furthermore, staying indoors means less sun exposure which decreases Vitamin D stores leading to an increased susceptibility for infections.
Eat immune boosting foods – Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables daily to supply the immune system with the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for proper functioning. Furthermore, avoid immune compromising foods such as sugar, fried, fast and processed foods. Instead, incorporate immune boosting foods such as a clove of garlic per day. On an interesting note, the flu season overlaps with the months when sugar consumption is highest – usually beginning from Halloween until Valentine’s day. This clearly illustrates the effects of refined sugar on the immune system.
Protect the Wind Gate – In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the back of the neck represents an area of exchange for wind (or external pathogens) and is called “wind gate”. When the back of the neck is exposed, the wind or protective gate is down – allowing environmental pathogens to invade. Therefore, during the winter months, protect this area by always covering it up with a scarf or a high collar.
Sleep to Heal – Of the various lifestyle factors mentioned, sleep is possibly the most important as far as prevention and treatment of the flu go. This is because when one sleeps, the body is in parasympathetic mode. It is only during the parasympathetic mode that the body heals itself. Therefore, support your immune system by getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
As with any condition, the way in which one person experiences the flu will differ from that of another. Therefore, emphasis is always on an individualized treatment plan. The following highlights nutritional considerations and select botanicals that may help in the prevention and treatment of the flu. Note, the dosages provided is intended as an average – please see your Naturopathic Doctor to determine the suitability of the dosages for your individual need.
Vitamin D – Since the 1940’s numerous studies have linked the occurrence and severity of the flu, particularly the swine flu, with decreased levels of Vitamin D in the blood. Until recently, with the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, numerous studies have surfaced showing the powerful effect that sun exposure and Vitamin D has on the immune system. Specifically, Vitamin D’s contribution to the manufacturing of a broad-spectrum antimicrobial (i.e., destroys bacteria, viruses and fungi) called antimicrobial peptides (AMP’s). Thus, to prevent the onset of the flu or to decrease the severity of the flu, consider supplementation with Vitamin D daily if blood levels are deficient.
Vitamin C – Linus Pauling, the recipient of two Nobel prizes, has for decades advocated the use of high dose vitamins, notably Vitamin C, for the treatments various diseases including the flu. While somewhat unorthodox for his time, Vitamin C has been proven to shorten the duration and severity of the flu, at adequate dosages. Because Vitamin C has the half life of only 30 minutes, frequent high doses of 1000mg is recommended each hour up to bowel tolerance (i.e., until your stool becomes loose).
N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is an ester of the amino acid L-Cysteine. It is a potent antioxidant that has been used for over 30 years to treat bronchitis and other lung conditions due to its expectorant (clearing mucous from the airways) and mucolytic (breaks down mucous) properties. As the flu primarily targets the respiratory system, supplementing with NAC significantly reduces the severity and likelihood of having flu symptoms. Research shows that supplementation of 600mg-1500mg in three divided doses is typical and mostly safe.
Zinc plays an important role in maintaining healthy immune function. Human studies have observed even a mild deficiency can elicit changes in immune status, weakening the system’s ability to recruit and kill invading viruses and bacteria. At the onset of the flu, a typical dosage should not exceed 30mg per day. Note: long-term supplementation with zinc is not recommended.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra or Sambucus Canadensis) extracts have been studied extensively for decades due to its effectiveness against the flu. In fact, in numerous studies, almost all of those given elderberry extract had their flu completely resolved and symptom-free within 2 days (as opposed to 6+ days) This is partially due to the fact that Elderberry inhibits an enzyme called neuraminidase, used by viruses to spread infection to host cells. Additionally, Elderberry contains antioxidants called flavonoids – which stimulate the immune system, and anthocyanins – which have anti-inflammatory effect. Recommended dose for Elderberry extract is 15mL 3-4x daily until resolution of the flu.
Olive leaf extract (Olea europaea) has strong anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Oleuropein, one of the active ingredients, has been shown to interact with the protein of virus particles and reduce the infectivity and inhibit replication of viruses known to causes colds, influenza (flu) and lower respiratory infection. Reports indicate olive leaf extract taken at the onset of flu symptoms prevents or shortens the duration of the disease. Recommended dosage is 500mg (standardized to at least 15% oleuropein) three times daily for the flu.
Disclaimer: The information provided above is not intended for diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult with either your Naturopathic Doctor or Medical Doctor before making any changes to your current treatment plan or implementing any health protocol.
Lily Hoang, B.Sc (Hons), ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor at It’s All About You. Her practice focuses on finding the root cause of health conditions and utilizing a blend of traditional medicine, natural forms of healing and modern scientific knowledge.