You’ve probably noticed the uptick in terrifying news stories about flu in the last month or so. That’s no mistake – the CDC, FDA, and pharmaceutical trade would like you to be afraid, very afraid, of flu, in hopes that you’ll go get a flu shot.
Too bad the shot is such a fail this year.
This happens. Every year, best guesses are made about which flu strains to include in a vaccine, many months ahead of flu season. The soothsayers don’t always guess right.
And too bad even in good years, flu shots are no slam dunk. Their efficacy is, well, meh. In the 2014-2015 flu season, they were almost 100% ineffective, offering protection only 6% of the time. Over the years, they barely reach a 50% efficacy rate at preventing flu – a coin toss or worse for odds. Some data show they don’t work at all, especially in the elderly,and they may even spread more infection.
Besides not having a stellar performance record, there are problems with this product: It contains mercury or aluminum (which is almost as neurotoxic as mercury, and suspect as an Alzheimer’s trigger), contaminant or rogue viral material, formaldehyde, and so on (why do parents wring hands about which organic Paleo snack is best, then don’t blink about injecting this stuff into their toddlers?). This is all heavy baggage for a product that the government would really, really like you to use, and that is why supermarkets, schools, drug stores, and even McDonalds are trying to give you a flu shot. My neighborhood supermarket plays flu shot shill on its pharmacy phone line, offers a feel-good incentive of a free meal to the homeless if you get one, and hangs placards everywhere about how easy it is to just walk in and get one.
But alas. People still recoil. Still, all is not lost. There are many strategies to build your immune strength so that you either don’t get flu, or if you do, it is a milder bout with shorter course.
Your body uses a tool kit to fight and manage infection. The tools it uses are manufactured by you, from food you eat. Vaccines don’t deliver any of those tools. All they do is deliver a ghost version of the infection, with some irritants to stimulate your immune system. It’s your job as a host-body to respond with protective strategies – things like immunoglobulins, white blood cells, and so on. Those are what protect you, not the vaccine itself. You have to make that stuff.
So prep yourself and your kids with the right stuff. There will be flu. There will be snot. There will be fever. But maybe your kids avoid it, or maybe you don’t get so bad a bout. Here’s how immune systems work best:
- Make sure your child is not underweight. Don’t think s/he is? Read this. Your child should be north of the 10th percentile for body mass index (BMI), or for weight to height ratio. This is when kids’ bodies have robust resources to draw on to fight and manage infection, a task that consumes protein, calories (energy) and the nutrients below, to name a few. Underweight kids get sick more often, stay sick longer, and are at higher risk for complications from infection, due to a well understood phenomenon called cycle of malnutrition and infection. This kicks in even when kids are just a little bit underweight.
- Maintain strong status for vitamin D, heading into winter and all throughout. Though lab ranges generally cut off at 30 ng/mL as too low, in our office we prefer to see patients in the 40-60 ng/mL range.
- Maintain strong status for vitamin A rich foods. Cod liver oil is a good source, but don’t use more than a teaspoon daily for kids under 40 or 50 pounds. Too much vitamin A is not a good thing and will trigger low appetite, bone pains usually in long bones, dry peeling skin, demineralization of bones, or vomiting. If your doctor tests your child, levels should be at least 20 mcg/dL for health; below that warrants supplementation, according to the World Health Organization.
- Eat zinc rich foods or supplement zinc. Zinc is another critical nutrient for immune function and building white blood cells. It has helps prevent viruses from replicating and attaching to your nasal membranes. Since it’s in foods many kids can’t eat (allergy) or don’t like, it’s common to have marginal zinc status. You can safely supplement 15-30 mg/day in children with lozenges, liquids, or pills; more may be needed acutely. As much as 75-150 mg zinc has been clinically trialed in children, safely. Pumpkin seeds, most nuts, lamb, pork, eggs, spinach, flax meal or flax seed, shrimp, chick peas, mushrooms, and cocoa are zinc rich foods. Caveat: Chocolate with cane sugar won’t go far since sugar will drop white blood cell count and drop your body’s defenses. Which leads me to my next recommendation…
- Don’t eat sugar during flu season. See previous bullet. This means eat more vegetables than fruits; skip juices or soda for water, tea, or broth; pass on baked treats, muffins, candy, granola, sugary power bars, starchy pasta with sugary tomato sauce; check your kids’ favorite condiments for sugar (ketchup, dressings, canned or frozen snacks).
- Check your kids’ iron status early in the fall. This is best done with a full iron study, which includes:
- Serum iron
- TIBC (iron binding capacity)
- Hemoglobin (HgB) and hematocrit (Hct)
- Complete blood count (CBC)
This is more blood work than your pediatrician usually would order to check iron. I like that data because it fully describes where and how your child is using iron, a critical immune nutrient, and thus tells me what to do about it all, for nutrition support. It will also yield details about your kids’ red and white blood cells, and where nutrition deficits may be emerging. Since we store iron and since it is a toxin as well as a necessary mineral, the body has eloquent strategies to absorb it from food, store it, use it, or excrete it. Looking at just ferritin, which is what your doctor and your insurance plan may prefer, won’t tell the whole story. If iron status is marginal, shore it up with good diet: Eggs, red meats, dark greens, beans, ample protein, and a supplement if necessary. Don’t supplement iron without supervision – it can be toxic or deadly if misused. Weak iron status can take weeks or months to replenish, so start early in the fall.
- Good old vitamin C: When the government set up minimum daily requirements for nutrients decades ago, we didn’t know much then about nutrition in healthy people, much less in sick people. Eating 60-100 mg of vitamin C daily might keep your gums from bleeding or getting scurvy, but it won’t go far to tool up your immune system. This is a safe nutrient to eat a lot of, barring known concerns for kidney stones; infusions of C of 50,000 mg (fifty grams) are not unusual in functional medicine practice. Vitamin C stimulates production of neutrophils, lymphocytes, and phagocytes – all powerful defenders for you. Eat a lot of it. Too much will cause watery stools, so that is your barometer for how much you can tolerate. Supplementing 500-1000 mg/day and more during illness may do the trick.
- Play outside, and get exercise. Tell your kids to go build a snow man. Do yoga, get upside down, go sledding, take a walk. Sunlight, fresh air and movement will move lymph, which carries much of your seek-and-destroy fighter pilot white blood cells. Lymph’s only pump is your muscle action, and gravity. Blood is pumped by the heart but lymph depends on moving and breathing vigorously to flush itself around, and help you release debris and toxins from infection-fighting.
- Don’t stress. Seriously. Stress is a swift and powerful buzz kill for your immune system. It actually suppresses it. Do what you can to counter it, if you can’t avoid it: Watch funny movies, break some plates, watch kitty videos, say oooommmm three times.
You just may be able to beat colds and flu even when flu shots fail. Tool up your body’s fighters so they have the armour they need to do their job. Food is the building material for all these tasks. Vaccines can influence the assembly line, but you still need the raw lumber to build stuff like immunoglobulin, neutrophils, lymphocytes, phagocytes, T cells, and much more; that stuff is made of protein, fats, good carbs, vitamins and minerals, which you gotta eat. Vaccines aren’t the lumber. They’re just the fire drill. Getting a flu shot without good nutrition already on deck is like throwing the fire alarm without having the fire truck, fire fighters, or hoses ready. Flu is no joke for vulnerable people, and it isn’t always obvious who might be vulnerable – but you can keep your fire crew at the ready at all times with good nutrition.