When Flu Shots Fail, Nutrition To The Rescue

When Flu Shots Fail, Nutrition To The Rescue

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:
    • Ferritin
    • Serum iron
    • TIBC (iron binding capacity)
    • Transferrin
    • 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.





Grazing Versus Meals: What’s Best For Kids?

Grazing Versus Meals: What’s Best For Kids?

Which feeding strategy is healthier for kids – grazing as they please, or structured meals? I get asked this a lot. Here’s what I’ve experienced across some twenty years in clinical practice with all ages of kids, from young infants up to twenty-five year old young men who are finishing their last growth spurts. This question goes not only for meals, but breastfeeding too, especially when infants are wrapping up that first year or so, and becoming very interested in eating what they see you or their siblings eat.

But here’s the thing: The question you really need to start with is, what is best for you?

You may already know that supplying a steady stream of snacks and mini-meals isn’t nourishing for kids, and it’s a lot of work. Are you up for that? How about if you have three kids with different food allergies, not to mention different activities in different directions all day long? Or if your spouse doesn’t “believe” in all the effort you make to feed everybody, wants their own special favorites, and leaves it all on your shoulders? Mix in work schedules and budget constraints for special foods, and this becomes a fail, fast – one that I have witnessed many times in families reaching out for my help.

Usually, kids in these scenarios aren’t thriving. They’re often underweight, cranky, manipulative, poor sleepers, and picky eaters. And the chef-parent is at wits’ end. If you can’t keep up this workload, or if you plain just hate doing it, then it’s simple: Stop. Your happiness matters, period. And, happiness rubs off on your kids. And and, your kids will be healthier with discreet meal schedules, versus growing up on the non-stop graze.

As exhausting as feeding a grazer can be, it’s an easy trap to fall into. There are so many ready-to-eat packaged foods now for toddlers and children, that just handing over that pouch of organic veggie goo, paleo power bar, yogurt tube, or cup of snack crackers when you know your child probably isn’t eating enough is too tempting. But giving in to grazing has problems:

  • It may worsen small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or small intestine fungal overgrowth (SIFO), a frequent cause of picky eating, weak appetite, and poor growth and gain for toddlers in my practice. Brief periods of day time fasting help keep this under control. Toddlers can manage two to three hour stretches between meals or snacks; school age kid, up to four hours or so.
  • Missing those short fasts throughout the day prevents an important thing called the “migrating motor complex“. This is what our GI tracts do between meals, when we’re on empty. It’s a housekeeping function that literally acts like a mini-cleanse broom, sweeping the intestine, and making it hard for lousy SIBO or SIFO microbial garbage to set up house.
  • When the body is fasted, the muscles in the small intestine make a wave of forward motion. This cleansing wave keeps intestinal contents from getting stuck – which is better for that constipation scenario you may be dealing with (read my blog on how to get off Miralax if that’s your kid). Eating too often abruptly ends this task.
  • Grazing can leave toddlers and kids hungry in the middle of the night, causing them to sleep poorly, wake up tired, or cry for a feeding when they’re old enough to sleep through – if they get the food they need during the day.

Some other points to consider

  • Eating is self-care. Kids learn good self care from parents who model health and happiness habits. If you’re miserable dealing with food and preparing meals, your kids will adopt a view of food as a burdensome annoyance too. Don’t expect them to lead the way here or make it easy for you – that’s your job.
  • Perhaps your toddlers (or kids) are good at grabbing what they want to eat, when they want. How independent is that, right? And maybe that makes your day easier. But, they’re toddlers. They are still dependent on adults to make wise decisions about what foods are good, and when. Left to their own devices, they’ll mostly eat what’s familiar, and not explore new foods that they may need, as they grow so rapidly.
  • Up until just a few years ago, there were none of these packaged foods parents now find so irresistible: The squeezable pouches of yogurt, fruit, and veggies; the packages full of crunchy snacks designed to be held by toddler hands; the endless variety of power bars, paleo bars, protein bars, and snack bars; the mini cups of chia pudding or vegan spreadable cheese or hummus; the gummy snacks that are fruit-like, sort of. All of this has been created for one reason: You buy it. It’s profitable. Kids definitely don’t need any of this stuff to be healthy, but if a bit of it in the mix makes life easier, enjoy – just don’t make it your only food strategy.
  • Learning to respond to hunger and fullness healthfully only happens when kids actually experience these things.

Avoid These Sure-To-Fail Scenarios

Recently a mom asked for my help with the breakfast routine for her three kids. One child especially did not want to eat in the morning, then went off to school semi-fed, where he proceeded to have meltdowns.

“Tell me the sequence of what happens; what is the first thing he does when he gets up?” I asked.

She explained that this one of her brood would get up, and immediately settle into Lego play before breakfast, which he would vehemently oppose leaving behind for food. He’d attempt some eating in this disintegrated state of mind, fail, and go off to school blunted for hunger but not well fed.

First step: Lose the Legos. Morning on school days is self care time, not play time. It’s get-ready-for-your-day. It’s fuel-up and settle-down for the tasks ahead. Toys should be nowhere in sight. This may sound hard, given the absurdly ubiquitous nature of branding for toys on everything from pillowcases to toothbrushes (not to mention snack food!). But it’s a self care routine that must be learned. Kids will not become good planners when toys, snacks, and whatever else they desire is within reach at any moment.

Another very common fail I encounter is prolonging breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong: We all know how amazing breastmilk is. But, as infants age out toward their second year, they need some solid food too. I have met countless moms afraid to wean, for a variety of reasons. It’s  misguided to think that breast milk will continue to be the solution as their babies become toddlers. Their kids sip sip sip. They want feedings at midnight, 2 AM and 5 AM even though they’re 13 months old. Fail. This is a kid who needs to start eating food.

Continuing to breast feed is fine – but it should not be the only or primary source of sustenance at this age.

Even if your youngster is doing great at 14 months on just breast milk, I’ll bet you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in a long time. No good. You need sleep. Baby needs food. Solid foods needed for the baby’s higher demands get displaced with constant sipping on breastmilk, which can stop being adequate to meet all of a baby’s needs by about age 10-12 months. This can vary with circumstances for the baby, so finding the fit for you and your baby is key. It might be different from someone else.

If your child is fiercely picky for just breast milk, sleeping fitfully, waking for feedings, and failing to progress with introducing foods after age 15-18 months, it’s time for some intervention and redirection –  call me for an appointment.

Ok, one more: Just like toddlers, older kids need guidance and modeling for healthy self care habits when it comes to food. Teens who skip breakfast, breeze through lunch with a power bar, chow hard at dinner, then eat big again at midnight are setting themselves up for a bunch of challenges for mood, energy, attention/focus, and sleep. If they’re struggling, and combative about food, let’s talk. Most teens I’ve worked with are relieved to be offered options that lift this burden and give them strategies they feel better with quickly. The trick may be hearing it from someone other than mom or dad.

Need help? Work with me to sort out what food your kids need, when, and how!