There is no denying it, cold weather and shorter daylight has arrived. Winter is right outside our doorsteps. Coats, hats, scarves, mittens, cozy socks, and boots will be our best friends for the next few months. Hot teas, hot chocolate, warm soups will warm our bellies and make us feel cozy. Snowflakes will cover everything white and it will look beautiful. Did someone say “snowball fight”? Sounds so charmingly Norman Rockwell … But yes, there are the more challenging parts to winter, driving in poor road conditions, drier indoor air and lack of access to the outdoors. And the cold and flu! The dreaded flu. But do we really need to be fearful of the flu? Or is there something we can do to empower our immune system and improve our health outcomes should we get infected with the flu?
Let’s talk about the flu for a moment. None of the following information is new, but it’s worth the reminder. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I copied the information largely from one of my trusted sources, the Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719
The flu is short for influenza. The Mayo Clinic says: “Influenza is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system – your nose, throat and lungs. Influenza is commonly called the flu, but it’s not the same as stomach “flu” viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting. For most people, influenza resolves on its own. But sometimes, influenza and its complications can be deadly.”
We all most likely know the symptoms of the flu, but lets list the most common ones as a refresher. These symptoms usually appear suddenly, which is a trademark sign for the flu.
- high fevers
- muscle aches
- runny noses
- dry and persistent coughs
- sore throats
- and other miserable symptoms
You are infectious as soon as you have the virus, and your chance of spreading the virus is highest with onset of symptoms. Sometimes you can still spread the virus for a couple of days after symptoms subsided. So, please be aware of these symptoms and be proactive should you experience one or more of them.
Sometimes we may mistake a bad cold with a flu, or the flu with a bad cold; a flu swab in the doctor’s office can confirm if it is the flu or not. If you are in a group of high-risk people for developing flu complications, a diagnosis can be critical for you in getting the proper treatment immediately:
- Age; under age 5 and older than 65
- Residents or employees of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum
- People with weakened immune systems
- People who have chronic illnesses, such a asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes
- People who are very obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher
The complications that may develop can include:
- Asthma flare-ups
- Heart problems
- Ear infections
Pneumonia is the most serious for older adults and people with chronic illness! And it can lead to death especially in the elderly population. Therefore, getting an accurate diagnosis and immediate proper treatment is critical!
Fortunately, most people who are otherwise healthy and who get the flu can treat themselves at home and often don’t need to see a doctor; they recover from the flu without any complications, usually between 1-2 weeks, although in some cases it can take longer.
As much as we want to avoid the flu at all cost, there really exists no magic preventative to do so 100 percent – yet. But we have options that can lower our odds and serve us well in supporting our immune systems and in helping us toward better health outcomes. And after all, we should take care of ourselves not just for our own health benefit, but for those around us, too.
Flu shots are encouraged this time of year. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone age 6 months or older. There are different kinds of flu vaccines, talk to your physician to find out which one might be best for you.
The flu vaccine, unfortunately, is not 100 percent effective. The Mayo Clinic recommends, even if you receive the vaccine, it is important to take some basic measures to avoid spreading the infection. I’m sure you know all these, as they are common sense, however let’s remind us all to:
- Wash our hands. Thorough and frequent hand-washing is an effective way to prevent many common infections.
- Cover our mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze. To avoid contaminating our hands, cough or sneeze into a tissue or into the inner crook of our elbow.
- By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, we reduce our chances of exposure to infection.
- If we are sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after our fever subsides so that we lessen our chance of infecting others!!
Vaccine or not, what else can we all do to boost our immune system to support us through winter or through the flu? There are many options, from pharmaceutical to old time traditional remedies, too many to discuss here. I picked the following, because they are effective, generally safe, easy to find (pharmacies, some grocery stores, online), affordable, and because they are supported by research.
There is research that shows that many people have lower levels of vitamin D in the winter. This is said to be associated with the lack of exposure to sunlight, which stimulates our bodies’ production of vitamin D; hence why vitamin D, is also called the “sunshine vitamin”. When our bodies are low in vitamin D, our immune system may be more susceptible to respiratory infections. Thus, increasing vitamin D levels during the winter months can bring great benefits.
“A new global collaborative study has confirmed that vitamin D supplementation can help protect against acute respiratory infections. The study, a participant data meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials including more than 11,000 participants, has been published online in The BMJ.” (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/02/study-confirms-vitamin-d-protects-against-cold-and-flu/?fbclid=IwAR3dex2xX87GZOQt4ytSRP96AMnKMcaEsMvGNkhmAVPNSYlyYxHMW8Fk3Ck)
What are some ways to increase our vitamin D levels?
- Spend time in sunlight (plus you get the added bonus of physical activity)
- Eat fatty fish and seafood
- Eat egg yolks
- Try a UV lamp
- Take a supplement
The general recommendation for vitamin D supplementation is 1,000-4,000 IU. However, the actual amount you may need, depends on your current vitamin D levels. It is advisable to speak with your physician about a specific recommendation for your most effective dosage, which they can assess through a blood test. (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-vitamin-d#6.-Take-a-supplement)
Elderberry is also known as sambucus nigra (black elderberry). It is a small, antioxidant rich fruit common to Europe and North America. It has been used for centuries to treat colds and influenza. Elderberry supplement options are syrups, lozenges, gummies, teas, and more.
Personally, I grew up with homemade Elderberry syrup, that was mostly unsweetened, always making me pucker when I ingested it; so I would beg my mother to add a little sugar – do you hear Mary Poppins singing “a spoonful of medicine makes the medicine goes down?’ The elderberry syrup was commonly recommended by family physicians. I still use it successfully today throughout the winter season. Thus, when researching for this blog post, I was very excited to find studies supporting the efficacy of Elderberries.
“What our study has shown is that the common elderberry has a potent direct antiviral effect against the flu virus,” said Dr Golnoosh Torabian. “It inhibits the early stages of an infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells.” (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190423133644.htm)
“The H1N1 inhibition activities of the elderberry flavonoids compare favorably to the known anti-influenza activities of Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®; 0.32 μM) and Amantadine (27 μM).” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031942209002386?via%3Dihub)
Generally speaking, Elderberry is a safe alternative to support our immune system in fighting colds and the flu, if taken as recommended. But please be aware, it may interact with some drugs that are designed to suppress the immune system, and undermine their efficacy. To read which ones they are, click on this link: https://www.verywellhealth.com/elderberry-for-colds-and-flu-can-it-help-89559.
If you are further interested in learning about Elderberry, the link above provides a very nice overview. It even includes a recipe to make our own Elderberry syrup!
And as always with supplements in general, the quality of your product matters.
And I cannot finish this discussion without mentioning another common knowledge – the fact that physical activity and diet impact our immune system; either making us more susceptible for infections or helping us fend off infections. Your choice.
Regular moderate physical activities, like jogging, walking, and swimming, activate our metabolism and improve circulation. Our heart rate goes up and our bodies’ oxygen supply is increased. If we are sweating, our bodies get the added benefit of better eliminating toxins. Chances are, exercise also helps us rid ourselves of or control our stress, leaving us more emotionally balanced. And if we go outside to exercise, we may get a good dose of vitamin D! All beneficial to immune support.
A balanced diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is a great way of supporting the immune system. If you are “eating the rainbow” (variety of fruits and vegetables), you are likely to cover the variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals in different fruits and vegetables and benefit from their inherent healing powers. Click on this link to learn more about “eating the rainbow” and why eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is important for optimal health: https://foodrevolution.org/blog/eating-the-rainbow-health-benefits/
Remember, a strong immune system can help keep the flu away and a healthy person cannot spread illness! Remember there are no quick fixes and or magic pills! Educate yourself about the choices available to support your immune system! They are as individual as each of us and our circumstances and needs. Make your choices well informed and wisely, because your choices can keep you healthy, and others at the same time!! Now, if that is not empowering! You do not need to dread the flu!
Sources and Resources
Read here about the flu
Read here about Vitamin D
Daily or weekly dose had greatest benefit for those with significant deficiency.https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/02/study-confirms-vitamin-d-protects-against-cold-and-flu/?fbclid=IwAR3dex2xX87GZOQt4ytSRP96AMnKMcaEsMvGNkhmAVPNSYlyYxHMW8Fk3Ck
7 Effective Ways to Increase Your Vitamin D Levels. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-vitamin-d#6.-Take-a-supplement
Read here about Elderberry
The Health Benefits of Elderberry. https://www.verywellhealth.com/elderberry-for-colds-and-flu-can-it-help-89559
Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/19682714/?fbclid=IwAR0LxGdhivLgkcy65FTINg54A_4Dc2gqAbsZ1ga5sN9RZBNnRYC9av_adIU
Elderberry compounds could help minimize flu symptoms, study suggests.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190423133644.htm
Read here about “Eating the Rainbow”
Eating The Rainbow: Why Eating a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables Is Important for Optimal Health. https://foodrevolution.org/blog/eating-the-rainbow-health-benefits/