by Cora Rivard, N.D.
According to CDC regional surveillance and NH DHHS for this past week, flu has been widespread in NH- particularly in Rockingham county where it is considered “very high.” The vaccine match is excellent for the predominant A subtype H1N1 strain affecting adults 65 and over, but unfortunately only about a 58% match for the strain most likely to hit children and adults up to age 25. But even in years with a not-so-stellar match, it still can be helpful in reducing the severity and duration of illness, if not fully protective. While it is not too late to get a flu shot- it still takes a couple of weeks after getting a shot with a successful vaccine match and a receiver’s successful post-vaccination immune response to allow for some immunity to kick in.
So what can you do to help fend off the flu naturally, as well as to help support your body’s successful response to vaccination if you’ve just received the shot? Fortunately, natural medicine techniques can do both. And, they can help keep your defenses high against all kinds of respiratory infections, not just the flu! I’ll share my favorites here that I recommend to my patients, as well as a few things to avoid. Please be advised that nothing written in a blog post should ever be taken as medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor.
First, let’s start with prevention, and then we’ll discuss what to do if you are already sick.
One of my personal favorites for both first line prevention and treatment of flu is elderberry syrup. It helps to limit infection from many strains of flu and other types of viruses primarily by blocking its ability of the virus to infect one cell from another. It basically contains the virus and blocks internal spread of infection. According to this recent meta-analysis, it also appears to significantly reduce upper respiratory symptoms from colds as well as flu. One that I recommend frequently to my own patients is Natures Way Sambucus Immune syrup. It also includes zinc, vitamin C, echinacea, and does not contain alcohol. Again, check with your doctor for advice before taking any natural remedies, especially for children. Elderberry and zinc can sometimes cause stomach upset, so taking it with food, and not overdoing it is key.
Sleep. This can’t be overstated. When flu is going around, do your best to make sure EVERYONE in your family is getting enough sleep. This is a big factor in being more susceptible to all kinds of acute and chronic illnesses. Even if you have just been vaccinated with a well-matched vaccine, just a night or so of poor sleep can knock out your ability to clear the flu virus.
Hydration. Dry air thins the mucus in your nasal passages and causes irritation, which makes it easier for flu to penetrate this protective layer. It also impairs mucus clearance and your innate immune respnse, and inhibits mucus membrane surface repair. In addition, influenza viruses can survive much longer in a dry environment than when the ambient humidity is high- humidity actually helps to inactivate the flu virus! According to prior research in a home model of flu exposure, “when humidity levels were set to 43 percent, only 14 percent of the virus particles that were released were able to transmit the influenza virus, compared with a transmission rate of 70 percent to 77 percent in a relatively low-humidity environment (23 percent). What’s more, the protective impact of higher humidity levels appeared to be rapid, with the majority of viral inactivation taking place within 15 minutes of when viral particles were first “coughed” into a high-humidity environment.”
So, in addition to drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding diuretics like caffeine and alcohol as much as possible, and having stews, soups, and fruit to hydrate from the inside, you might also consider adding a humidifier to your home and office. Avoid any with the replaceable filters. These are usually treated with triclosan (now banned by the FDA) and other antimicrobials which can irritate lungs and worsen asthma, and have other adverse chronic health effects. You can pick up reservoir systems at most any pharmacy that can be easily emptied and cleaned weekly. Humidifiers help limit spread of flu as well as ease respiratory symptoms. Just don’t forget to clean them regularly.
Vitamin D: make sure you are getting your dose! Read my previous blog on this subject here.
Probiotics: they can help prevent colds and flu AND improve the efficacy of many vaccines, particularly the flu vaccine. I prefer food-sourced products first, such as unsweetened yogurts with live cultures, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut. Plus, they help keep you regular! What’s not to love.
do detoxes, use colloidal silver, and exercise caution about any over the counter combination manufactured homeopathic products.
Skip the fish oil. If you are taking fish oil, this is a good time to take a hiatus. (Again, talk to your doctor prior to stopping any prescribed supplement or medication.) Its inflammation-modulating effects can actually weaken your acute immune defenses and make you more susceptible to infection.
This is just an interesting aside, but did you know that simply observing the act or sound of someone coughing or sneezing actually boosts your white blood cell count? Your body has an amazing ability to anticipate the need for defense.
Easing Flu Symptoms:
If you’ve already got it, don’t despair. Even if you’re an iron man, or a fitness/wellness guru, eventually your number is up. This is your excuse to stay home, snooze, sip tea and brothy soups, and binge watch episodes of Golden Girls…unless you’re a parent of young children. In that case, it’s just business as usual! Regardless, you want to get through this quickly and here are some tips to get you back in your groove:
Warming/Wet Sock Therapy: This classic naturopathic hydrotherapy technique is great for draining pressure out of clogged sinuses and nasal passageways for easier breathing at night, and a way to skip the OTC decongestants (it often works better, anyway.) It might seem strange, but most kids love it! (Adults, too!) Click on the hyperlink above for my prior blog on this subject for information and directions in how to use this. Some have discovered a short cut of putting menthol on the soles of the feet, but I don’t think it works as well. Plus, mentholated topical products can be toxic for young children, so I don’t recommend their use.
Most people are not very hungry during the flu, but it is essential to keep your hydration and electrolytes supported. Here is a link to some great recipes by local clinical herbalist, Maria Noel Groves: http://wintergreenbotanicals.com/herbal-recipes/. In particular, scroll down the page to find some very tasty broth and chicken soup recipes.
Tea: most any herbal, non-caffeinated tea can be great when you’re not feeling well, with a big ol’ spoonful of honey. (No raw honey for kids under 2). One of my personal favorites is Throat Coat tea, or Yogi’s “Throat Comfort” tea. Both contain licorice, an antiviral herb great at soothing sore throats, but it can also interact with a lot of medications. It can also worsen blood pressure in some, so care needs to be taken here. Herbs like mint, chamomile, marshmallow root can be soothing and safe alternatives for most people.
A note about caring for children. For safety reasons, kids almost never require medication to treat coughs, pain or fever. Read this message from the FDA for more details about this. While uncomfortable, these are normal body responses experienced when the immune system is just doing its job. Research shows that giving medication for fevers can actually prolong the duration of illness. But if your child develops a fever of 102 or higher, you should contact his/her doctor for immediate guidance. If a child or adult you know has a nigh fever, becomes very lethargic, has difficulty breathing, or otherwise is showing signs of rapidly increasing illness, you should get him/her to the ER or an urgent care facility immediately.
Hope this helps to get you and yours comfortably through this flu season. As always, feel free to leave comments below.
Cora Rivard, N.D. is a licensed naturopathic doctor and owner of Seasons Natural Healthcare, LLC in southern N.H. since 2006. She works with families from all over New Hampshire and Massachusetts who seek holistically effective, non-medication-focused solutions to healthcare needs and wellness goals. http://www.seasonsnatural.com