Every winter the influenza ravages the land and people fall ill with fever, deep respiratory infection and body aches. If you’ve ever had the flu you know how miserable it can be. Many people say they’ve come down with a flu, when they have any sort of sniffles or cough, but influenza is actually a rather serious infection which can have long term consequences if you don’t properly recover from the infection. Though the flu can be downright dangerous, especially for the elderly or the young, most people recover. But we can’t forget the flu of 1918 which killed thousands of people, very quickly.
The first thing to remember about influenza is that it is a serious illness, and not to be disregarded, ignored (as if that were possible) or pushed through like a race. When you or a loved one comes down with influenza I suggest all care be taken to address the situation safely and make the ill as comfortable as possible.
Many people choose to receive a flu vaccination every year. At best these can protect you from some strains of the yearly flu virus, but it isn’t a guarantee, as the virus can mutate often. At worst, the vaccination can make you sick. They are good idea for people at high risk for complications, but for a generally healthy person, possibly not helpful.
First, let’s explore ways to prevent contracting the flu in the first place. Truly the best medicine is prevention.
Support your immune system with plenty of sleep; at least 8 hours per night, though some people will need more.
Eat warm, nourishing foods, especially those containing immune supporting nutrients like Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, and Zinc. Think soups with beans, peppers, fish, liver, and brightly colored vegetables like sweet potatoes and greens.
To increase the immune boosting power of your soup cook in nourishing immune tonic herbs into your broth, my favorites are astragalus, burdock, shitake mushrooms and lots of garlic and onions.
Stay away from sugar like the evil it is. The amount of sugar found in about 2 cans of soda can depress immune function by over 40%. If you are surrounded by people frequently and could be exposed to the flu virus, sugar is your worst enemy. A healthy immune system will be able to fight off a bug faster and more efficiently. Regular exposure to immune weakening sugar on a daily basis can really increase your chances of succumbing to any number of winter bugs, including the flu.
Make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D. Lots of research has come out in the last couple of years about the very important action of vitamin D on a lot more than bone health. It has been shown to be a vital part in controlling inflammation and immune system function. Lucky for us, we can make our vitamin D in sufficient quantity as long as we spend time outside in the sunshine. But for most people, skin exposure to the sun decreases dramatically in winter, in some cases to zero. Its cold out, the skies darken earlier, and winds howl outside, no wonder we don’t go out in the winter. But it doesn’t decrease our need for vitamin D and its vital role in supporting a healthy immune system in the season of the flu. Vitamin D is abundant in a select few foods, including oily wild fish, liver (grass fed and free range please), and egg yolks. Try to eat these foods frequently throughout the winter. You can also include Vit D rich cod liver oil as a daily supplement. It is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, and contains bioavailable sources of Vitamin D and Vitamin A. Nordic Naturals makes a nice cod liver oil with 1000 i.u. of Vitamin D per serving. A daily dose of 1 tbsp of this cod liver oil stirred into foods, smoothies, juices, or taken by the spoonful will supply approximately 3 grams of omega 3 fatty acids and 3000 i.u. of vitamin D, and 4500 i.u of Vitamin A.
Alternatively you can take a Vitamin D3 supplement daily during the winter. I usually recommend 4000 i.u. on a daily basis from a vitamin D supplement, and additional from food sources like eggs, liver and fish. Studies have shown that blood levels of vitamin D are increased only after about 4000 i.u. are taken. There are some contraindications for taking supplemental D, like hyperparathyroidism and sarcoidosis. I’m not going to go into the research here, but there is much information to be found at http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/. It is important to use the D3 form, and NOT D2. D3 or cholecalciferol is the active form of vitamin D that the body can use and convert. Ergocalciferol found in many supplements and in fortified foods is not readily available or useful to the body.
I’ve taken between 4000-8000 i.u. of Vitamin D all winter long and haven’t had a single cold, or the flu.
Other herbs you can use to fortify your immune system throughout the winter include:
Elderberry- This makes a delicious tea, powder, syrup, or elixir/tincture. Kiva at Bear Medicine Herbals has elaborated extensively on elderberry at her blog.
Reishi Mushroom- Traditionally cooked into soups by the Chinese, reishi is easily found as capsules or extracts today, but I think the best medicine still comes from the long cooked and polysaccharide rich reishi broth. I suggest making a very big batch, and adding molasses to sweeten, and then freeze in ice cube trays for single daily servings to be added to soups or stews.
Astragalus- Another tonic herb from the Chinese, Astragalus strengthens the defensive energy or wei qi, that protects the body from invasion by outside forces. Best as a decoction rather than a tincture as many of the compounds aren’t alcohol soluble. You can use this as a powder to top foods or in soups as well.