Flu Vaccine Controversy Cleared Up With Common Sense
Last week, as I was whizzing into the grocery store to pick up dinner, something caught my eye and I did a double-take. It wasn’t anything extremely unusual; just chairs lined up in front of the pharmacy counter. I thought, what are so many people going to be waiting around for? I looked around, and noticed the sign that explained it: “Get your flu shot here.” So, with the onset of flu season, the inevitable conversations have ensued. Almost every mom, dad, and caretaker asks his or herself, “should I get vaccinated,” and “should I get my kids vaccinated.”
Obviously there is a lot of opinion and confusion about the flu vaccine. Some people I talked to feel it is their moral civic duty, like Valerie from Montgomery who says “I am strong and healthy, but I would hate to be the one to pass it on to someone who dies from it.” Others think it is a corporate conspiracy. Here are some facts from the CDC:
The flu vaccine contains protection from 3 of the most common flu viruses predicted for a particular season. The virus strains used each year change because the circulation patterns of viruses change around the world and new viruses make their way to new places, as seen with the H1N1 epidemic in 2010;
The CDC recommends people get vaccinated before December because that is when flu activity is at its highest, and getting vaccinated in October or November gives the body time to make antibodies to fight off any exposure;
Some people have a higher risk of life-threatening complications, like people with compromised immune systems. The CDC refers to high risk groups as pregnant women, chronically ill, or certain elderly, and babies whose immune systems are not yet fully developed. If they contract the virus, their immune systems may not be able to fight it;
Even if you are strong enough to fight off the virus, you can expose someone who is vulnerable and make them sick;
Some strains of the flu are more contagious than others; and some are more lethal than others.
Just about every medical doctor will tell you that the flu is safe and that you should get it, for all the reasons listed above. There are some “alternative” health practitioners who do not advocate getting vaccinated because they believe the body’s immune system is designed to innately fight off infection. It is true our bodies are designed with a wonderous immune system, but if you have ever had any kind of cold or infection, you know it doesn’t always work perfectly. That may be due to many factors, like the quality of one’s nutrition, the amount of sleep we get and, some researchers think, even the amount of sunlight we are exposed to.
Whether you get decide to get vaccinated or not, there are many strategies you can do to stay healthy and avoid contracting any virus this winter, including the flu.
The easiest measure you can take is washing your hands often. It is not necessary to use antibacterial soap. Any soap product will work on getting rid of germs. Kids are notorious for passing germs onto each other and to the rest of their families, especially preschoolers. When you pick them up from school, be sure to take them to the sink and wash their hands and gently wipe their faces, avoiding the eyes. To prevent spreading a potential virus from the nasal area to the eyes, or from the hands to the face, use a separate towel for the hands and another one for the face.
If kids get straight into the car from school, be sure to have some diaper wipes or hand sanitizer in the car. To economize, you can prepare a clean washcloth moistened with water and soap stored in a plastic bag. Be sure that each child gets wiped down with his or her own wipe or towel and do not re-use until washed.
Covering your sneezes and coughs with your elbow is an important habit, even if they are due to allergies. Sneezes around the house could be the preview of a cold or sinus infection just waiting to sprout. They can also be the telltale sign of seasonal allergies, which weakens the immune system. Using a nasal wash system, like a “neti pot” is a very effective way to keep at bay sinus infections and viruses looking to take hold in the nose. Neti pots can be purchased in most pharmacies and health food stores. Be sure to purchase pharmaceutical-grade salt to use with it.
Staying hydrated and keeping nasal passages hydrated is another easy way to stay healthy. Not only does drinking enough water each day keep your digestive system and other organs healthy, it keeps your mucous membranes (like the ones in your nose and throat) happy and functioning properly so they can defend the body. A saline nasal spray is another effective way to keep the nose from getting too dry, especially when the air inside is warm and dry from having the heat on.
Vitamin D advocates and recent research points to the lack of sunlight as a cause of higher flu incidence in the winter. Its no coincidence that the flu season corresponds with the winter months around the world. According to Dr. John Cannell, a medical doctor and one of the world’s leading experts on vitamin D, sun exposure plays a huge role in the contraction of the flu. He explains that vitamin D plays a major part in our immune system function to fight off viruses such as the flu. He does go as far as saying, “At least 5 studies show an inverse association between lower respiratory tract infections and 25(OH)D levels or sunshine. That is, the higher your 25(OH)D level, the fewer colds and flu.” (http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/news-archive/2009/h1n1-flu-and-vitamin-d/). The 25(OH)D he refers to is the form of vitamin D that is most active in the body, also known as vitamin D3. Vitamin D is produced in the body when sunlight hits the skin and the melanin cells convert it to vitamin D3. Incidentally, Dr. Cannell still advocates getting vaccinated.
Stress and lack of sleep run down our bodies. Think about what is going on during the peak of flu season: the holidays. Factor in shopping in fairly close quarters with lots of people, parties, increased alcohol consumption and you have a perfect situation for any opportunist to come along and ruin it all with fever, aches, and a nasty cough. Going to bed just 15-20 minutes earlier can make a big difference in your health, your happiness and your fun factor this winter.
Exercise has also been shown to increase your chances of staying healthy. Researchers found that upper respiratory tract infections (like the flu) were lower in people who were more physically fit and more active on a regular basis. (Br J Sports Med. 2011 Sep;45(12):987-92. Epub 2010 Nov 1.Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults.Nieman DC, Henson DA, Austin MD, Sha W. Director, Human Performance Laboratory, North Carolina Research Campus, Plants for Human Health Institute, 600 Laureate Way, Kannapolis, NC 28081, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org. ).
Increasing your intake of whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and lean proteins will also support your immune system. It will not only keep you from getting sick with a virus, it will boost your whole body, providing other important elements like fiber.
Supporting your digestive system is just as important for your immune system as it is for preventing colon cancer. Scientists and physicians estimate that about 80% of our immune system is one cell layer from our gut, where the body eliminates waste products. If that waste sits there for a while and it gets absorbed by the cells and blood stream, it has to work overtime to prevent major disease. Fiber, proper nutrition, and proper hydration help move things along in a more efficient manner, so that the immune system can focus on other things, like viruses.
Exercise, eating right, getting enough sleep and reducing stress—it sounds like a broken record but it’s a prescription for good health no matter what you’re fighting off, and you don’t even need a prescription. Just common sense.
Dr. Stefanie Stevenson, M.D., an Integrative Physician, also has these suggestions for staying healthy this season:
Take either a good probiotic 10-20 billion CFUs a day or eat a daily serving of plain yogurt
Take a good Multivitamin daily (check consumerlabs.com for tested brands)
Astragalus is a helpful herb to take during the winter months to boost your immune system. It is considered safe in adults and children (half dose of adults).
Finally, elderberry can be used as a treatment for the flu. It has been shown to shorten the duration by a few days.