Oh No – It’s Cold and Flu Season!
As summer comes to a close, we are all gearing up for the fall and winter months ahead. Here in Phoenix that means a much-needed reprieve from the stifling summer heat – finally! Elsewhere, colder temperatures and drier weather and flu and cold season are right around the corner. Similarly, the ever-dangerous Ebola virus has made its way into the United States and Enterovirus is wreaking havoc all across the country as well. How can you protect yourself from contracting any of these illnesses and what can you do to treat these conditions naturally?
Why is the Flu More Prevalent in the Winter?
The first question to ask before I discuss practical ways to fend off and treat grimy disease causing bugs is: “Why are flu and colds more prevalent in the winter months?” For centuries and centuries, folks have claimed that just by going out in the cold you can get sick. Well – these claims are not just an old wives’ tale! Believe it or not, from an eastern viewpoint of illness, many acute illnesses are actually caused by “wind” that enters into the body through the back of the neck. This may be why when we go outside in the cold or when it is raining, we cover the back of our necks with our shirt or jacket.
A more plausible explanation for the increased incidence of illness during the winter months has to do with sun exposure and vitamin D. As depressing as it is, the amount of daylight decreases drastically during the winter months, where the sun sets anywhere from two to four hours earlier, depending on location. The warm sunshine not only feels great but it is actually a bountiful source of vitamin D for our bodies. We actually make vitamin D in our bodies when the sun shines on unexposed (not covered by sunscreen) skin. The lack of exposure to sunlight lowers the amount of vitamin D circulating in our system. The further north a person is, the weaker the sun is, making these people’s ability to obtain adequate amounts of vitamin D from the sun even lower during the winter months.
Vitamin D has Many Important Roles in the Body
Vitamin D is now known to have a variety of roles in the human body. One of the most important functions of vitamin D is assisting with immune function. The lower the vitamin D status in our bodies, the more susceptible we are to catching illnesses. Vitamin D deficiency goes beyond preventing the common cold or flu though. Normal vitamin D levels are now known to also protect against developing many different autoimmune conditions including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. It also helps to provide strength to bones preventing osteoporosis in older age.
What is a Normal Vitamin D and How Do I Achieve This?
“Normal” levels of vitamin D in the blood are between 30-100ng/ml. While there is much controversy amongst healthcare professionals about what “normal” vitamin D means, I typically like to see my patients in the 70-80ng/ml range. Other doctors like their patients to have vitamin D levels in the 80-100ng/ml range. If your sunlight exposure is at a minimum, achieving adequate vitamin D levels must be done through supplementation. I recommend taking vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in my practice. Doses are entirely patient-specific, so don’t start taking vitamin D without consulting with a doctor first. Maybe it’s also time to get your vitamin D levels checked.
Proper Hygiene Can Help to Prevent Illness
Besides having adequate vitamin D levels, one of the best ways to prevent catching cold and flus is proper hand washing. This means washing your hands in between contact with others (especially those who are known to have an illness!) and after visiting public places like the grocery store or the gym (one of the biggest reservoirs for illness causing bugs). In an ideal world, you should use soap and warm water and wash your hands for at least 30 seconds. People overlook washing all parts of their hands including the palms, backs of their hands, wrists, fingertips and fingernails.
So What if you Catch a Cold or Have the Flu?
Here are some great home remedies that I recommend to my patients:
Black Elderberry Syrup – a tart and tasty syrup that can be purchased at your nearest health food store. There have been a number of studies done showing the effectiveness of black elderberry in treating many different colds and flus, especially ones of the upper respiratory tract.
Oscillococcinum – SAY WHAT?? This is pronounced “oss-ill-oh-cox-sine-um.” This is a homeopathic remedy that has been used for decades to treat the flu and, again, can be purchased at your nearest health food store. In fact, they have started to carry this at regular drug stores as well. It responds to most different strains of the flu and should be taken at the first onset of symptoms (fever, sore throat, feeling tired). It loses its effectiveness when taking after the flu has progressed. This remedy can help to knock out the bug completely or decrease the length of an illness.
Vitamin C – a fan favorite for years. Oral vitamin C is not necessarily known to prevent a cold, but can decrease the duration of a cold. This should be taken in amounts up to bowel tolerance during a cold. This means if you get loose stools, back off on the dose a little bit until the loose stools clear. Higher doses of vitamin C may be achieved through intravenous administration (this means it is infused into a vein) as it bypasses the digestive system and does not cause diarrhea. For colds and flus, I have used as much as 50-75grams of vitamin C per treatment. This is about 15-25 times stronger than the average vitamin C supplements on the market. This is a true kick in the pants to ANY bug. High dose vitamin C has also been used for cancer treatment and some very interesting other maladies, including rattlesnake bites!
Hydration – drinking adequate amounts of fluids is of the utmost importance during an illness. You need to be drinking over half your body weight in ounces (so if you weigh 150 pounds you need to drink over 75 ounces) of water. This does not include juices, tea or Gatorade. In fact, I typically do NOT recommend drinking juice or Gatorade during illnesses unless in cases of diarrhea where electrolyte replacement is necessary. Both of these beverages have lots of sugar, which is actually an immune-suppressant and can increase the length of your illness. Most teas (unless completely herbal) and coffee are both diuretics. This means they make you urinate at an increased rate. Therefore, more fluids need to be taken in if you are consuming them during an illness so you do not become dehydrated.
Other Naturopathic Treatments That can be Beneficial During Colds and Flus:
Myer’s IV Cocktails – no, this is not an alcoholic beverage. This is actually an intravenous (into a vein) infusion of high dose B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C (again, great for immune function). I have used these with amazing success in helping my patients reduce the duration of colds and feel better quicker than without.
Acupuncture – has been used for centuries to help with all different types of illnesses, including cold and flus. Acupuncture is a therapy that uses very thin needles that are inserted into the skin in different parts of the body (no this is not that painful) to elicit a response and stimulate the flow of qi (prounced “chee”), or energy and blood in a channel or meridian. Channels run all throughout the body and, during illness, these channels can be disrupted. Acupuncture points can be needled along these channels to get the flow of energy moving properly again.
Should I Get a Flu Shot?
Unless you are elderly or immune compromised, I typically do NOT recommend my patients get a flu shot. I have never had a flu shot in my lifetime and I have turned out ok (so far)! Now for some this may be difficult, especially health care workers in hospitals and clinics. Most of these institutions now require individuals to receive a yearly flu shot. The only way out is if you have allergies to ingredients (usually to egg) in the flu shot and must be signed off by your physician. One of the problems with the flu shot is that it contains LIVE virus potentially giving you the flu when it is supposed to do the exact opposite! There are also no studies showing the effectiveness of the flu shot on preventing the flu. The other major pitfall of the flu shot is that it is a conglomerate of different flu strains on what the manufacturers and CDC feel will be the most common flu in each year. You can actually get a strain of the flu different than that contained in the flu shot – woops! You are better off doing all of the aforementioned suggestions listed above and taking your chances of getting the flu, rather than potentially getting sick with the flu from the shot which was supposed to help prevent you from getting sick in the first place.