It’s getting cold! What do you dread most this time of year? The cold weather? Driving on snowy roads? Or maybe it’s the seeming constant sniffly noses and people coughing everywhere.
I know it’s important to you to keep yourself and your family healthy. None of us can really afford the time off from being sick. It’s hard to take a day off work. It’s hard to have your kid sent home from school sick. So what can we do to eat healthier and prevent these illnesses?
Flu season is in full swing, and just as the viral spread of germs that goes around every year, there’s also a viral spread of misinformation about the flu, flu prevention, and how stay healthy throughout flu season.
Here’s what really works, and what doesn’t work, for avoiding flu and colds this winter.
The safest, most effective way to avoid the flu:
If you knew there was one thing you could cut your risk of getting the flu by half, and decrease your risk of hospitalization by up to 79%, and was 99.99999% safe would you do it?
Most people would say yes, but unfortunately the statistics show that fewer than half the US population gets a flu shot.
Part of that is the time and effort it takes, but part of it is also that the anti-vaccine hype has scared many of us into thinking it’s just not worth it. Our brains can easily trick us into thinking Statistics on influenza show that anywhere from 3,000 – 49,000 people, mostly the young and the elderly, die each year from the flu. The chances of having a non life threatening adverse reaction, such as bruising at the site of injection, pain in the arm, or a mild fever after a flu shot is one out of nearly 300,000. Life threatening reactions are even more rare. Compare that to the odds of dying in a car accident – which is one in 98.
Are there legitimate reasons not to get a flu shot? Definitely. The Centers for Disease Control recommends everyone over the age of 6 months gets a flu shot UNLESS you:
- Are allergic to eggs
- Are currently sick (wait until you’re better)
- Have had Guillan-Barre Syndrome
- Have had a previous reaction to an influenza vaccine.
If you checked “yes” to any of the above, check with your doctor or healthcare provider first. If you have a legitimate medical need that prevents you from getting a flu shot, I’m not judging you. But otherwise, please don’t let the anti-vaccine hype keep you from protecting yourself and your family.
I’m sure some people will be upset by this recommendation, but my goal isn’t to say what people want to hear. My goal is to speak the truth to help you have the healthiest, most vibrant life through all avenues. Which is why I recommend what has been scientifically proven to work in health and nutrition, not just repeat the current “natural health blogger” talking points.
Now that we’ve gotten that important public service announcement out of the way, let’s talk about what does NOT help prevent the flu
Orange juice won’t prevent the flu
You may have been told before to glass of orange juice when you find yourself getting sick because it’s high in Vitamin C. Unfortunately, that orange juice won’t really do much for you. Here’s why.
Vitamin C actually has very little impact on whether or not you will get a cold. According to a 2007 Cochrane Review vitamin C does not prevent illnesses for the average person. You’re just as likely to get a cold or flu regardless of whether you’re taking supplemental vitamin C. Although there is some indication that it can decrease the number of colds and illnesses for marathon runners and extreme skiers – so if your level of exertion is that high, it may be worth considering.
There is some evidence, however, that 1000 -2000 mg per day of vitamin C decreased the duration of a cold by about 18%. Put that into perspective of a common 3-5 day cold. Rather than 3 days, it’s 2 1/2 days. Rather than 5 days, you’re only sick for 4. However drinking a glass or two of orange juice won’t be enough to get that much vitamin C. One 8 ounce cup of orange juice has about 124 mg of vitamin C. Which means you would need to drink 8-16 cups of orange juice, consuming an extra 888- 1776 calories and 168- 336 grams of sugar per day to get the recommended Vitamin C dose. Is the futility of orange juice for colds making a little more sense now?
Just like with orange juice, there are plenty of “cold pressed juice” vendors willing to take your money for something that won’t actually decrease your chances of getting the flu. Skip the juices, they aren’t worth the money, calories, or sugar.
Most immune boosting supplements are a waste of money
My recommendation is for you to be very skeptical of any supplement that is marketed as an “immunity booster.”
For one thing, there’s no actual evidence that your immune system needs a “boost.” When you get sick, it’s actually because your body is mounting an immune response to a virus. It means your immune system is working the way it is intended to. Having a “boosted immune system” if it were possible, may not actually be a good thing. Overactive immunity can be linked to autoimmune and allergy conditions.
Furthermore, there have not been extensive human studies in any of these supplements. While there are essential nutrients that are important for fighting off infections such as Zinc, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium, most people aren’t deficient in these nutrients. The US Centers for Disease Control reports that very few people are affected by nutrient deficiencies. The highest rate of deficiency is 10.6% for vitamin B6, the lowest is under 1% for Vitamins A, E, and Folate. Having more of the vitamins does not necessarily mean better immunity.
Vitamin D may play a role in preventing the flu
There is one nutrient, however, that many people are deficient in which could impact immunity, and that’s Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D is produced by hormone reactions to the sun on our skin, and some vitamin D can be ingested through dairy and fatty fish consumption.
But just because you’re getting out in the sunshine in the winter months doesn’t mean your body is producing vitamin D. The angle the sun hits the earth matters, and in the winter it may not be adequate. For example, if you live at a latitude of 42* North (Boston) the sun’s angle is not direct enough to produce vitamin D from the months of November – February. Even in mid-summer, vitamin D can only be synthesized between the hours of 10am – 3 pm, the times most of us spend inside sitting inside.
A 2010 research study on school children found that supplementing with 1200 IU per day of vitamin D decreased the likelihood of contracting influenza A. Getting your vitamin D levels checked is a good first step in determining your need for additional supplementation.
Lifestyle changes that prevent the flu
Now that I’ve burst the bubble on orange juice and supplements for flu prevention, let’s talk about what does work:
- Eating a varied, balanced diet and adequate protein.
- Get adequate sleep.
As I said previously, there are a number of nutrients that our bodies need in order to have proper immune function. These include vitamins like vitamin C, E, and A, and minerals like Selenium and Zinc. While most people won’t be deficient in these nutrients, having a healthy, varied diet full of fruits and vegetables, and avoiding diets lower than 1200 calories will ensure that you don’t have a deficiency. Also, getting adequate protein is important for preventing illness and flu, as immune cells are made of proteins.
Finally, getting adequate, regular sleep can prevent illness and maintain a healthy immune system. Researchers have found links between the immune system and our circadian rhythms (or internal clock) disruptions of sleep have the potential to disrupt our immunity as well.
Supplements and juices are mostly ineffective for preventing the flu. While 1000 – 2000 mg of Vitamin C per day can decrease the length of illness by 18% in the common cold, that amount of vitamin C can’t be obtained through juice alone. Your best bet for healthy flu prevention is to get a flu shot, eat a balanced meal with adequate protein, and get adequate sleep. Also, talk to your doctor about getting your vitamin D level tested.