While the beginning of November marks the traditional start of flu season, around here CVS and Hannaford begin their advertising for the flu shot before you’ve noticed the days getting shorter. Before the school year even starts!
Are you considering getting the flu vaccine this season?
First of all, I will say that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommend a yearly flu shot for everyone over age 65 and a one-time dose of pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccine and flu shots for infants over 5 months of age. These two groups of people are the most affected by potential complications of the flu. If you or your loved ones fall into either of these categories, seek the guidance of a health professional when making a decision. And I, like many other conventional MDs, see a place for considering the vaccine if you have a weakened immune or respiratory system, are a nursing home resident or are a health care worker who has regular contact with patients.
But...here are some things you might want to think about
1) Has the number of flu-related deaths decreased each year in elderly people over the last 30 years? Some population studies have reported that vaccination reduces all-cause winter mortality by approximately 50% in people 65 and older, an astonishing claim given only approximately 5% of all winter deaths are attributable to influenza. Other studies definitively show that during the past quarter century, more elderly people have been receiving flu vaccines but the flu-related death rate has stayed the same. Is the flu vaccine really benefiting this age group?
2) The flu vaccine has not been shown to prevent hospital or physician visits for the flu in children aged 5 and younger. This may be because the strains of virus used in the vaccine were not similar enough to the flu strains that were making people sick. However, in a review of fifty-one studies on the flu vaccine in healthy children, vaccines were associated with some increased effectiveness in preventing flu symptoms only in children over two. In children under two, there was no effect from the vaccine. (But there has only been one published study of the flu vaccine in children under two.)
3) Prevention is key. Research shows that exercise alone protects mice against the flu, even when these mice were specifically infected with the virus. Exercise increases blood flow throughout your body. Your immune system receives more blood, which means you have a better chance of fighting an illness before it begins to spread. Exercise also helps your immune system to act more quickly upon ALL viruses and diseases.
4) Know what’s in your vaccine!
Some common additives to the flu vaccine include thimerosal, formaldehyde, chicken egg protein, hydrocortisone and phenol. The amount of these additives is below what the EPA considers dangerous in the body but I do worry about the cumulative effect of continued vaccinations. Also, anyone with a severe allergy to chicken eggs should know of the risk of anaphylaxis with the flu shot.
5) The national vaccine recommendations may not just be about your health…
Most flu vaccines are purchased and distributed by the government. Each year, the folks at the National Immunization Program (NIP) need to move millions of vaccines. Every year we get an official flu vaccine endorsement from the Department of Health and Human services (HHS) and the CDC. The CDC oversees the NIP. What does this mean? The government has a direct interest in distributing and making profit off of the vaccines supplied by your local pharmacy or supermarket. Hopefully they have your best interest in mind.
6) It might work, It might not.
Each year vaccine developers redesign the flu vaccine, using several strains from different types of flu that were common the season before. A vaccine for a particular year is developed nine months before it becomes available for you to buy. So, in theory, the 2018-19 vaccine should be ideal for protecting you from last year’s main flu types. Vaccine developers assume that whatever new flu mutations come our way this season will not be much different than last year’s strains. The CDC admits that there have been some years when vaccine and circulating strains were not well-matched. During these years, vaccines were simply not effective.
7) The BEST defense
If you pick up a flu virus, you won’t necessarily come down with the flu. Whether or not you become ill––or how sick you actually get––depends on how well your immune system deals with the virus.
So, first and foremost, the key to staying flu-free is in improving your immunity.
The flu shot is designed to prepare the immune system to fight specific virus strains. But you can prepare and strengthen your immune system against all viruses by taking these steps:
· Exercise regularly. The general recommendation is to get your heart rate elevated at least 30 mins 3x/week. Shoot for some dedicated movement daily, something that gets your heart moving and your body sweating. I do at least 20 minutes of Qi Gong shaking every morning.
· Eat a diet of nutritious, fresh, whole unprocessed foods. And please sit down at least once a day for one of these meals!
· Manage your stress levels. Deep breathing (100x daily), meditation, stretching, looking at the stars, anything that reminds you that you are a human being not a work machine.
· Get enough sleep - 8 quality hours is the common recommendation. This is essential restore and repair time. I repeat: this is ESSENTIAL restore and repair time. If insomnia plagues you, come in and let's talk about. Don't ignore this!
· Supplement! Use proven immune boosters that have been shown to help prevent colds and flu. What I use? Vitamin D (5,000 IU daily), Vitamin C (at least 3,000 mg daily) & probiotics - a heaping teaspoon of HMF SuperPowder (*click here to get an account to order this product directly). Of course there are plenty more! Vitamin A can be particularly useful for chronic viral infections, selenium is a great flu fighter, as is zinc and NAC. Dosages vary per individual.
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If you like reading the studies themselves:
[i]Vaccine. 2009 Oct 23;27(45):6300-4. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2009.07.008.
[ii] Influenza Other Respir Viruses. 2016 Mar;10(2):76-85. doi: 10.1111/irv.12366.
[ii]Vaccine.2006 Oct 30;24(42-43):6468-75.
[vi]Health Technol Assess.2003;7(24):iii-x, 1-65.JAMA2000.
[vii]JAMA.2000 Oct 4;284(13):1655-63
[viii] J Infect Dis. 2009 Nov 1;200(9):1434-42. doi: 10.1086/606014.