This time of year, the medical powers that be — doctors, pharmacies and the media — urge us to get the flu shot. For years, my parents have taken this advice to heart — they get their flu shot by October. More often than not, my husband chooses to get a flu shot as well. Me? The two years that I did get the flu shot, I promptly came down with the flu.
I asked two renowned health and wellness experts to weigh in with their thoughts on the subject.
Dr. Frank Lipman — a New York City-based integrative doctor, functional medicine practitioner and author of Revive — says, “I’m not an anti-flu vaccine die-hard. If a patient of mine really wants a flu shot, they can get one, but I don’t recommend it to my patients, my family or get a flu shot, myself. The risk-to-benefit ratio of the flu shot is not worth taking, and I’m not convinced of their effectiveness,” says Lipman, who has written about the effectiveness of flu shots based on several studies.
Two exceptions to this rule, he says, are someone who has chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or someone who is very frail and elderly (for example, 80+ years). “However, I wouldn’t recommend the flu shot to a healthy 70-year-old,” he says.
Chris Kresser — California-based licensed acupuncturist, functional medicine practitioner and author of the best-selling Your Personal Paleo Code — agrees.
“I’m not ‘for’ or ‘against’ the flu vaccine. But, I do think it’s important that people understand what the research says about their efficacy and potential risks, so they can make an informed decision,” says Kresser.
When flu vaccine is effective and when it’s not
The flu vaccine is less likely to be effective if the strains of flu in the vaccine don’t match the strains of flu in the environment, says Kresser, who adds, “but even when the match is perfect, 1 percent of flu-vaccinated individuals end up with the flu compared to 4 percent of unvaccinated individuals. Matching the strains of flu that are currently around and the vaccine is difficult because viruses evolve quickly, and it’s hard for vaccine producers to keep up.”
How the flu shot actually prevents the flu
Kresser points to a large review of studies done by The Cochrane Collaboration that found you need to vaccinate between 33 and 99 healthy people to prevent a single case of flu — depending on the match between the vaccine and circulating strains of the virus. (Interestingly, 15 of the 30 trials reviewed were also funded by industry.)
Your flu prevention strategy
Whether you get the flu shot or not, the simple act of regularly washing your hands with soap and hot water is one of the most effective means of cold and flu prevention. Basing a study on a three-month hand-washing intervention (targeting pupils ages 5 to 14 at two elementary schools in Denmark), Danish researchers found that hand-washing programs effectively reduced school absenteeism.
In addition to mindful hand washing, the best way to prevent the flu is to be mindful of maintaining gut health: This is where 70 to 80 percent of our immune system resides. To do this:
1. Eat a nutrient-dense, whole foods-based diet
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include organ meats from grass-fed animal sources (like liver) and cold-water fatty fish, seasonal vegetables, fruits and starchy tubers (beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes, turnips) as well as nuts (if properly soaked first).
You want to avoid eating foods that weaken the immune system, such as excess sugar — in any form — whether as sweet treats (candy, sodas, cookies) or as refined flours and grains (bread, pasta, boxed cereals, pasta, crackers, processed baked goods); legumes (not properly soaked and prepared); industrial seed oils (canola, corn, soybean, safflower, etc.) and other processed or refined foods.
2. Get enough fat-soluble vitamins A and D, which support the immune system
The highest levels of vitamin A can be obtained from organ meats sourced from animals, including cod liver oil, duck liver, beef liver, goose liver, liverwurst sausage (pork) and lamb liver. The most efficient way of getting vitamin D is exposing bare skin (face and arms) to sunlight. Fermented cod liver oil, however, provides a synergistic source of both vitamins A and D as well as EPA and DHA — fatty acids that help reduce inflammation.
3. Drink bone broth
Mineral deficiency (which contributes to the development of chronic diseases) is, unfortunately, all too common today due to modern farming practices that have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which we grow our food, according to several studies. Properly prepared bone broth, on the other hand, is an excellent source of bioavailable, immunity-boosting minerals such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, sulphur and other trace minerals.
4. Take a probiotic
Promoting healthy gut flora — where the good bacteria outnumber the bad — will help your body better protect itself against foreign microbes, including viruses.
5. Take vitamin C
Though research on vitamin C and flu prevention is somewhat mixed, says Kresser, anecdotally, many people report improved resistance to and shortened duration of colds and flus when taking vitamin C. Kresser usually recommends the liposomal form of vitamin C (absorbed better than other forms): “For prevention, 1,000 milligrams a day on an empty stomach is a good starting place. If you already have a cold or flu, aim for 1,000 milligrams two to four times a day (to bowel tolerance).”
6. Limit your sugar intake as much as possible
Excess refined sugar consumption feeds bad bacteria in the gut, contributes to inflammation and depletes your body of much-needed vitamins and minerals.
7. Get quality sleep and rest
Your body naturally craves more sleep and rest during the colder months. And getting enough sleep is critical to optimizing your immune function and gut health. Shortchanging yourself on sleep can increase inflammation levels in the body (i.e., high white blood cell count). If you don’t get enough sleep, you also won’t be able to produce the hormones melatonin and prolactin in large amounts — which can negatively affect the bacteria in your gut and increase susceptibility to infection.
8. Manage stress
Stress causes biochemical changes that affect the physiological function of the gut as well as your gut flora, which can compromise immune health.