Influenza is a viral, upper respiratory tract infection that typically, in any given season, affects about 25% of the population. What this means is, over a period of three to four years, pretty much everybody in any given population has been exposed at least once. This also means that as the seasons pass, there’s a constant seeding and re-immunization of the population with influenza.
However, over the last two years, and now going into a third season, we have not seen that happen – most likely due to mass social distancing that we’ve been doing to prevent COVID. As a result, we have a significant risk for our next flu season to be very severe, since the population has not technically had an outbreak in three years.
This makes flu precautions even more important than they usually are. There are many things that can help reduce your risk of flu. The obvious ones are hand washing and cleanliness. On top of that, we’ve seen over the last two years that wearing a mask is a huge preventative.
Blocking the spread of respiratory droplets, which is where the virus lives, can be a huge inhibiting factor in the spread of influenza. Social distancing can help as well, but masks are much more effective. In Asia, it is typical to see ?
much of the population wearing masks throughout the entire flu season.
There are also other lifestyle habits that can help in preventing the flu. Getting proper sleep is very important! If you sleep six hours instead of eight hours at night, you increase your risk for getting severe flu between 40 to 60%. Diet is also critical to immune health. Eating processed foods that cause underlying inflammation makes you more prone to have a severe infection when you do get exposed.
There are also nutrient-based preventions. The most-studied of these is vitamin D. There is a direct correlation between the number of outbreaks of influenza in a local area with vitamin D levels. Typically, the outbreaks occur in the United States between January and February, when vitamin D levels are the lowest. There is also a direct correlation with vitamin D supplementation and decreased severity of influenza. Zinc is another important nutrient that actually improves your white blood cells’ ability to fight off viruses. However, forty percent of the population is deficient in zinc and over half is deficient in vitamin D.
The last important nutrient to focus on is vitamin C. There have been multiple studies since the 1950s, showing the utility of vitamin C when it comes to immune boosting, as well as lowering cancer risk and infections. When you’re sick, your need for vitamin C increases dramatically. While some animals can make their own vitamin C in their liver, people don’t have this ability. For example, when goats are sick, they need up to 10,000 milligrams a day of vitamin C, which their liver can make! Humans have to get our increased vitamin C needs when we’re sick either through diet or supplementation.
Also, nutrient status determines how we recycle vitamin C. So if you’re deficient in things like alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), vitamin E, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), and the like, you won’t be able to recycle vitamin C, which is an important part of our immune system. So, supplementing can be very helpful.
Typical doses for these supplements to be safe for the general population are 30 to 50 milligrams of zinc, 600 milligrams of NAC twice a day, 2000-4000 IU of vitamin D daily, and 500 milligrams of vitamin C twice a day. There is a great plethora of data on all of these.
So, in addition to these strategies, things like HEPA filters can be helpful. When it’s very dry in the wintertime, aerosolized droplets tend to hang out in the air a little longer. Keeping air circulating with a good filter that filters out particulates down to three micron can be very helpful.
Finally, I’d like to talk about some myths. I don’t personally hear a lot of myths about the flu. However, one of the biggest things people do that actually can have a negative impact on them is taking fever-blocking drugs or antipyretics. There is a good amount of literature in hospitalized or very sick patients that suppressing the body’s natural immune response to create a fever with medications like Tylenol and Advil can actually increase the risk of severity of the flu or any infection.
If someone is sick enough to be admitted to the ICU, there is a significantly increased risk of death if their fever is suppressed with something like Tylenol. Tylenol actually suppresses your body’s production of glutathione. Remember that supplement NAC I recommended above? NAC actually boosts your body’s production of glutathione and is even used as an antidote to Tylenol overdose. Just think about that for a second! By taking Tylenol, you’re suppressing your body’s immune system production of glutathione. On the other hand, NAC lowers your risk of severe influenza and actually boosts glutathione.
One last caveat is that we don’t know when our next flu season is going to be. It may be this year or next year based on social distancing, mask wearing, etc. We saw something similar this past summer with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Children were having massive outbreaks of RSV, which usually does not happen in the summertime. This unusual outbreak was due to so many young kids who had not yet had RSV and who did not have any previous exposure which could have led to immunity. My concern is that our next flu season may be severe due to the fact that we have not had significant flu seasons in 2 to 3 years.
Hopefully this information was helpful in your journey to maximize your health and wellbeing during this upcoming flu season (if we have one).
Be vigilant and be mindful!
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.
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