I write a lot about seasonal health, but what about seasonal disease? Flu is unusual in this regard as it typically appears in northern latitudes from November to March having travelled to the US from Southeast and East Asia where the majority of flu viruses originate each year.
This winter we are all hearing a lot about the flu and it looks like it is peaking right now, in early February. Indeed, it has been very widespread, the worst in a decade or more. The media, the government, many doctors, and pharmacies, are encouraging everyone to get flu shots. Some people decline this from mistrust and not wanting foreign substances injected into them. But, as you have no doubt heard on the news, the results from this year’s flu vaccine have been very disappointing to say the least. Estimates of the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine vary, but some say it’s as low as 10-15%, which means that many people are getting the flu even after having the vaccination.
As we know, the World Health Organization, the US government, and private sector scientists who are engaged in creating the vaccines must guesstimate which specific viruses will be in circulation often more than a year ahead. This is because the flu viruses change a bit each year – just enough to evade the human immune system that has adapted to fight off previous strains. To make the task even more challenging the virus can also change during the vaccine making process itself. These factors contribute to the disease’s seasonality, but why in the winter rather than autumn or spring?
There are several theories:
- It is a result of less physical activity and more time spent indoors close to others, especially with children and their exposures in school.
- It involves suppressed immunity from lowered Vitamin D levels because of less sunlight and shorter days (and maybe lowered melatonin levels as well).
These are certainly part of the story, but some researchers have proposed that the crucial factor is the cold winter climate itself, so it is interesting that the name “influenza” is an Italian word that originated in the mid-18th century as “influenza di freddo”, or “influence of the cold.”
Flu viruses spread through the air in little respiratory droplets that are more stable in cold air. Low humidity also helps the virus particles remain airborne longer. These factors contribute to the virus infecting more people. In warmer, damper weather the droplets pick up water, get larger and fall to the ground more quickly reducing their infectious potential.
By contrast, common cold viruses are spread primarily by direct contact such as shaking hands with an infectious person, or touching a surface that has itself been touched by someone with a cold.
The Inner Climate
From the Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, we get out of balance not just from exposure to outer conditions, but also from internal emotions (inner weather) like fear or anger, which stress our organs and weaken our tissues. In addition there are the external factors that include extreme climates like cold and damp, heat or wind that can disturb our body/mind and disrupt our energies. The winter climate seems to stress us more than most other seasons, which can lead to symptoms, illnesses and diseases like the flu. This is not the Western medicine conceptual model, but I have found it useful to think about the causes of disease from the inside out and not just from the outside in as we tend to do when we talk about germs and viruses.
The best approach is prevention as with many diseases. That’s why I simplify my diet and do a general detox program in January and February, avoiding rich foods, sugar, wheat (gluten), and alcohol. I try to stay warm inside and out by keeping up my stretching and exercise program and eating well. I take vitamin C, D, some A and zinc, and various herbs, and use fresh garlic and ginger in my diet
Here are my 10 Tips for what you can do if you start to get sick this winter:
If you do get a cold or the flu, it is best to take action immediately.
- Drink lots of fluids, especially water, fresh juices and hot herbal teas. Make a good pot of vegetable soup (with chicken or not) and add ginger and garlic to it.
- Exercise to sweat if you have enough energy or take a sauna or steam, as the increase in body heat may stimulate your immune activity.
- Vitamin C – I start with hourly vitamin C of 500-1000 mg.
- Vitamin A – I take and often suggest increased doses of vitamin A (not beta-carotene) – 25,000-30,000 IUs 3-4 times daily for just 3-4 days and then lower that dosage to 10-25,000 IUs twice daily for a few days and then one cap (10,000 IUs) a day for a week. Then take a break for a few days since vitamin A can be toxic if taken too long in these higher amounts. Although when we are fighting off infections, it doesn’t seem to be problematic and these higher amounts help us fight off germs in our mucous membranes.
- Garlic – I also use fresh garlic, taking several cloves at a time, dipping them in honey and chewing them. I may repeat this several times for the first day; alternatively, you can press a few cloves into a bowl of hot soup. Garlic is a natural antibiotic and immune defender; you could also use the odorless garlic caps, several capsules 3 times daily, if you do not want the smell, but they are not quite as effective.
- Echinacea and Goldenseal – an extract (in alcohol) can also be used to support immunity and cleanse the membranes; even the alcohol in them is a disinfectant. Remember not to take these herbs for longer than three weeks at a time.
- Olive leaf extract is a mild anti-viral herb and can provide some support. Oregano oil in liquid or caps may also help us fight off viruses. Try elderberry (good for fevers), licorice, astragalus and grapefruit seed extract, all of which have some antiviral/antibiotic effects. There are other herbal formulas that may help protect against and/or fight off viral infections
- You can also use herbs and spices that are body heaters such as cayenne pepper and ginger root, which facilitate sweating and often help fevers and colds. Hot ginger root tea (simmer a few slices of root in a cup or two of water for 5-10 minutes) may help with chest congestion and you can also use some of the tea to make a compress and place the soaked cloth over your upper chest. This is warming (which tends to stimulate blood circulation) and helps break up congestion.
- Zinc lozenges may be helpful for sore throats. For coughs and sore throats, also try slowly savoring and then swallowing a mixture of honey (1 teaspoon) with 1 to 2 teaspoons of lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
- Rest – finally remember that extra rest helps in healing. Often, we get sick when we are out of balance or overdoing it, so we should take this opportunity to rest and sleep. Also, if we are not feeling too sick, this can be a chance to reflect and review our lives, to stay in tune with the more inward spirit of the Winter Season and then start off the new year with a healthy plan.
NOTE on Fever and Aspirin: Children and teenagers with flu symptoms (particularly fever) should avoid taking aspirin during an influenza infection (especially influenza type B), because doing so can lead to Reye’s syndrome. With a fever in general (and with children especially unless it is very high) avoid trying to lower it with medicines as the increased temperature is one way your body fights infections.