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Cold & Flu Strategies:  Your Best Defense is a Healthy Immune System

By Louise Napoli, N.D.

Deciding whether to get the flu vaccine is a personal choice and has become a hot topic, especially this year with the addition of the swine flu vaccine. Regardless of the choice you have made for yourself or your family, it is my belief that your best defense against illness begins with a healthy immune system. Consider the following ways you can boost the strength of your immune system and thus reduce the risk of illness this winter:

Lifestyle: Do not underestimate the importance of lifestyle factors–such as getting adequate sleep and exercise, and managing stress levels–in warding off illness. Our bodies repair and regenerate during sleep, and consistently falling short will eventually weaken our ability to fight illness. Regular exercise keeps the body physically strong, relieves stress and encourages circulation, all of which enhance immunity. In addition to exercise, making the time to decompress by doing other things you enjoy is critical to optimal health. When we’re in constant stress mode with no relief in sight, we produce too much of the stress hormone, cortisol. This excess production will lower the levels of other chemicals and immune cells that help to keep our bodies functioning well.

Diet: Although the autumn ushers in the dreaded cold and flu season, it also brings a nutrient-rich bounty, chock full of immune-boosting foods! There is absolutely no doubt that what we eat either strengthens or weakens us. Now is the time to pay close attention to nutrition and choose the foods that will actually help to build your immune system and/or act as natural antimicrobials. Here are some of my top food choices for enhancing immunity during cold and flu season:

  • Orange vegetables such as pumpkin, squashes, sweet potatoes and carrots are all rich sources of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into Vitamin A. In addition to being a potent antioxidant, Vitamin A has natural anti-viral properties and helps our immune systems stay strong.

  • Red/Purple vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes (technically a fruit) are rich in immune-protective vitamin C. For more C-rich foods, choose citrus fruits as well as kiwi, papaya and mango.

  • Wild Salmon and other cold water, fatty fish are an excellent source of essential fatty acids, Vitamin D and protein, all of which give a potent boost to the immune system.

  • Nuts and Seeds are great sources of zinc, including pumpkin and sesame seeds, brazil nuts, almonds and cashews.

  • Garlic has strong antimicrobial properties. Include garlic in soups, stews and sautees. To eat garlic in its most potent form, add some freshly chopped garlic to sautéed veggies or into dips such as homemade hummus or guacamole.

  • Green Tea is particulary rich in a compound known as “EGCG,” a type of antioxidant that precludes viruses’ ability to multiply. If you’re not particularly fond of green tea, all varieties have some benefit, including red, white, pomegranate and good old orange-pekoe. Note to pregnant women: Be aware of caffeine content when purchasing teas. Many herbal teas do not contain caffeine. Green has about 30 mg per cup, so I recommend sticking to 1 cup daily during pregnancy.

  • Yogurt and kefir are rich in probiotics, or “healthy bacteria.” Probiotics can boost the body’s immune response to viruses by boosting production of a particular immune cell. Cultured soy foods, such as tempeh and miso are also rich in these gut-friendly bacteria.

  • Avoid excess sugar!! Sugar only serves to deplete the immune system, so cut back on high-sugar, nutrient devoid foods such as candy, cookies and soda. Also, be aware of hidden sugars in “healthy” foods like sweetened yogurts (buy plain and add a drop of honey, maple or agave syrup, if needed) and fruit juices (opt for the whole fruit instead, or generously dilute your juice with water).

Supplements: Please note that many herbs and higher doses of some vitamins are not considered safe during pregnancy. Please always consult your practitioner before taking any herb/vitamin during pregnancy and lactation.

  • High-Quality Women’s Multivitamin: I consider this essential to fill in any nutritional gaps that you may have. I prefer to use a food-based multi, as it is a more comprehensive supplement than those made with synthetic vitamins, and is more easily assimilated.

  • Vitamin D: this may be the single most important nutrient in preventing the flu and many other diseases! Since we get a lot less sun exposure (our best source of D) during winter months, even if we’re often outdoors, supplementation may be wise. Dosage recommendations vary depending on one’s diet, immune status and blood level of D. If you don’t know your Vitamin D status, please ask your practitioner about testing it on your next appointment.

  • Astragalus: This is a wonderful herb that strengthens the immune system and upper respiratory tract. It can be taken on a preventative basis during flu season. A typical dose is 500 mg, 3 mornings per week. Note: if you should become ill with a fever despite taking Astragalus, stop this herb and switch to some of the other options, below.

  • Combination Herbal Supplements: There are myriad herbs that can give a powerful boost to the immune system. They are most effective when taken either after being exposed to illness or at the first sign that you are coming down with something. I use several combination products in my practice that contain antimicrobial (antibacterial, antiviral or both) or immune-boosting herbs such as echinacea, hydrastis (goldenseal), commiphora (myrrh), garlic, ginger, olive leaf, arabanogalactan and mushroom extracts.

  • Sambucus Nigra (black elderberry): This herb has a proven track record against the cold and flu virus. It can be taken on a preventative basis (for eight weeks with two weeks off) and on a more acute basis if you should contract a cold or flu.

  • Extra Vitamin C: You may choose to take extra vitamin C during cold and flu season. A typical preventative dose would range from 500-3,000 mg daily, divided. In acute illness, you may take 1,000 mg every 2-3 hours to bowel tolerance. Exceeding bowel tolerance will cause diarrhea, so this is an indication to lower the dose until bowel movements normalize. A whole food vitamin C is best as it is easily absorbed and is less likely to cause gastric discomfort.

  • Extra Zinc: Taking extra zinc (beyond what is in your multi) at the first sign of a cold has been shown to decrease the duration of illness. It is best taken every few hours in smaller dosages of 5-8 mg each. Taking higher dosages of zinc for more than a week at a time can cause a copper deficiency.

  • Homeopathy: For those times when you do come down with the flu, it is wise to keep a box of Oscillococcinum (by Boiron) in the medicine cabinet. These are homeopathic pellets dissolved in the mouth three times daily. It can be taken along with other immune supportive supplements. If taken at the first sign of the flu, it will lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of illness.

For Kids Only: All of the food & lifestyle recommendations, above, definitely apply to children! Making sure they are getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet and minimizing sugars will go a long way toward keeping their resistance to illness high. In addition, there are very effective children’s products for immune support, but let’s face it, getting kids to take them is the biggest challenge. Below are a few of my personal favorites that I carry in my office and give to my own children:

  • Sambucus for Kids: This is a pleasant tasting syrup that can also be used on a preventative or acute basis. In addition to black elderberry, it contains echinacea and propolis for strong immune support. Sambucus can be mixed into beverages or soft foods as listed above. I put it into plain yogurt or unsweetened applesauce for my own children, and give it to them on a preventative and acute basis, as listed above. For children 1 year and up.

  • Chewable Echinacea with Vitamin C: This is a chewable tablet that tastes like a “sweet tart,” and the product I use contains only 1 gram of sugar. It can be used in place of or in combination with the products, above. For children who are able to thoroughly chew before swallowing.

  • Carlson Baby Ddrops: This product comes in 400 IU’s per drop and can be used for infants by placing a drop on a bottle or mom’s nipple, and for older children mixed into food, beverage or taken on a spoon. Dosage requirements vary for breastfed and versus bottle-fed infants and older children, so please consult your practitioner.

  • Glycerite formulas: these are liquid herbal extracts in a base of glycerin rather than alcohol. Gaia Herbs makes quality children’s formulas, such as Echinacea and cough formulas for wet and dry coughs. For children 1 year and older.

  • Homeopathy: Boiron makes several good children’s formulas for cold, coughs and flu. Children’s Oscillococcinum for colds and flu, and Chestal for coughs are two quality products. For children two years and older.

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