Beating the Flu Bug
The super-lethal virus that has jumped from birds to humans may get all the headlines,
but it’s the ordinary, everyday influenza that sickens—and kills—thousands of Americans
each year. Paying attention to hygiene, getting enough sleep and consuming the proper
nutrients can all help you escape this seasonal scourge.
In the classic sci-fi film The Andromeda Strain, scientists are hunkered down in an underground quarantined bunker, desperately seeking understanding of a deadly virus that had wiped out an entire town’s population. Later films like Outbreak and Twelve Monkeys echoed that terrifying fictional scenario—virus attacks, threatens planet, leaves few survivors. Of course, the premise of these films is pure Hollywood spectacle...right? Maybe not.
In early 2003, a mysterious infectious viral sickness called severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) quickly spread to over 20 countries across four continents—but it was contained and proclaimed “eradicated” by the World Health Organization in 2005. Today, a viral disease from China—avian, or bird, flu—has heightened anxieties over its pandemic potential. Will bird flu mutate into a superflu that overtakes the globe? It is not only possible, some experts believe it is likely.
But while doomsday-flu movie plots can only frighten and worst-case superflu scenarios may never happen, the good ol’ seasonal flu that affects so many of us poses dangers that are immediate, very real and often overlooked. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in the US alone more than 100,000 people are hospitalized and more than 20,000 people die from the flu and its complications every year. The good news? You can prepare yourself by applying age-old techniques that may help you avoid the flu altogether—supporting immune function through lifestyle and nutrition, and remaining aware of the dangers of influenza inflammation.
Avoid Thy Enemy
Most of us have experienced the pain, headaches, fever, chills, fatigue and other miserable symptoms of influenza—which, by definition, is a serious contagious viral infection characterized by respiratory-tract inflammation. (Colds, which also produce upper-respiratory misery, are marked by less severe symptoms and a lack of fever.) Influenza transcends its definition, however, exhibiting inexplicable characteristics that leave scientists scratching their heads. In spite of our knowledge, medical science finds influenza a staggeringly tough adversary.
“Viruses are intelligent,” explains J.E. Williams, OMD, author of Viral Immunity and Beating the Flu (Hampton Roads Publishing). “They know how to infect specific hosts, how to spread from host to host, and which tissues and organs to get into.”
Influenza is most commonly spread by airborne droplets from the infected person’s respiratory tract. Viruses elicit symptoms like coughing and, less frequently, sneezing—actions that spread more contagious droplets. This is a highly effective—and intelligent—mode of self-propagation, which in part explains why viruses are able to jump from host to host so quickly and easily.
Once inside a host, viruses—which are really tiny quasicellular particles, much smaller than bacteria—attack larger host cells, into which they release their genetic material. Using the cell’s raw materials, the virus’ genetic material replicates into several more virus particles, which then leave the host cell, find other hosts and replicate even more.
Your average virus is also a quick study. “Viruses know how to adapt,” says Williams. “They utilize genetic material from the host cell. They link into our genetic system, they learn from us and from our immune system, and then reformulate their genetic strategies to become resistant. The more immune pressure that’s put on them, the more wily and adaptive they become.”
This catch-me-if-you-can nature helps viruses outsmart pharmaceutical control efforts. “The first time a microbe is exposed to an effective drug, we have a good chance of winning,” Williams continues. “But after that first exposure, they learn. What is strange is that they don’t just learn in that person; somehow they learn all over the world, simultaneously.”
Despite the daunting intelligence of the influenza virus, some basic commonsense practices can help to minimize their attacks. For starters, keep your distance from sick people. “If you’re around anyone who has influenza, stay at least three feet away from them,” advises Linda Spaulding, RNC, CIC, of InCo and Associates, LLC, an infection control consulting firm. Avoiding crowded areas, such as shopping malls (especially during the holidays!) and movie theaters, can also help reduce risk during flu season.
But even if you’re able to manage your personal space, the infectious flu droplets left on surfaces can still transmit sickness. How about the handle of a supermarket shopping cart? The change you get from a cashier? A subway turnstile? There are hundreds of daily situations like these where you can be exposed to a transmissible virus.
“Consider something like putting gas in your car,” explains Spaulding. “The person who used the pump prior to you may have had the flu virus on their hands. They touched the gas pump, and now you’re touching it. You won’t pick up the flu just from touching the pump, but if you rub your eye or scratch your nose when you get back into your car, you’ll likely get sick.” If a virus is introduced to the handle of a gas pump, it could infect 20 people in an hour. The basic answer? Wash your hands frequently during flu season.
All is not lost if you do pick up a flu virus. In fact, you may either experience a relatively minor bout of misery or avoid falling ill altogether. That’s because viruses aren’t the only fast learners. Your immune system—that complex array of cells and chemicals charged with defending your inner space—is also quite adaptable, becoming skilled over time at recognizing and zapping viruses (and other microbes) before serious infection sets in. Think of your immune system as your own personal, perpetually alert bodyguard.
One of that bodyguard’s biggest weapons is inflammation, which enables the body to eliminate pathogens (like influenza viruses) while helping the body heal damaged tissues. Inflammation is often regarded as a villain because it makes you feel achy, fatigued and feverish when the flu strikes.
But just as an injured knee keeps you off your feet, this suite of miserable symptoms forces you to sleep, rest and recover—and, on a larger scale, to stay home so you don’t spread the flu to others.
Sometimes, though, your personal bodyguard can get too pushy. “It’s very important not to overstimulate the immunity,” says Williams. “An overstimulated immune system can create so much inflammation that it destroys tissue in organs like the brain and the liver. It’s also extraordinarily painful.” Inflammation is behind flu complications like sinusitis and pneumonia (as well as the most serious health complications behind SARS and bird flu).
The best way to protect yourself against the flu is to encourage a robust—but not excessive—immune response. Again, start with the basics.
“You have to do the old-fashioned stuff that none of us want to do,” says Spaulding. “Get plenty of sleep and drink plenty of fluids.” It’s not a very dynamic strategy, but it can work wonders. Inadequate sleep and stress—both mental and physical—lower your defenses, making you more susceptible to both flu and colds. Sleep modulates and balances the immune system, enabling it to recharge and function properly, while exercise, emotional balance and a positive mindset can also help strengthen immunity.
What you eat also affects your immune system. When the body doesn’t get an adequate supply of micronutrients immunity falters, practically inviting viruses to make themselves at home.
Most nutritional experts will tell you that zinc is at the top of the immunity enhancement list. “Without enough zinc, your immunity declines,” D.E. Williams says. “When you take zinc, your immunity improves.”
But zinc isn’t the only immunity-boosting supplement. Vitamins C, D and E are all essential to proper immune function. Carotenoids, found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, are a great dietary source of vitamin A. The antioxidant protection these nutrients provide is crucial for minimizing viral damage viruses on a cellular level. Many medicinal mushrooms, including maitake, reishi and shiitake, help bolster immunity, as does a special kind of fiber called arabinogalactan (AG). In one study children who were given an AG-fortified drink suffered from fewer upper respiratory symptoms; in another, AG raised levels of an immune-system chemical called properdin when combined with echinacea, an herb widely appreciated for its effects on immune defense.
Echinacea might be the most well-known immunity herb, but it’s certainly not the only one. Licorice (the herbal extract, not the candy) contains chemicals that encourage virus-engulfing immune cells called macrophages to get busy, while the Chinese herb astragalus helps boost levels of interferon, a chemical that enables cells to fend off viral attack.
Part of improving immunity lies in modulating the immune response—stimulating the components that fight infection while controlling the ones that can trigger runaway inflammation. Astragalus plays this important role, as do quercetin, lipoic acid, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA (found in fish oil) and curcumin, the spice turmeric’s principal component. (Turmeric appears on our chart of anti-inflammatory herbs; see page 27.) In addition, taking phytonutrient-rich green foods, such as chlorella, wheat grass or barley greens, at the onset of flu symptoms appears to modulate immune response. Studies suggest spirulina is an especially beneficial flu-fighting utility player; this blue-green algae superfood has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Don’t let Hollywood superflu scenarios scare you, but do be prepared for influenza season. Having a smooth-running immune system is the key to minimizing misery—and perhaps even making it through to spring with nary a sniffle.