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Dear Mark: Flu Shots

Dear Mark,

I’m sure you know it’s gearing up toward flu season again, and the folks at work have started pushing for flu vaccination sign-ups.  I’m always a bit wary of Big Pharm and the “common knowledge” of what’s good for us (more so than ever since I first started reading MDA), so you’ll understand my hesitance in claiming my free shot. What’s your take on this issue?  Is it worth getting stuck, or am I better off left to my own healthy devices?

Thanks to Sarah for the timely question. You’re right that the ads and advice are everywhere this time of year. Some people rush to get their shots as soon as they’re released in early fall. Others swear them off. And then, I think, there’s a large group in the middle who waffle back and forth about the need for them.

Personally, I never get a flu shot, and neither does any member of my family. There are a number of reasons behind my decision. First, most years there is a poor match between the vaccine viruses and those that end up circulating in the general population. Secondly, there’s relatively little risk for healthy people. Though no one likes the flu, serious complications or death from it are rare. About 18,000 people die from the flu each year, and 75% of those people are 70 years of age or over. In many of the older people who succumb, it often comes down to overall health. The less healthy a person is at that age (because of lifestyle and ongoing/recent health conditions), the more likely he/she is to have a lack of “organ reserve,” not enough organ capacity [1] remaining to handle basic metabolic needs plus those demands added by the flu (fever, etc).

Medical research on flu vaccine effectiveness shows very spotty results at best even among the two general population groups most heavily advised to receive the shot, the young and the old. This October a study [2] in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine didn’t find a decrease in hospitalizations or outpatient flu-related visits in young children receiving the vaccine during either of two studied flu seasons. In the case of older adults, there is less concern about safety issues, but recent research bolsters ongoing skepticism about the flu shot’s effectiveness. A study [3] published in last August’s issue of The Lancet showed that flu shots, after adjusting for existing health conditions, didn’t reduce the risk for the most common flu-related cause of death, pneumonia.

Though public service messages now urge everyone to get the shot, this was not the traditional message. If you’re a healthy individual who is committed to taking care of himself/herself, I don’t think the shot is necessary or will do much if any good. A naturally strong immune system will identify a common flu virus and handle it effectively on its own. Left to its own devices, it does its thing pretty well. Though the situation might be different for those with compromised immune systems or even health care providers who work with sick patients every day, the flu shot likely won’t offer me as a healthy person much benefit for the negatives it imposes with the toxic preservatives used in the shots like aluminum and thimerosal. Sure, there’s a preservative-free flu shot in existence, but it’s in extremely short supply and is only given – when available – to infants and pregnant women. (In many areas there isn’t enough to even offer these groups the shot.) Though a relatively new FluMist vaccine option is available that doesn’t contain these additives, it’s made with a live virus and has additional safety concerns that limit who’s advised to use it.

If you decide to forgo the shot, know that there’s a lot you can do to keep your own natural immune response in great fighting form. Number one: cut out the foods that compromise the immune system the most – sugar and grains. Sure, whole grains don’t send your insulin levels skyrocketing in a nanosecond like sugar, refined flour, etc. do, but they still incite a significant (albeit slower) rise in insulin. When you eat zero-grain and low carb, you see that your immune system easily handles almost everything. It’s when you eat sugar and grain (especially in conjunction with high stress from work or exhaustive exercise routines) that your immune system can’t handle simple everyday viruses.

Unless you’re a sun god, be sure you’re supplementing with vitamin D every day during the winter months. There’s more and more news every day about the essential importance of D for immune function. And forget the current RDA of 400 I.U. I’d recommend 800 I.U.s a day for healthy adults and more for pregnant/nursing women. If a health condition compromises your immune system or if you take medications that interfere with the absorption of vitamin D, you should talk to your doctor about an appropriate daily dose.

Other ideas for boosting your immune function during flu season? I’d recommend what I see as the basic tenets for healthy living: a nutrient-rich, Primal diet [4]; regular (but not exhaustive) exercise; good sleep; wise supplementation; and some kind of stress management routine [5]. Some people (and even certain Northern cultures) swear by practices like saunas and cold water immersion [6]. Finally, skip the hand sanitizers [7] and lotions [8], and don’t go too crazy washing your hands. When you do wash, use plain old regular instead of anti-bacterial soap. Our skin, as we’ve said in the past [9], isn’t just a dead outer shell. It has its own chemical balance that provides a layer of protection against infectious agents.

Finally, if you take your chances and end up with the flu, take care of yourself. I know so many people who fight the simple idea of giving their bodies a break for real rest and recovery [10]. They medicate their symptoms with every concoction on the market, keep going with most of their usual routine, and then wonder why they end up sicker. Call in every support, use every trick in the book, but figure out a way to give your body the break it needs.

If you decide to go for the flu shot, I’d suggest that extra antioxidants [11] prior to the shot and in the days after would help your body weather (and release) the added toxins more effectively. Also, if you’re sensitive (or outright allergic) to eggs, you should know that the vaccine (both the shot and the FluMist varieties) is cultured in eggs. The risk of a major reaction would almost assuredly outweigh your risk for the flu (or at least any serious complications from it). I’ve heard from a number of people that occasionally health care providers shrug off the allergy concern and encourage the shot regardless. In these cases, I’d suggest seeking a second opinion – and probably a new provider!

Thanks as always for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

Further Reading:

Top 10 Ways to Make it Through the Flu Season [12]

9 Natural Cold and Flu Remedies [13]

Natural Alternatives to OTC Painkillers [14]

10 Things You (Likely) Don’t Know About Your Immune System [15]

theIFlife: Make Your Own Flu Shots… or Just Stay Healthy in the First Place. [16]