By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Can the Ebola virus export itself from West Africa to North America and cause widespread illness? Nobody yet knows the answer. Our guard is up, the media is on the story and Ebola is on everyone’s radar screen.
Over the years I’ve seen many viral scares come and go. Usually, they don’t live up to the hype and headlines, but you never know what can happen. Here’s what I know for sure, though: the annual cold and flu season is just around the corner and that means it’s time to build up your resistance to Ebola and all other viruses out there like the flu. Ebola or no Ebola, those cold and flu bugs – new ones and old ones − will almost definitely be around and you’ll likely be exposed.
So what are you doing to keep your immune system razor sharp and keep bugs at bay, as well as minimize your symptoms should you come down with something?
Love Thy Immune System
You better! It’s what keeps you alive and healthy. Your immune system is not located in one single place in your body, like your brain or heart. It’s equally as important, but spread out all over your body, from the tip of your toes to the top of your head. This defense system is a complex, diffuse, and integrated intelligence network of organs (like your skin and liver), tissues (mucous membranes are an example), cells (such as white blood cells), cellular products like antibodies, and, down at the subatomic level, electrons. They all work together, an army of specialized units, in a wondrous around-the-clock synchrony designed to protect you against pathogens, toxins, excesses, poor lifestyle choices, and stress.
You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it from me repeatedly because it’s so basic. Never lose track of the fact that your body, including your immune system, operates on cycles of rest and activity. Too much activity and not enough rest is a ticket for trouble, and in this case, weakened resistance. Many studies show that not enough sleep suppresses the immune system and undermines your ability to fend off microbial infections. I recall a 2009 study in which poor or shorter sleep in the weeks preceding an exposure to a rhinovirus (the most common viral infective agent and the cause of the common cold) were associated with lower resistance to illness. Here are some helpful tips for a better nights sleep this cold season.
Worry, anxiety, anger, depression, or any emotional conflict effectively drains the immune system and leaves you more vulnerable. A major 2012 study found that people with chronic stress are more likely to develop persistent cold symptoms than individuals who are stress-free. Chronic stress overproduces the stress hormone cortisol, which then fails to appropriately regulate inflammatory responses in the body. An inflammatory response lingers long after the cold virus is gone and creates continuing symptoms. We all have stress in our lives. We just need to find ways to defuse it.
Be Mr. or Ms. Clean
Wash your hands with soap regularly and often. Pathogens are everywhere, and in the course of a day’s activities, we constantly touch many objects and may make contact with many people. Without realizing it, we touch our nose, mouth, and eyes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand washing is an important measure to prevent getting sick and spreading germs. Doing so reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 21 percent. Whenever I used to see patients who were sniffling, sneezing, coughing, or rubbing itchy eyes, I made it a point after each visit to wash my hands before seeing my next patient. I didn’t want to be a middleman transferring germs from one person to the next, or upping my own risk of infection. Part of my daily routine today is filling my bathroom sink with warm water and adding a half teaspoon of sea salt. I immerse my face, blink my eyes, and gently sniff the water into my nostrils. This simple facial dip helps zap microorganisms present in these common entrances to the body. I also vigorously clean my fingernails, another primary germ carrier.
Eat an Anti-Bug Diet
As part of my heart health strategy, I have always recommended a Mediterranean-Asian type of diet that includes seaweed, a source of more than fifty minerals. Seaweed, in fact, contains a higher concentration of magnesium, iron, iodine, and sodium than any other kind of food. The diet contains the right kinds of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, olive oil and garlic, to benefit your immune system as well. Eat chicken soup frequently, particularly if you come down with signs of a cold. It is a great immune booster, and even more so when reinforced with ample garlic, a natural antibiotic and antiviral remedy that has been used worldwide for centuries. Avoid sugar and junk food. Sugar inhibits phagocytosis, a process in which viruses and bacteria are destroyed by white blood cells. Minimize, if not eliminate, your alcohol and caffeine consumption.
Earthing also known as Grounding, means reconnecting with the natural and gentle electric charge on the surface of the Earth. This can easily be done by going outside barefoot, or even more practical, by having bare skin contact with grounded and conductive sheets, mats, bands, or patches while you sleep, relax, or work indoors. Although there are no studies yet to show a link to fewer infections, Earthing can reduce inflammation, help defuse stress and normalize the stress hormone cortisol, as well as improve blood flow throughout the body, benefits that I believe substantially contribute to a stronger immune system.
Sunshine (or Vitamin D Supplementation)
Your bare skin has the natural ability to convert sunlight into vitamin D, a critical hormone-like substance that, among many, many other benefits, exerts an absolutely fundamental role in maintaining immune system effectiveness and protection against upper respiratory infections, including the common cold, flu, and pneumonia. Fall and winter, however, mean less available sunlight, particularly in the northeast where I live. But many people, even if they live in the Sunbelt, don’t get out into the sunshine enough. So, no matter where you live, make an effort to get out in the mid-day sun (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) for 20 minutes or so to stoke your vitamin D supply, and, as insurance, supplement with 2,000 international units of vitamin D3. Experts increasingly regard vitamin D as “a new anti-infective agent” that can impact a broad array of pathogens, and, as I have already reported, helps reduce infections and antibiotic use, even among the more susceptible elderly population.
In addition to vitamin D3, there are many potent nutritional supplements that can power up your immune system and help keep it running optimally. Here’s a rundown on some of my favorites:
• Multi vitamin and mineral – Everyone stands to benefit from a high-quality formula loaded with basic vitamins and minerals, some of which may be in short supply in a typical Western diet.
• Garlic – As an Italian, I have great respect not just for the flavor boost of garlic in food but also for the powerful boost it provides to the immune system. As a supplement, look for high allicin content. Allicin is the potent sulfur compound in garlic with the knockout punch. I recommend 1,000 mg a day of garlic. You may develop a garlic breath, but if that is a problem, look for odorless products.
• Vitamin C – Decades ago, Linus Pauling popularized the cold-and-flu-protecting properties of vitamin C. Nothing has changed my mind on the value of this supremely important vitamin. For prevention, take 1,000 mg a day. For more information on applying vitamin C’s amazing ability to combat illness, I highly recommend the fact-filled book Vitamin C, Infectious Diseases, and Toxins, by Thomas Levy, M.D.
• Licorice Root Tincture – Twenty or so drops under the tongue twice a day. Licorice root has long been used as a folk or traditional remedy for stomach ulcers, bronchitis, and sore throat, as well as infections caused by viruses, such as hepatitis. Just a cautionary note on licorice root: don’t take it longer than 10 days and check with your doctor when considering using it if you have high blood pressure (it has the potential to raise blood pressure because of an altering effect on potassium in the body).
• Resveratrol – Naturally found in the skin of red grapes, this compound helps prevent virus replication. Recommendation dosage: 250 mg a day.
• Curcumin – This celebrated extract from the curry spice turmeric has been repeatedly shown to have a wide and powerful inhibiting effect on many types of microbes, including influenza viruses and herpes simplex virus. Take 250 mg routinely, increase to 1,000 mg if you are coming down with something. It is interesting to note that the combination of resveratrol and curcumin has been featured in a number of studies showing a synergistic, that is, a heightened effect together against cancer cells.
• N-acetyl Cysteine (NAC) – This most important amino acid serves as a building block for glutathione, your body’s most natural immune-supporting antioxidant. Research has shown that 1,000 mg a day can significantly decrease the frequency of influenza-like episodes, as well as severity and length of time confined to bed.
If you take licorice root tincture, and high-dose resveratrol, curcumin, and NAC, it is advisable to use them for four weeks and then skip one week during the viral epidemic cycle.
Don’t Fall Into the Antibiotic Trap
Too many people do. They run to their doctors and ask for an antibiotic at the first sign of a cold or flu. It’s typically a mistake, a treatment that can, in fact, set you up for another bout of illness, and your doctor should know better. Colds, the flu, most sore throats, and bronchitis are caused by viruses, microorganisms that invade healthy cells, multiply, and spread. And here’s what people don’t realize: ANTIBIOTICS DO NOT FIGHT VIRUSES. Worse, they can increase the risk of a resistant infection down the road. What’s more, they deplete the very important benign bacteria – probiotics, as they are called – that reside in your intestine and form a major element of your immune system. Say after me: antibiotics kill bacteria – not viruses.
What About the Flu Shot?
You may have been wondering why I haven’t mentioned the flu shot even once in this article. That’s because – for most folks – I don’t believe in it. From my observation over the years those who have gotten shots experience colds and flu as much as people who have passed on them. I’ve never been impressed. Moreover, the research I’ve read clearly indicates that flu shot effectiveness is a pretty dubious proposition, no matter what your doctor says. For more on flu shot effectiveness, or rather, lack of it, visit my Do Flu Shots Prevent the Flu? Myth-Buster page.
- Borella E, Gideon N, et. al. “Vitamin D: A New Anti-Infective Agent?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1317, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 76–83. doi:10.1111/nyas.12321.
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, et. al. “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 1 (January 12, 2009): 62–67. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.505.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Show Me the Science – Why Wash Your Hands? Accessed Oct. 21, 2014 online at: http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/why-handwashing.html
- Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, et. al. “Chronic Stress, Glucocorticoid Receptor Resistance, Inflammation, and Disease Risk.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A .109, no. 16 (April 17, 2012): 5995–99. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118355109.
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- De Flora S, Grassi C, and Carati L. “Attenuation of Influenza-like Symptomatology and Improvement of Cell-Mediated Immunity with Long-Term N-Acetylcysteine Treatment.” Eur Respir J. 10, no. 7 (July 1, 1997): 1535–41.
- Goncagul G, and Ayaz E. “Antimicrobial Effect of Garlic (Allium Sativum).” Recent Pat Anti-Infect Drug Discov. 5, no. 1 (January 2010): 91–93.
- Levy T. Vitamin C, Infectious Diseases, and Toxins. (Livon Books, 2009).
- Moghadamtousi SZ, Kadir HA, et. al. “A Review on Antibacterial, Antiviral, and Antifungal Activity of Curcumin.” BioMed Research International 2014 (April 29, 2014): e186864. doi:10.1155/2014/186864.
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