Sleep, supplements and simple steps to avoid the flu this winter

By Dr. Penny Kendall-Reed
This flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent years. Winter 2011-12 saw only 182 confirmed cases. This season, Health Canada has already reported over 3,800 cases and it is only mid-January. How to avoid the flu or minimize symptoms is a question everyone is asking. So what can be done?

Avoiding exposure is key and most effectively achieved by frequent hand washing, disinfecting communal surfaces, reducing facial touching and minimizing contact with symptomatic individuals. This year’s flu shot appears to be about 62% effective according to preliminary estimates as of January 2013 and is recognized as a valuable preventative therapy.

Improving your overall health and the strength of your immune system is one area in which simple treatments can offer significant benefit. A healthy diet should incorporate protein at each meal to provide building material for immune cells and prevent carbohydrate-induced spikes in blood sugar. Avoid inflammatory processed food and fats that draw valuable immune resources away from fighting viruses.

Getting adequate sleep is essential to maximize function of our immune system. Stage-4 deep sleep is where the body rejuvenates, rebuilds and recharges. During Stage-4 sleep pro-inflammatory chemicals are moderated, promoting a more stable and effective immune response. Cells that actively fight viruses such T-cells and NK-cells increase in number and activity during this stage. Unfortunately, our busy and stressful lives tend to inhibit our ability to achieve the deep Stage-4 sleep the body needs. Taking a melatonin supplement half an hour before bed can help restore our normal sleep cycle, restoring its regenerative potential and boosting our defenses.

Vitamin-D has proven to be vital to health in so many ways and it is not surprising that it plays a role in immunity. Stress and high cortisol levels are associated with an increased risk of viral infection. Vitamin-D helps to regulate production of the stress hormone, increase production of NK-cells and boost T-cell function. In addition, research has shown that this important vitamin promotes production of a natural antibiotic protein by mucosal cells and is likely involved in the expression of genes vital to fighting infection.

Probiotics such as Lactobacilli, traditionally used to improve intestinal and genitourinary health, have recently been shown to improve immune function. They stimulate lymphocyte function and increase the strength of antibody binding. Probiotics increase NK-cell and T-cell numbers as well as TNF production in the gut; an important first line of defense against infection.

One of the most commonly touted supplements to fight infection is Echinacea. Over the past few years, research on its effectiveness has been contradictory and as a result its value has been questioned. However, recent investigation by Jamieson Laboratories appears to have resolved the argument. By using only Echinacea root (rather than the leaf favoured in other formulations), they have been able to isolate a unique, higher quality and vastly more potent medicinal compound that stimulates T-cells far more effectively than other preparations. To enhance its activity further, Jamieson removed the anti-inflammatory isobutylamides which are compounds that reduce T-cell numbers and likely contribute to the ineffectiveness of some supplement formulations. Initial studies of Jamieson FluShield have shown it to reduce the incidence of flu and flu-like illness by 25% and the risk of respiratory complications sevenfold when compared to the flu vaccine alone.

If it’s going to be a busy flu season we need to take as many steps as possible to reduce our risk of catching it and minimizing our symptoms if we do.

Dr. Penny Kendall-Reed is a naturopathic doctor based out of Toronto. She is a specialist in metabolic disorders, stress-related diseases, weight loss and sleep behaviour.

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