A question I am often asked in winter is “should I get the flu shot?” My answer varies. Some people need all the protection they can get and others not as much. Truth be told, it is rare that the flu shot actually prevents the flu. Fortunately nature has provided some natural options to the flu vaccine. There is reasonable medical research that some foods, herbs and supplements may be effective in the prevention and treatment of influenza.
Influenza it seems has been our traveling companion for at least several thousand years. As early as 400BCE Hippocrates described the symptoms of influenza. Throughout antiquity, in Europe, Africa and Asia, as more people began to live in cities, epidemics and pandemics related to influenza have been recorded. In 1493 the first reference to an influenza-like illness in the Americas happened after most of the indigenous population of the Antilles islands died after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. World wide, about 250,000 to 500,000 people die each year from the complications of an influenza infection.
There are four families of influenza…A, B, C and D. Wild birds are the usual host for influenza A, humans for influenza B. Influenza C resides in humans, dog and pigs. Influenza D is a recent discovery and is found in cattle. Influenza A is divided into a number of different strains based on the presence of specific but easily mutable glycoproteins hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N) on the virus shell. Thus specific influenza outbreaks are classified by the specific H and N glycoprotein. For example the most common influenza subtype in 2017 is H3N2. Influenza vaccines are made based on the best guess of the next season’s subtype and often the vaccine does not match well with the season viral subtype. That is bad news. The good news is that there are some alternative therapies that may protect against the flu.
Glycyrrhiza lepidota is the name for the American licorice plant. The active ingredient is a group of compounds termed glycyrrhric acids. Licorice stimulates the production of anti-viral compounds called interferons. It also has anti-inflammatory properties so the symptoms of the flu may be blunted. The most interesting aspect of licorice root (at least to me) is that the glycyrrhric acids interact with the cell membrane and prevent the influenza virus from attaching to cell membrane and infecting the cell (Wolkerstofer et.al. Antiviral Res 2009). Licorice is rarely found in candy today but is available as a tea and supplement. Overall licorice root is safe however the glycyrrhric acids may, in some people, cause high blood pressure so moderation is advised.
Ginseng is an herb that is often found in Oriental medicine. Ginseng is classified as either red or white. Heat white ginseng and it becomes red ginseng. A number of medical studies have shown that red Korean ginseng helps to significantly reduce the symptoms and duration of upper respiratory tract infections. Although not shown specifically to reduce the incidence of influenza, it is historically used during influenza season to maintain health. In one study, a proprietary American ginseng preparation COLD-fX, when taken at the beginning of the flu season reduced respiratory symptoms in the elderly (McElhaney et.al. J Altern Complement Med 2006). Ginseng can cause an increase in blood pressure in those with existing high blood pressure. Insomnia can be an issue as well as migraines in those who are sensitive to the effects of red ginseng. Clinically ginseng is only used for a short period of time, usually two-three months. Continuous use does not afford additional benefits.
All berries contain polyphenolic compounds. In some studies these compounds are directly toxic to the influenza virus (Sekizawa et al J Sci Food Agri 2013). In other studies they prevent the binding of the influenza virus to the cell. Two common berries for which there is reasonable medical research for the prevention of influenza are cranberries and elderberry. Elderberry significantly reduced the symptoms of the flu while cranberries enhance the anti-viral components of the immune system. There does not seem to be any contraindications for either elderberry or cranberry.
Echinacea is a flower found throughout northern Illinois and Wisconsin often used to enhance the immune system. I am not a big fan of Echinacea as a treatment for the flu. The research is quite muddy and contradictory. However, one study, in Czechoslovakia, drinking Echinacea tea was as effective as antiviral medications in treating the symptoms and duration of the flu as well as preventing complications associated influenza. A concern is that Echinacea is a member of the ragweed family. If you are allergic to ragweed there is a reasonable chance that you may also be allergic to Echinacea.
There is very good research to indicate that the type of bacteria in your bowel has an important role in preventing the flu. One specific bacterium Bifidobacterium seems to produce a number of compounds that directly interfere with the ability of the influenza virus to infect a cell. In addition Bifidobacterium makes a number of interesting compounds that enhance the activity of the immune system. Considering that 70% of a person’s immune system is found in the walls of the bowels this bacterium is very beneficial to us. Supplementation with Bifidobacterium has been shown to reduce the symptoms of the flu and medical studies have also shown a significant reduction in mortality and viral titers probably by helping the immune system work more efficiently. My recommendation is to start taking Bifidobacterium containing probiotics before the flu season starts and take them throughout the flu season.
For many, thriving in the flu season may be as simple as having some licorice tea, regular consumption of berries and taking a good probiotic. One extra note, the influenza virus is killed by soap and water. Wash the hands often especially if around large groups of people.
About the author:
Patrick Massey MD PhD MhD is board certified in both Internal and Integrative Medicine. He is the past medical director of complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and author of Miracles or I Have No More Boils. His medical practice web site is alt-med.org.