Throbbing head, raging fever, chills and body aches. Sound familiar? With flu season in full swing, one in 10 Americans will find themselves laid low by the flu bug. Yet, while the flu can make you feel miserable, severe cases can be downright dangerous. According to Mike Leavitt, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), seasonal flu sends 200,000 Americans to the hospital each year and kills an average of 36,000.
Luckily, most of us won’t be among these statistics. But even a mild case of the flu can leave us feeling lousy, with symptoms lasting for a week or more. And while most of us resign ourselves to periodic bouts with the flu, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, waging a bit of natural germ warfare now just might keep you flu-free all year long.
Beat the Bug
Fortunately, there are a number of simple ways to protect yourself against the flu. First and foremost, practice some commonsense hygiene. HHS officials note that most flu viruses are spread by infected people coughing or sneezing. You also can pick up a flu bug by touching a contaminated surface — a doorknob, telephone or even the change you get at your corner convenience store. So wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze. Another great tip is to carry your own pen with you, so you won’t have to use the potentially germ-infested pens at the doctor’s office or grocery store.
Following a healthy lifestyle also is important. That means eating a diet full of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, exercising, getting enough sleep and reducing stress. These last two are especially important, say researchers at the University of British Columbia. In a study conducted in 2005, 83 healthy young adults were monitored for stress before, during and after receiving a flu shot. The researchers also looked at a battery of different things like cigarette and alcohol use, level of physical activity and how much sleep the volunteers got. It turns out that, as unhealthy as smoking and drinking are, the two things that really undermined the participants’ immune systems were a lack of sleep and high stress levels.
Boost Your Immunity
One of the best ways to protect yourself against the flu is to strengthen your immune system. And, while Mother Nature can provide a number of ways to boost overall immunity, the following herbs specifically increase the body’s resistance to the flu.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). This traditional Chinese herb is noted for its antiviral and immune-boosting properties. A member of the pea family, astragalus contains polysaccharides that boost the production of immunoglobulin — proteins that help the immune system resist infection. Astragalus also fortifies immunity by increasing the activity of T-cells, natural killer cells and macrophages (large white blood cells that consume viruses). In one study, researchers found that astragalus helps promote and maintain respiratory health — an important consideration for fending off the flu.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Another herb known to foil the flu is elderberry. A double-blind, placebo-controlled in vitro study of a proprietary black elderberry extract against 10 strains of the influenza virus by the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem found that elderberry stops the flu dead in its tracks by significantly boosting cytokine production. Cytokines are non-antibody proteins that trigger the immune response when they come in contact with a virus. What’s more, the study discovered that elderberry also stimulates the production of the immune system’s T-cells and blocks viral growth, making the body a flu-fighting fortress.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Although recently maligned by the popular press (see Page 34), echinacea is perhaps the best-known herbal remedy for winter woes — and for good reason. Taking echinacea before you get sick can help keep the flu at bay. One study by the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at McGill University in Montreal found that echinacea stimulates nonspecific immunity by increasing natural killer cells, effectively attacking the virus before it can take hold. This popular herb also can come to the rescue if you do catch the flu bug. In a human trial of echinacea conducted by researchers at York College of Pennsylvania, flu patients were randomly given either an echinacea tea (Echinacea Plus by Traditional Medicinals, five to six cups daily) or a placebo. Participant questionnaires demonstrated faster symptom relief in the treatment group compared with those drinking the placebo tea.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). This well-known adaptogen has been identified as a likely herb for reducing flu complications and incidence. One reason for the anti-flu effects of eleuthero is its ability to enhance immune response to the flu vaccine. Several years ago, Italian investigators gave 227 volunteers either 100 mg of a standardized eleuthero extract or a placebo for 12 weeks, with flu vaccinations administered at week four. Treatment with eleuthero significantly cut the risk of developing the flu, increased antibody concentrations and enhanced natural killer cell function.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis). Another way to mount a good offense against the flu is with green tea. Along with its potent antioxidant activity, green tea extract stems the growth of both A- and B-type flu viruses by inhibiting the bug’s absorption by the body. This tasty brew also attacks the membrane of viral cells, which effectively prevents the creation of new cells that spread the virus. But to be effective, you need to drink upwards of 10 cups a day. An easier option is to take a green tea extract. Most are available in capsule form and provide a concentrated source of polyphenols.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002) and a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.