Updated: Mar 28, 2020
Every year I get many questions from my patients about the flu vaccine and alternatives to the vaccine. February is the peak month for the flu so now is a great time to delve into this topic. There has been plenty of research showing just how ineffective the influenza vaccine is, plus it is the vaccine with the single greatest reports of side effects. Research has also shown us some excellent alternatives to the flu vaccine that will protect you from far more than the flu alone. Keep reading so that you may make an informed decision when it comes time to consider how to prevent the flu this season.
The Influenza Vaccine is Notoriously Poor
All one needs to do is visit the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) website to see yearly rates of effectiveness. From their estimates the vaccines is rarely more than 50% effective. This means that more than half the time the vaccine is not doing anything for people. (1)
Recently, research has demonstrated that yearly, consecutive influenza vaccination leads to lower and lower protection. In other words, for every year you get the vaccine, you become more susceptible to catching the flu. In fact, this trend has led to many health advisors questioning the flu vaccination programs outright:
"Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer who is now medical officer of health in the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit in Belleville, Ontario, agrees that it’s time to revisit universal flu vaccine programs... He was once a proponent of universal programs but now says, “We should use the next six months or so to do a very careful rethink of where we are. There’s enough new evidence that we should all be troubled by, that we should be taking a long and sober look at our policies. There are more and more unanswered questions about how effective a universal program really is.” (2,3)
Furthermore, a major issue with this vaccine's effectiveness has to do with how difficult it is to predict what flu will be circulating in any given year. Producers essentially have to guess and hope they get it right. Sometimes they get it and the vaccine will offer at best 60% protection. On other years they miss the mark and might get a 10% reduced risk of flu. However, what fewer people are discussing is how giving the wrong flu vaccine increases your chances of getting the flu that is going around (as happened in 2009/2010)! (4) In fact, children who got vaccinated had 3 times higher rates of hospitalization in this year. (5)
In a 2010 Cochrane review there was a meta-analysis of 50 studies where the researchers found that flu vaccines had only a minor impact on reducing how many people get the flu (3%) and how many days are lost from work. It also showed the vaccines had no effect on rates of pneumonia, hospital admissions, complications, and did not prevent the transmission of the virus. However, it did significantly increase rates of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (1.6 per million vaccinations). In other words, flu vaccines up until 2010 did very little other than cause more cases of a paralytic condition that ruins people's lives. (6) These vaccines have the most reported adverse reactions of any vaccines. (7) The record for the flu vaccine preventing deaths is abysmal as their is no evidence that flu vaccines have prevented any deaths from the flu. (8) Further research shows that the flu vaccine actually suppresses the immune system in a way that makes people more susceptible to other viruses and infections. (9,10,11)
There are a lot of scare tactics at work in the mainstream media. The truth is, the number of deaths from influenza number in the hundreds in the USA each year (nowhere near the 36,000 average so frequently cited), making it a low-risk disease to vaccinate against. Actual death certificates only list about 500 per year. Furthermore, a laboratory test to confirm the actual influenza virus was what made the person sick is only conducted 15-20 percent of the time, which means the real number of average yearly deaths could be as low as 100 or less. Most of the deaths reported by the CDC are actually due to secondary bacterial pneumonia, a condition quite treatable with modern antibiotics. (12) This all begs the question, is the vaccine really worth it?
A final point, flu vaccines should technically be marketed as experimental vaccines, as their constantly changing nature means they cannot meet the legal efficacy and safety requirements for vaccines. I'm not one for being a guinea pig...
So why does the CDC keep pushing for the vaccine and saying it's the best we've got? If it doesn't really protect you and has the possibility of giving you a life changing disease, why get the vaccine? I am not going to get into the politics, big business, and bias issues that may be behind this and rather focus on the lack of awareness around alternative methods for preventing the flu. The vaccine is not your only option!
What Does the Research Say Will Actually Prevent the Flu?
Appropriate vitamin D levels (25-hydroxy vitamin D)
Make sure to test your levels of this hormone and supplement as necessary. For good immune system function I often recommend at least 50nmol/L (20 ng/mL). If you come up above 125 nmol/L (50 ng/mL) you are too high; be very cautious of this if using high doses of Vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D (or cholecalciferol) is a hormone in your body that has a major regulatory effect on your immune system. With insufficient levels you are more likely to catch the flu and have worse effects of it. I suspect that much of the reason we have a cold and flu season is because during the winter months we lose sun exposure and our natural production of vitamin D. Anyone above latitude 33 degrees is likely deficient in this hormone throughout the winter. (13) I often have patients take a nice high dose right at the first sign of any illness to maximize their immune response to it.
Elderberries (Sambucus Nigra)
Often these are consumed in the form of an elderberry syrup. There are many brands out there but it is also very inexpensive to make your own (simply purchase them from an online herbal shop or grow your own). If you do purchase or grow your own, be sure you boil them to extract the active ingredients and remove a mild toxin that is in the berry. Elderberries contain a unique compound named sambucol that has been studied to block viruses from entering cells as well as boosts many parts of the immune system. The syrup has been shown to reduce the duration of both influenza A and B infections as well as other types of infections (including bacteria). It seems to have a powerful effect on helping us fight things off (perhaps even cancer). (14,15)
The essential mineral zinc has been well researched to help prevent the influenza virus from infecting people. It is essential for the immune system to produce the necessary inflammatory factors that kill off the virus. (16) Sub-clinical deficiencies are common, especially with current diet dogma about eating less red meat (very high source of zinc) and consuming more whole grains (which contain ligands that bind zinc and prevent you from absorbing it). Do be careful when supplementing zinc over a long period of time as it could possibly lead to a copper deficiency. You can prevent this by only taking zinc during the cold and flu season or by selecting a product that also contains copper.
Deficiencies in vitamin A can be considered a nutritionally acquired immunodeficiency disease. (17) Meaning you end up with more frequent infections and much worse consequences of an infection if you do not have high enough levels. It is best studied for measles infections but a recent study also confirmed deficiencies lead to worse cases of flu. (18) We primarily get vitamin A from animal fats (so vegans can be at high risk of deficiency), however it can be found to some degree in orange, yellow, and red colored plant foods (make sure to eat your rainbow). I recommend my patients take a high dose of vitamin A palmitate at the first sign of any cold or flu like symptoms. Sometimes this aborts the cold overnight. At the very least people will tend to get a very mild version. Do be careful, too much vitamin A can be toxic. Work with a doctor to make sure you do not over-do it.
No need to avoid sugar
Sugar consumption, particularly glucose, can impair our body's ability to fight bacteria. For viruses it can actually be helpful! This is according to some interesting research done on mice. (19) However, if you were to develop a bacterial pneumonia as a secondary complication to the flu, absolutely cut the sugar.
Sleep, sleep, sleep
Sleep deprivation does impact your immune system. High quality, deep sleep is essential to good immune function, preventing infectious illness (including the flu), and decreasing the severity of infection should you contract it. (20)
Long term, chronic stress has been well documented to derail your immune system. (21) To really avoid the flu you must address this area of your life. Start with removing as many stressful things from your life as possible. Consider adding a deep breathing, meditation, or restorative yoga to your daily regimen.
Also, be sure to have a daily exercise routine as this is one of our best ways to combat stress; even if it's 20 minutes of walking a day. Bonus, this also helps with blood circulation, gets more white blood cells (your immune cells) where they need to go, and pumps your lymphatic system (where most immune functions take place) so that your immune system can properly monitor and attack infectious microbes.
Wash your hands
Washing hands is a well proven strategy to avoid spreading germs. Imagine touching that flu covered door knob and then trying to pick that piece of lunch out of your teeth... woops! That brings about another point, keep your hands away from being in your mouth, nose, or eyes. Just stop touching your face already ;) (guilty!)
There are many effective strategies to stave off the flu this season and next. Unfortunately, the flu vaccine is very weak in its ability to prevent flu and related complications. Regardless of whether you decide to get the vaccine, be sure to utilize these other methods discussed as they will only improve your immunity and keep you healthy all season long.
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(2) Murray T. Repeated flu shots may blunt effectiveness. CMAJ. 2015;187(6):E180. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-5000
(3) Beyer WE, Bruijn IA< Palache AM, Estendrop RG, Osterhaus AD. The plea against annual influenza vaccination? 'Thi Hoskins' Paradox' revisited. Vaccine. 1998 Dec;16(20):1929-32.
(4) Viboud C, Simonsen L (2010) Does Seasonal Influenza Vaccination Increase the Risk of Illness with the 2009 A/H1N1 Pandemic Virus? PLoS Med 7(4): e1000259. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000259
(5) American Thoracic Society. "Children Who Get Flu Vaccine Have Three Times Risk Of Hospitalization For Flu, Study Suggests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090519172045.htm>.
(7) https://healthimpactnews.com/2014/guillain-barre-syndrome-is-1-side-effect-of-vaccine-injury-compensations-due-to-flu-shots/ (I would have preferred a more direct source on this but unfortunately the HSRA has removed all of their reports on this topic...)
(8) Doshi P. Trends in recorded influenza mortality: United States, 1900-2004 [published correction appears in Am J Public Health. 2009 Aug;99(8):1353-4]. Am J Public Health. 2008;98(5):939–945. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.119933
(9) Cowling BJ, Fang VJ, Nishiura H, et al. Increased risk of noninfluenza respiratory virus infections associated with receipt of inactivated influenza vaccine. Clin Infect Dis. 2012;54(12):1778–1783. doi:10.1093/cid/cis307
(10) Bodewes R, et. al. Annual vaccination against influenza virus hampers development of virus-specific CD8 T cell immunity in children. J Virol. 2011 Nov;85(22):11995-2000.
doi: 10.1128/JVI.05213-11. Epub 2011 Aug 31.
(11) Doshi P. Are US flu death figures more PR than science?. BMJ. 2005;331(7529):1412.
(12) Thompson WW, Moore MR, Weintraub E, et al. Estimating influenza-associated deaths in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2009;99 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S225–S230. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2008.151944
(13) Cannell JJ, Vieth R, Umhau JC, et al. Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiol Infect. 2006;134(6):1129–1140. doi:10.1017/S0950268806007175
(14) Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and saftey of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.
(15) Krawitz, C., Mraheil, M.A., Stein, M. et al. Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Med 11, 16 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-11-16
(16) Sandstead HH, Prasad AS. Zinc intake and resistance to H1N1 influenza. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(6):970–971. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.187773
(17) Semba RD. Vitamin A and human immunodeficiency virus infection. Proc Nutr Soc. 1997;56(1B):459-469.
(18) Thornton KA, Mora-Plazas M, Marin C, Villamor E. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with gastrointestinal and respiratory morbidity in school-age children. J Nutr. 2014;144(4):496-503.
(20) Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121–137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
(21) Dhabhar FS. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res. 2014 May;58(2-3):193-210. doi: 10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0.