I live in a divided house when it comes to this topic – my (almost) husband is a pharmacist, and I’m all about holistic health and natural treatments – we’re kind of an ironic couple. Nonetheless, when you ask Google if flu shots are bad or good, you get a plethora of mixed results, although there seems to be no middle ground – the flu vaccine is either the bee’s knees, or it’s going to kill you.
Of course the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website touts the flu shot as the best thing since sliced bread, and that everyone should be vaccinated. They put emphasis on vaccinating the elderly, children, and those who are immunocompromised, even though there is evidence proving that flu shots do not decrease flu risk in the elderly or children. Although not included in the CDC’s information, I reviewed multiple sources that found the flu vaccine was only 9% effective at preventing flu in seniors and other studies proving that flu vaccines are no more effective than placebos in children. While the CDC suggests receiving a flu shot is beneficial, they also list underwhelming statistics, stating that on a good year, flu shots are only 50-60% effective at reducing one’s risk of contracting the flu – that means even if a person gets a flu shot, he or she still has a 40-50% chance of getting the flu.
The low effectiveness is due to the way in which the strains to be vaccinated against are chosen. Before the flu vaccines are produced, a bunch of scientists sit around and guess which strain of flu is going to be spreading through the world this year. That’s right, they guess. Okay, okay, so I’m making it sound like it’s no big deal when it is actually pretty impressive and quite a process - World Health Organization directors get together to discuss a year’s worth of findings from five different areas of the world, and then in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration makes the final decision on which strains to vaccinate against. So while it’s an educated guess, it’s still a guess. The CDC website also states that the effectiveness ranges widely from year to year. While reading through the information listed on the CDC site, I noticed a lot of “try”, “estimate”, “can”, and “might” when discussing the effectiveness of the flu shots – not really what I want to hear when I’m deciding whether or not I want to vaccinate myself.
The CDC lists the side effects of receiving a flu shot that closely resemble symptoms of the flu….so you’re telling me I can skip getting a flu shot and risk getting the flu, or I can get a flu shot, and will likely experience at least one flu-like symptom as a side effect from the vaccine that is supposed to prevent me from getting the flu? Cool. Side effects listed include soreness or redness of the injection site, headache, fever, nausea, and muscle aches, as well as occasional side effects of fainting and Guillian-Barre syndrome. There have even been studies conducted that link receiving a flu shot year after year to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but that if I get into that, this blog will end up having chapters…. The previously listed symptoms don’t seem to be reason for concern, according to the CDC, but you might want to take these side effects a little more seriously: difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, swelling around the eyes or lips, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat, and dizziness. But don’t worry, if you’re going to have one of those side effects, they usually occur within just a few minutes of receiving the vaccine, so if you’re lucky, you’ll still be at your doctor’s office or pharmacy. Great. That makes me feel so much better.
What the CDC fails to mention is that repeatedly receiving a flu shot year after year can actually decrease the effectiveness of the vaccine, exposing habitual flu shot recipients to the same risk they’d be at if they hadn’t received the vaccine. The CDC also doesn’t mention the fact that there is mercury in flu shots. This is especially disturbing to me because of the push for all pregnant women to receive a flu shot. Because mercury can harm the development of a baby’s brain, nervous system, and kidneys, pregnant women are advised to avoid ingesting mercury and are instructed not to consume raw fish and to limit the amount of cooked fish they eat. But doctors and the government push pregnant women to receive flu shots while pregnant? Wait, what? Doctors can, with a clear conscience, advise pregnant women to get a flu shot because there has been no adequate testing of the flu vaccine to prove that it is UNSAFE for a pregnant woman or her baby. So if it hasn’t been proven unsafe, that makes it safe, right?
In addition to the fact that flu shots vary in their effectiveness from year to year, and the fact that they contain mercury, flu shots may actually increase your chances of falling ill. This is because the vaccine may trigger an autoimmune response, prompt an allergic reaction, alter T-cell function, and most commonly, weaken the immune system. So you might be protected against the flu (if they guessed the right strain this year), but you are exposing yourself to a higher risk of developing a cold, bronchitis, pneumonia, and many other common illnesses.
Not only might you get sick after receiving a flu shot, you might even give someone else the flu. That’s right, the flu, that you got vaccinated against to try to protect yourself. While most flu vaccines contain non-live viruses, the flu mist, which is often given to children, contains live viruses, and some flu vaccines also contain live viruses. While they are live, they have been weakened, so technically you aren’t supposed to get sick, but because you have a live flu virus in your body, you could potentially spread the virus to others, especially those who are already immunocompromised.
So now that I’ve totally bashed flu shots, and you’re probably wondering, what the heck does that have to do with nutrition, I am going to share with you some alternatives to receiving a flu shot year after year. As previously stated, your immune system must be strong to prevent you from getting any infections, including the flu. So how do you strengthen your immune system? After reviewing quite a few websites, including Dr. Mercola’s site (one of my favorites!), vitamin D seems to be the number one prevention against infection. In fact, Dr. Mercola states that it is possible that people become more susceptible to the flu during the winter due to a vitamin D deficiency.
Increasing vitamin D in the body is easy – depending on skin tone and time of year, you might need as little as ten minutes in the sun with your arms and face exposed to obtain the daily recommended allowance of vitamin D. Individuals with darker skin need longer exposure to gain these levels, as do individuals who live in colder climates. There’s good news if you fall into one or both of these categories though – there is an overabundance of vitamin D supplements available, and a lot of foods are now fortified with vitamin D.
Avoiding sugar and processed foods can also help reduce your risk of getting sick because sugar impairs the function of the immune system and causes inflammatory response in the body. Conversely, increasing your intake of plant-based foods can help boost the immune system due to the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals they provide. Some of the best nutrient-dense foods include blueberries, tea, broccoli, cranberries, and other leafy greens and colorful fruits and vegetables.
Lowering stress levels and getting enough sleep are necessary when trying to say well. Exercise causes an increase in blood circulation, which means your immune system is more likely to find and squander an infection before it makes you sick. Exercise also helps manage stress and supports a good night’s sleep.
Because 80% of your immune system is in your GI tract, maintaining a healthy gut can help defend against the flu and other infections. Eating a healthy diet, taking a daily probiotic, and staying physically active are the best ways to maintain gut health. Natural immune boosters such as garlic and oregano oil may also provide your body with protection due to their antibiotic properties.
Due to the dry, cold air during the winter, our mucosal membranes become dry as well and can easily become cracked, providing a great opportunity for pesky bacteria and viruses to enter our system. Staying properly hydrated can help prevent this.
The most obvious means to preventing infection of any kind may be proper hygiene – washing our hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds is a must, and sneezing and coughing into our elbows can help prevent the spread of germs to others. Avoiding places where the flu becomes rampant, such as hospitals and nursing homes, is also advised during the peak of flu season, especially if you’ve been feeling under the weather – you don’t want to expose yourself to more bugs, nor do you want to spread your germs to those that may be immunocompromised!
Whether or not you get a flu shot is 100% up to you, but please make sure you are informed and know all of your options before you make a decision. And don’t let anyone talk you into something you’re not sure about – do your research to make the best decision for you and your family!
Think positive, stay active, and smile. -A