Boost Your Immunity to Seasonal Flu

With autumn around the corner, I’d rather think about the season’s multihued foliage than the onset of influenza. But think about the flu we must… because this is exactly the right time to begin preparing your body to fight if off, says Leo Galland, MD, founder and director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine in New York City and creator of Dr. Galland urges his patients to amp up their immune power starting now.

Preseason Flu Fighters

There are easy ways to fortify your immune system before the various strains of flu start gathering strength. If you do this, you can greatly increase your ability to fight them off, said Dr. Galland. All of the following products are widely available in health-food stores, Whole Foods and the like…

N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC). A metabolite of the amino acid cysteine, NAC not only helps the body fight flu, research shows that it also dramatically reduces symptoms in those who do fall prey. Italian researchers designed a study to weigh NAC’s effectiveness at reducing flu symptoms in older people (65 and older). One group began taking NAC supplements three months before the start of flu season and continued throughout the winter months, while the other took no special precautions. The group taking NAC had symptoms that were, on average, 75% reduced compared with those who did not take NAC. Other reasons NAC is helpful: It’s an antioxidant and a precursor to glutathione, said to be the master antioxidant of all. Dr. Galland typically prescribes 1,500 mg of NAC daily, best taken between meals. Caution: Pregnant or nursing women should not take NAC — and, if you take nitroglycerin, you may find that NAC magnifies its effects and also increases side effects, including headache. Check with your doctor.

Zinc and selenium. These two minerals are immune system strengtheners and boost the protective antibody response to the flu vaccine. This is especially helpful for older adults, who are most likely to have low blood levels of zinc and/or selenium. Zinc and selenium supplements won’t help you immediately, as it takes several months for your body to build up effective stores — so begin taking them now, suggests Dr. Galland, who typically prescribes about 25 mg of zinc daily (with food to prevent nausea) and 100 mcg of selenium.

Vitamin D. Most people don’t connect the multipurpose vitamin D with flu resistance, but there is growing evidence that people with healthy vitamin D levels get fewer colds and cases of flu. In fact, some experts speculate that the relative lack of sunshine in winter and our bodies’ resulting diminished levels of vitamin D contribute to the season’s numerous respiratory ailments. So, as the sun’s path sinks low in the sky — which is starting right about now — begin to buttress your vitamin D levels by taking 1,000 IU to 2,000 IU of vitamin D-3 (avoid D-2) daily. Caution: Consult your doctor first if you take digoxin (Digitek) for congestive heart failure.

Black elderberry. In the herbal category, Dr. Galland suggests purchasing black elderberry capsules or syrup to have at the ready if and when you begin feeling poorly. These contain flavonoids, including anthocyanins, that can bolster immunity and keep viruses from effectively implanting in mucous membranes. Dr. Galland says it’s not known for sure whether black elderberry helps prevent flu, but it will help reduce symptoms if you do get sick. He usually tells patients to take 750-mg supplements twice daily with food. If you use the syrup, check the label for dosage.

Tried and True Flu Fighters

Dr. Galland also recommends these time-tested, scientifically proven flu-fighting strategies…

  • Frequent hand washing — one of the most effective ways we know to prevent flu.
  • Regular exercise, but not too much — a moderate amount of exercise, 30 minutes a day, boosts immunity, while high-intensity exercise (90 minutes a day or more) actually suppresses it.
  • A good night’s rest — research shows that about seven hours of sleep each night increases immunity.
  • Reduced sugar, alcohol and fat in your diet — all are believed to have negative effects on immunity.

This year’s seasonal flu vaccine has been formulated to include protection against the H1N1 virus. So unlike last year, when the HINI shot was separate, only one shot is being advised for those who are getting vaccinated. Whether or not you should be vaccinated is a topic to discuss with your doctor, but in the meantime, you can get started on Dr. Galland’s four flu-fighting strategies as described above.