We are in the peak of flu season and we definitely have some high flu activity !
As a nurse practitioner in a busy walk in ambulatory care clinic in the heart of Manhattan, I am committed to populations of busy corporate professionals and eager tourist, which is not a good combo when it comes to germs! One of the most active germs of the season, the influenza virus, is prevalent in well over half the states and is rapidly spreading! (Note: I have already diagnosed 50+ individuals with influenza illnesses during the month of January.)
Thus far, we have the CDC data reporting between 15,000,000* – 21,000,000* individuals being diagnosed with the flu, 140,000* – 250,000* people being hospitalized and 8,200* – 20,000* individuals having a flu or pneumonia related death, with 54 of those deaths being children (as of 1/30/2020). This is very alarming news as the numbers climb rapidly and we are only a little more than halfway through the season, so there is expectation of worsening circumstance in the coming months. In addition, there is a new scare involving the corona virus, initially beginning in Wuhan City, China, that is spreading throughout the world affecting Asia, Australia, Europe and America. This virus is projected to be a pandemic illness as scientist and health officials scurry to contain it.
*these numbers are a direct estimation from the CDC during the time period of October 1, 2019, through January 18, 2020 in the United States based on clinical and public health labs.
It is not the virus itself that directly causes rapid health decline; it is the respiratory complications that derive from them such as bronchitis, COPD exacerbation, pneumonia and sepsis. Whether you get the virus or not, the key is to build a strong enough immune system to either prevent the bug from inoculating it or equipping it to fight the microorganism faster to reduce the risk of further complications. To address this matter and raise awareness here are 4 methods to keep yourself and your family well this season!
1. Control Stress
The first action on our list is to control stress because chronic stress can increase the risk of inflammation and suppress digestive activity, which weakens the immune system. Cortisol is considered the hormone that controls stress. This hormone is needed in our body to balance metabolism, reduce inflammation, and regulate cardiovascular functions. However, long term releases of imbalanced cortisol (usually due to chronic stress, steroid use or disease) can increase the the risk of excess inflammation and overwork the system, leading to a immune system that cannot protect you. Furthermore, when we are overly stressed, the integrity of our gastric cells weaken which increases the occurrence of inflammation and reduces digestive enzymes that help to facilitate 'immune building' gut bacteria.
Most activities that help to relieve stress deal with (1) alleviating muscle tension and (2) restoring the homeostasis of body systems. These include activities such as:
regular aerobic exercise (walking, biking, jogging)
Mind-body activities work to reduce cortisol levels and inflammation. Studies also show that mind-body modalities help to prevent cancer and premature aging and increase circulation of the lymphatic system to filter out inflammatory toxins.
2. Build Good Gut Bacteria
When it comes to building immunity the first important matter to focus on is to: protect and facilitate the good gut bacteria. In comparison to regular cells, there are 10 times more bacterial cells within the body. The majority of these bacterial cells reside in the gut; many which are known as the “good gut flora” help us with many functions.
To name a few, the good gut bacteria (or flora) helps us to:
Properly digest our food and absorb macro and micro nutrients from them.
Build defenses against foreign agents like invading bacteria, fungi, and parasites which causes inflammation, exaggerated immune responses and inflammation.
Reduce leaky gut syndrome, which is a condition where the tissues of the intestines become more permeable and increases risk of gut particles (undigested food and toxic waste) to leak into the blood circulation and increase allergies, systematic inflammation and autoimmunity.
Lower the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and other common conditions.
In addition, protecting and enhancing the good gut flora, not only effects the gut and brain, but also the lungs. When there is a proper balance of good bacteria in the gut, short chain fatty acids (SCFA) like metabolites increase in number. These SCFAs (as illustrated below) encourage the release of immune cells that travel to distal organs (lungs) to offer extra support by reducing bronchial inflammation and protecting immunity.
To increase this good gut bacteria, it is important to increase intakes of plant proteins, digestible carbohydrates, and dietary fiber (healthy non digestible carbohydrates). Increased intakes of these food items protect the gut by: increasing SCFAs and good gut bacteria such as Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus, Roseburia, and Eubacterium. In contrast, it is important to reduce intakes of food such as processed non digestible carbs (like wheat bran), poly dextrose, Oligosaccharides , and saturated fats, because they reduce SCFAs, increase inflammatory disorders, and worsen lung inflammation.
Examples of foods that help to build good gut bacteria include: foods with a bitter compounds (dark leafy greens, dark chocolate), fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut), healthy fats (almonds, olive oil), and an assortment of fruit and veggies ( ginger, garlic, and bananas). If you are unable to maintain consumption of these type of foods make sure to intake 1 or 2 capsules of digestive enzymes with each meal or probiotics with at least 20 billion active organisms. The probiotic should include good bacteria such as : Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus, Roseburia, and Eubacterium, which improves digestion and prevent candida overgrowth.These are all very important functions of the gut that can make or break the immune system.
You can further facilitate good gut bacteria by avoiding unnecessary antibiotic, anti fungal and antiviral use.
3. Get More Sleep
Adequate sleep is critical in the maintenance of the immune system. Individuals who get less than 6 hours of sleep a night are more likely to suffer from upper respiratory infection associated with RSV and influenza, chronic inflammatory disease, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and autoimmunity. A sleep deprived body produces less of the natural killer cells that are needed to destroy virus and bacteria infected cells.
When adequate sleep is achieve, the best immune defenses are built over night. This is due to a special type of protein called cytokines, which specifically targets inflammatory mechanisms and microbes. Cytokines are mostly produced and released during sleep, prepping your systems to fight any infection that invades your space.
Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep on most days of the week to keep the immune system strong .
4. Eat Better Foods
Nutrition being the key part of any health regimen is even more important in the maintenance of immunity. Knowing that the immune system is highly influenced by our gut activity, it is important to understand how the foods we put into our body can build our defenses and protect us against the many microbes, fungi and parasites that may invade our internal system.
Following a Western diet (high in animal protein, saturated fat, and trans fat and low in fiber) is the most common diet choice and it leads to an increase in inflammatory disorders. This happens because the constituents of a Western diet reduces short-term fatty acid levels and the good gut bacteria paving the way for inflammatory processes.
Following a gluten free diet can reduce inflammation and increase good gut bacteria , but the Mediterranean diet usually has more vegetables and less animal protein, which is the best nutrition style to reduce inflammatory responses and disorders . The Mediterranean diet consists of natural, whole foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, nuts, dairy, and pure oils, and excludes processed and refined foods, which makes it high in unsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols, SCFAs, fiber, good gut bacteria, and low glycemic carbohydrates.
When eating better foods, it is important to crowd out (or reduce) the intake of items that can lead to inflammatory response and feed bad bacteria . Items such as dairy and refined sugar products contribute to the formation of mucus and make bacteria and viruses harder to expel. In addition, sugar itself is know to retard the immune system reducing the ability to fight infections and build immune memory. Processed foods such as snack chips, canned foods, cheese, breakfast cereal, and candy bars, can also weaken immunity .
Key Take Away
You don't have to fall victim this season to the flu, corona virus or bacterial infections if you take the appropriate steps to nourish and care for your body ! With all that is happening this season, it is important to (1) reduce exposure to the troubling microorganisms and (2) nourish the body with the appropriate immune building nutrients. In order to do that, you have to pay attention to your body, apply the tips of this article to your daily regimen, wash your hands and increase intake of foods that contain phytonutrients, plant sterols, and polyphenols to enhance immunity and help prevent infection.
Anand, S., & Mande, S. S. (2018). Diet, Microbiota and Gut-Lung Connection. Frontiers in microbiology, 9, 2147. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.02147
Institute of Integrative Nutrition Dietary Theory Library. Mediterranean diet.
Weil, A. (2017). Mind over meds.