In an effort to curb seasonal influenza, the Hong Kong government has announced that all kindergartens and childcare centres will close starting tomorrow, one week ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday.
Besides getting the flu vaccine, what else can we do to protect our health?
Your immune system protects you from infectious bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that cause disease and even death. “The strength of your immune system is what determines who gets sick and who doesn’t,” explains Woodson Merrell, MD, director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. We know that adequate sleep, regular exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking are essential to good health, but what more can we do to improve our immune system?
1) Elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra) enhances the immune system and studies show that people taking elderberry recover from the flu faster than those who don’t. In one randomised study of 60 adults with flu-like symptoms, those who took 15 mL of the elderberry syrup Sambucol® four times a day saw symptoms clear up on average four days earlier than those who took a placebo (the placebo group also took more painkillers and nasal sprays). Researchers note that it is the extract of elderberry that is effective, not the tea, jam or jelly. Check with a qualified practitioner or doctor for appropriate dosages.
2) Vitamin D supports the immune system. Researchers in Japan have found that besides getting the annual flu shot, vitamin D is also a potent flu-fighter. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial comparing vitamin D3 supplements (1200 IU/day) with placebo in school-aged children, researchers found that the children receiving the sunshine vitamin had a 42% reduction in getting influenza A compared to those not receiving it. The study also found that the group not getting the vitamin D had six times more asthma attacks. “Vitamin D helps your body produce a protein called cathelicidin that fights bacteria and viruses,” says Carlos Camargo, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In Dr. Yik’s practice, she finds that many adults and children in Hong Kong are deficient in vitamin D, regardless of how much sunshine they get. Before you start taking vitamin D supplements though, get your level checked so you can supplement at the correct dosage. Too much vitamin D puts you at a higher risk for kidney stones.
3) Up to 80% of our immune system lies in our gut, so it makes sense to boost immunity through the gut! Studies show that probiotic supplementation increases T-cell count, which makes you less vulnerable to infections. In a study involving 3- to 5-year-olds, daily probiotic supplementation for 6 months reduced fever, rhinorrhea, cough and antibiotic prescription incidence, as well as the number of missed school days attributable to illness. Different strains of probiotics treat different conditions, so it’s important to find the right type. A supplement with various probiotic strains including a high(er) amount of Lactobacillus rhamnosus is beneficial for boosting immunity.
4) Eat well balanced, wholesome meals- make sure you’re eating adequate protein, good fats and a variety of vegetables and fruits. Include immune-boosting foods such as garlic, onions, ginger, shiitake/ maitake/ reishi mushrooms, green vegetables and berries in your diet. Vitamin C and zinc play important roles in immune defence, so remember to eat foods high in those nutrients.
5) Certain essential oils such as clove and eucalyptus have immune-enhancing properties. Some choose to diffuse it while others use direct or indirect inhalation. For topical use, always read the labels carefully and seek a certified aromatherapist if unsure.
Always remember to wash your hands regularly with soap and avoid touching your face/ nose/ mouth. If you are sick, seek medical attention.