Fighting The Flu

By David Blyweiss, M.D.

It seems like every day Americans are inundated with news of the H1N1 virus. And that has left many people wondering whether or not they should get the new flu vaccine. Despite the positive spin the government and the media are putting out, there’s a lot of concern and confusion surrounding the safety of the H1N1 flu vaccine.

I can understand why people are worried. As the father of a daughter in her 20s, I’m worried, too. This influenza bug doesn’t follow the typical rules. Instead, it strikes healthy children and young adults. But, even if you wanted to get vaccinated—well, good luck! Stringent requirements and long lines mean that a lot of people are left out.

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But there’s still the matter of safety. Those of you who remember the flu epidemic of the 1970s may recall the dangers posed by that vaccine. A statistically significant number of Americans developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a rare nerve disorder that can lead to paralysis of the muscles involved in breathing. Maybe you are wondering if it could happen again with the H1N1 vaccine. The short answer is yes.

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An article in a recent issue of the Daily Mail notes that England’s Health Protection Agency has told neurologists to look out for a rise in Guillain-Barr Syndrome in those who have received the vaccine. According to the package insert that comes with the vaccine, it can also cause a whole host of other nasty side effects such as cardiovascular problems, metabolic disorders, a life-threatening skin condition known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, anaphylactic shock and even death. Clearly the concern over this vaccine is widespread and we should do our homework before determining what is best for us.

The news about H1N1, however, isn’t all bad. A couple of very promising studies point to two highly effective ways you can boost your defenses against the virus. The first, which came out of the University of Alabama, shows that antioxidants—those marvelous compounds found in fruits and vegetables—can help prevent the virus from wreaking havoc on the lungs. Typically, the H1N1 virus damages lungs through a protein known as M2. M2 attacks the epithelial cells that line the inner surface of the lungs, damaging them so that they are unable to remove liquid from inside the lungs. This sets the stage for pneumonia and other respiratory problems. But boosting your intake of antioxidants with food and supplements just might give your lungs the protection they need.

The second study was even more interesting. It turns out that the adaptogenic herb rhodiola inhibits the release of the flu virus from the host cell. Here is how it works:  Viruses need host cells to reproduce. They “land” on the host cell, inject parts of their DNA into the cell, then they let the infected cell do the replication work for them. When the new viruses are ready to go on out into the cellular world the host cell ruptures and releases the virus. But in lab studies of H1N1 and H9N2 influenzas, the flavonoids in rhodiola inhibited the release of the replicated, new viruses.

Admittedly, this is all very preliminary and it shouldn’t take the place of good flu-fighting hygiene. But rhodiola is an extremely safe adaptogen and it may add to your body’s defenses. If you’d like to try rhodiola, take 200 to 600 mg. of the herb daily. Look for a supplement that has been standardized to at least 3% rosavins and 0.8 to 1% salidroside.

In addition to these new ways to stay healthy during flu season, here’s what I tell my patients:

  • Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid crowded situations whenever possible.
  • If you smoke, stop. Smoking increases the vulnerability of your respiratory tract and reduces your antioxidant levels.
  • Eat balanced, healthy meals. Include whole grains and lots of colorful vegetables, fruits and berries. Avoid junk food!
  • Gargle twice a day with warm salt water. Gargling can prevent proliferation.
  • Clean your nostrils at least once every day with warm salt water. If you are comfortable with a Neti Pot, use it; if not, wipe both nostrils with a cotton swab soaked with warm salt water.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep each night. A tired, run-down body is a welcome mat for viruses.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. This keeps membranes moist and makes them less susceptible to invasion.
  • Include at least 30 minutes of physical activity five or more days per week.

Making smart lifestyle choices and practicing healthy hygiene may be the best protection yet. But if you do get sick, stay home! Avoiding contact with friends, family and co-workers may help limit the spread of this highly contagious bug.


Jeong HJ. Rhodiola rosea has neuraminidase inhibitory activity against influenza viruses. Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry. 2009;17:6816-6823.

Lazrak A. Influenza virus M2 protein inhibits epithelial sodium channels by increasing reactive oxygen species. FASEB Journal. Nov 2009. doi:10.1096/fj.09-135590.

Macfarlane J. H1N1 Vaccine Link to Guillain-Barré Syndrome Kept from Public. Daily Mail. August 16, 2009.

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