Tag Archives: influenza

Have a Healthier Winter with Vitamin D

We have been lucky this January to have so many sunny days, but are we still getting enough vitamin D? I know that most days I am working inside and only see the sun when I am taking care of my chickens in the morning. If we don’t get enough sun and our vitamin D levels go down, we can start suffering from the winter grumpies, or seasonal affective disorder, as it is technically known.

I often encourage my patients to take a low dose of vitamin D during the winter or all year long, especially if they are taking a calcium supplement. I am not necessarily a fan of the higher doses such as 5000 IU once a day, since too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Vitamin D is actually a hormone that regulates calcium metabolism, and as with hormone replacement therapy, there is a normal range for our bodies. Unless someone is deficient, the higher doses might actually reduce some of the vitamin D benefits. Additionally, sometimes we need to dig deeper. If someone is vitamin D deficient, it can be due to excessive inflammation in the body, and this may need to be addressed more than the vitamin D levels

Adequate vitamin D is associated with many health benefits including stronger bones, lower rates of influenza, reduced blood pressure, and reduced breast and colon cancer risk, but some of the benefits go away if people take too much. Therefore, I have been encouraging people who don’t know their vitamin D levels to stick with doses around 1000 IU. One study demonstrated that just 800 IU a day slightly reduced mortality due to any cause in elderly people, mainly women.

So if you are dealing with the wintertime blues, considering adding a little vitamin D to your routine, but remember don’t overdo it.

And get some sun when you can!

Winter Trees at Sunset

Astragalus: Traditional recipes for the immune system

When it comes to staying healthy during the winter, astragalus is my favorite herb to strengthen the immune system. Astragalus is an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I love this “wisdom” that some herbs offer us by cooperating with our bodies instead of forcing us in one direction like some medications do. Astragalus can be used long term, so it is a great choice to take all of cold and flu season. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.

Astragalus roots

Astragalus roots

In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus can help the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress has many negative effects on our bodies, particularly on our adrenal glands that help regulate our metabolism among other things. Our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Disrupted cortisol production can be associated with fatigue, insomnia, and even high blood sugar and blood pressure. By balancing adrenal output, astragalus can be a great part of the plan to help us recover from these types of issues. Because astragalus is high in antioxidants, it can also help protect the liver.

This winter I am enjoying my astragalus the traditional way by making astragalus soup and astragalus bone broth. I looked through several different recipes for astragalus soup, the traditional Chinese way of using this immune boosting herb. I was trying to decide how long the soup needed to simmer. Some recipes recommended adding astragalus root to any chicken soup and simmering for 10 minutes, but I didn’t think this was long enough. Then I found a traditional recipe. It called for 2/3 of an ounce of astragalus in 5 cups of liquid cooked over medium heat until only 2 cups of liquid was left. This was clearly a “real” recipe with its longer cooking time to extract the maximum benefits from the astragalus, so I decided to add astragalus root to my bone broth.

Here is my recipe for Astragalus Bone Broth:
Place chicken or other bones in a pot or crockpot
Cover the bones with water
Add about 2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar for every 8 cups of water
Add 1 ounce of dried astragalus root for every 8 cups of water or so
Cover with a tight fitting lid
Simmer very low on the stove or cook on low in the crockpot for 12-48 hours
Strain the broth and enjoy

I drink this broth as a hot beverage with a little bit of salt. The astragalus has a mild nearly smoky taste and the broth is quite delicious. If you want to try astragalus soup but aren’t ready to make a bone broth, try adding the astragalus roots to any soup you are making. Cook the soup with the astragalus roots for at least 20 minutes. Then remove the astragalus roots before you serve the soup just like you would with bay leaves. And of course, astragalus comes in capsules too so you can get these immune benefits no matter how busy your schedule is.

Beyond Thieves Oil for Wintertime Immunity

Yes, you can use herbs and essential oils to help kill bacteria and fight off wintertime infections. But you don’t have to just rely on the one product that a certain essential oil company sells. They make a blend of essential oils known as thieves oil, but it is probably not even be the original formula the thieves used during the plague. I am not saying that the eucalyptus, rosemary, cinnamon, lemon, and cloves blend sold under this name is ineffective. I saying there are way more options out there.

So how did this name thieves oil come about? In Europe during the plague known as the Black Death, a group of thieves made an herbal vinegar concoction to douse themselves in and successfully robbed houses and bodies without coming down with the plague. This vinegar concoction was thought to contain garlic and rosemary and a variety of other herbs that no one seems to agree upon. It possibly had thyme, sage and lavender, but there are so many herbs with antimicrobial properties that could have been used.

I am making a Four Thieves Vinegar. I will probably also use it for salad dressing.

I am making a Four Thieves Vinegar. I will probably also use it for salad dressing.

To protect yourself and your family from wintertime germs, there are still a lot of options to choices from. If you like to make stuff at home, there are great recipes out there for Four Thieves Vinegar, which can be used as a surface disinfectant or taken internally as an immune booster. You can also make your own thieves oil blend from common essential oils. For hand and surface sanitizers, I also like the Clean Well products that use thyme essential oil as their active ingredient. And you can support one of our local businesses by checking out Essential Arts Well Being oil. It is in a base of grapeseed oil so it ready to be rubbed into the soles of the feet or used as a chest rub for colds and coughs.
This just scratches the surface of all of the amazing way herbs and essential oils can be used to help us be healthy this winter. So remember you can stay well and smell great doing it (if you leave the garlic out).

Natural Ebola Prevention Strategies

So far there are no new confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States, but there have been 5000 false alarms since Thomas Duncan’s diagnosis in Dallas. This tells you how worried people are. On one hand, the Ebola virus has a particularly high mortality rate. On the other hand, Ebola is not as easy to spread as other viruses. The chance that we really need to worry about this is the United States is low, but this seems like a good time to review immune support and antiviral basics since we will have our normal viral infections to cope with as the cold weather hits.

First practice basic hygiene. This is washing your hands before you touch your face, especially your eyes, nose, mouth, or open wounds. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids and it not spread through the air, though scientists are worried about Ebola mutating to this type of dispersal.

The key to preventing colds and flu and possibly to surviving an Ebola epidemic is having a strong immune system. Ebola weakens the immune system. Survivors of past Ebola outbreaks seemed to have stronger and faster immune responses compared to those who didn’t survive. As my Ayurvedic colleagues point out, “For an infection like Ebola, which has no apparent clinical cure, natural reinforcement of the immune system may represent an oasis of hope in the desert of fear and panic.” So start with the lifestyle basics: healthy diet, moderate exercise, proper hydration, and adequate sleep.

For basic wintertime immune support, I also add probiotics, vitamin D, and vitamin C to my daily routine. When it comes to fighting viruses, some of my favorite supplements are colloidal silver, oregano oil, elderberry, and medicinal mushrooms.

None of these have really been studied with Ebola so we have to extrapolate from what we know about other viruses and remember that not all viruses are the same. For instance, elderberries have been shown to slow the replication of influenza viruses, but this does not mean that it is going to work with all viruses. On the other hand, colloidal silver has shown benefit from a wide array of viruses.

Agarikon

Agarikon

Other agents that might be theoretically useful are turmeric and agarikon. Turmeric could be useful in two ways. As an inflammation modulator, it could calm excessive inflammation that contributes to tissue damage and depletes the immune system. Turmeric also activates an enzyme called heme oxygenase-1, which in test tubes has been shown to reduce Ebola replication. Agarikon is a medical mushroom available in some of my favorite immune supporting blends like MyCommunity and MycoShield from Host Defense. Agarikon, like colloidal silver, has the potential to be active against a wide array of viruses and the other mushrooms in the blends are great immune supporters.

Please remember that all of this information is speculative since this virus it too new for us to have the studies that we would want to make confident claims. But strengthen your body and immune system to help prevent the more likely threats of colds and flu and donate to some of the many funds providing aid to those suffering in Africa.

How to Make Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry European? cropped

Last week, I wrote about natural tips for preventing the flu. Elderberries were one of the items I highlighted because they taste delicious and are safe for nearly every age group. I have trouble getting my husband to use some of the remedies I use personally like Echinacea tincture and oregano oil, but he is happy to take elderberry syrup. Elderberries have been shown to directly reduce the rate that the influenza virus can replicate. We both notice that it seems to immediately make us feel a little better when we are fighting a cold or flu. Allergy sufferers also report that elderberry syrup eases their symptoms.

I have been making elderberry syrup for years now. I make it from either fresh or dried elderberries and various sweeteners. I don’t even normally use a recipe because you can hardly go wrong. I just taste it to see if I have sweetened and concentrated the syrup enough. For my last version, I used xylitol as the sweetener since this is a natural sugar alternative that won’t raise blood sugar and can help prevent some bacteria infections, especially ear infections. I usually make very large batches and freeze the extra so I have it on hand to defrost whenever we need it. In the summer, I will harvest the fresh elderberries and make syrup out of them right away. At this time of year, we only have dried elderberries available, so this recipe will use them. For fresh elderberries, you can cut the water in half.

 

Dried Elderberries

Dried Elderberries

Simple Elderberry Syrup

½ cup dried elderberries

2-3 cups of water

¼-½ cup xylitol or sweetener of your choice

Combine ingredients in a saucepan and bring them to a boil. Simmer on low for an hour, stirring occasionally. Let it cool down enough to handle. You can strain it through a fine mesh sieve. I prefer to put to then put the berries into a jelly bag or nut milk bag so that I can squeeze the residual juice out of the berries.

(Some times I then take those berries and cook them down a separate time with more water and sweetener to get the remaining goodness out of them. This makes a less concentrated syrup, so I just label it differently so I remember to use twice as much of it.)

I take 1-2 Tablespoons up to 5-6 times a day when I am really feeling bad. For prevention, I might take it once or twice a day.

Natural Flu Prevention

This seems to be shaping up to be a particularly bad flu season. So far, nearly forty people have died of influenza here in Arkansas. My husband recently had a mild case himself, and it made me think I should share what I did to prevent myself from getting it. These interventions can also help prevent colds and other upper respiratory infections and reduce the severity of a cold or flu if you come down with one.

Astragalus

Astragalus

When the cold and flu season starts, I begin taking astragalus, which has been shown to boost the immune system especially when taken long term. That is why I start it at the beginning of flu season, so I get the full immune benefits. But it is worth starting at anytime since astragalus also has a mild antiviral activity. Astragalus also helps with the body compensate for stress and reduces cortisol, which has been shown to suppress immune function. In addition, astragalus can help increase stamina. Because of this combination of immune and energy benefits, I choose astragalus over Echinacea for the flu season. I still use Echinacea sometimes, especially if my preventative strategies haven’t been enough and I start to feel a cold or flu coming on.

Another lesser-known immune booster is larch arabinogalactan. These are polysaccharides derived from the larch tree. Polysaccharides are the immune stimulating compounds in many of the best-known immune herbs like Echinacea and aloe. In addition to supporting the immune system, larch arabinogalactan can help with inflammation and joint pain. I also like larch arabinogalactan because it is a mild tasting powder that is safe to for children.

In addition to an immune booster, I take my daily fish oil and vitamin D. Fish oil and vitamin D are again obvious choices because of their multiple health benefits. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish oil help with optimal immune function, while also supporting mood, fighting inflammation and helping prevent heart disease. Vitamin D has been shown in numerous studies to help reduce rates of influenza. People who are deficient in vitamin D are much more likely to get the flu. In fact, lack of vitamin D production from sunlight is possibly one of the reasons the flu season is at this time of the year. If you already have adequate vitamin D levels, taking more vitamin D isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, excess vitamin D might slightly increase the rate of influenza.

Elderberry

Elderberry

I always keep elderberry syrup in my house, and when my husband or I start feeling sick, this what we reach for. Elderberries have been shown in test tube studies to reduce the rate of influenza virus replication. Studies have also shown it to reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms. In one study, 87% of the people taking elderberry had nearly complete resolution of symptoms in 3 days, while only 33% of those given the placebo felt as good at that point.

There are many other herbs and supplements that I could write about to help fight the flu, but lifestyle considerations are even more important. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reduce stress, get adequate sleep, and allow yourself extra rest when you feel like you need it. When our stress goes up, so does our cortisol, which as I mentioned suppresses the immune system. Additionally, inadequate sleep hampers our immune system partially through causing elevated cortisol output. So get 8-9 hours of sleep a night and establish stress management techniques like deep breathing, exercise, yoga or meditation so that every day stress won’t leave you more susceptible to the flu.

Natural Pain and Fever Reducers to Replace Acetaminophen

Recently, the FDA recommended that doctors limit the amount they prescribe of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol and some other pain reducers. They stated that taking more that 325 mg of acetaminophen per dose didn’t outweigh the added risk for damage to the liver. Liver injury has occurred in patients who took more than the prescribed amount of acetaminophen in 24 hours, took more than one product containing acetaminophen, or drank alcohol while taking acetaminophen. The harm to the liver by acetaminophen is greatly increased by alcohol, which slows down the rate that the liver can neutralize acetaminophen.

Since this is just one of the many negative reports about acetaminophen in recent years, it is time we looked for alternative to help us manage without acetaminophen or reduce the amount that is needed. We can’t necessarily take a combination of acetaminophen and non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen, as these medications also slow down the detoxification of acetaminophen by the liver.

The two main actions of acetaminophen are to help reduce fever and pain. Some natural alternative to help reduce fevers are herbs like white willow, gotu kola, and to some a milder extent, peppermint. Additionally, we can choose herbs that induce sweating and in turn can help break a fever. These herbs are ginger, yarrow, chamomile, and hyssop. For fevers related to the flu, homeopathic remedies like belladonna, gelsemium, and oscillococcinum may also be useful.

Passionflower

Passionflower

To help reduce pain naturally, there are many herbs and supplements that can be used without the harmful side effects of acetaminophen. One of my favorite supplements for pain is MSM, methylsulfonylmethane. MSM is anti-inflammatory and safe to use in large amounts. Turmeric and its active constituent curcumin is probably one of the most popular supplements for reducing inflammation and therefore pain. These are sometimes paired with DL-phenylalanine, an amino acid that supports the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the chemicals our bodies produce naturally to reduce pain and improve mood. Other herbs for pain include kava kava, valerian, California poppy, passionflower, and white willow. All of these herbs are centrally acting like acetaminophen, which means they work on the brain to slow the transmission of pain signals from the body. Dr. Oz has also recently popularized the herb Corydalis, which has this same type of action.

If natural options like these are enough to sufficiently reduce pain and moderate amounts of acetaminophen containing medications are still needed, make sure you have sufficient amounts of these nutrients that are necessary for acetaminophen breakdown: riboflavin, glutathione, selenium, zinc, and molybdenum.

Healthy Hints for Holiday Happiness

The holidays can be a time to relax and enjoy time with your family. And they can be a time to run yourself ragged trying to make holiday magic happen for others. On top of this, some struggle with seasonal depression from reduced sunlight and fewer opportunities to exercise. While winter can be an enchanting time, the additional stress to take a toll on our health. Stress reduces our ability to fight off infections making us more susceptible to winter colds and flu. In addition, long-term stress can increase the risk for diabetes, ulcers, osteoporosis, certain cancers, heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease. Stress can also contribute to mood issues such as anxiety and depression.

So as the holiday season gets into full swing, it is time to come up with a plan to reduce the negative impact so you can enjoy the good parts of the season.

First, give yourself some “me” time. As I mentioned in my last blog, you deserve the time to be healthy.

Practice your stress coping skills. Choose what works for you and make some time for it. Laughter, journaling, reading, prayer, meditation, imagery, writing, exercise, deep breathing, cultivating positive attitudes, and physical expressions of emotions are some of the more common techniques people have found to creatively manage their stress.

lavender

Try calming herbs. Herbs taken as supplements or teas can help calm the mind. Popular calming herbs like kava, skullcap, and California poppy can be found in capsules or liquid tinctures. Or make your own tea blends from relaxing herbs like lemon balm, catnip, passionflower, lavender, st. john’s wort, and chamomile.

Here is my recipe:

¼ cup chamomile flowers

¼ cup lemon balm leaves

¼ cup passionflower leaves

2 Tbs catnip leaves

2 Tbs lavender leaves

Mixes these together. To make the tea, place 1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of the blend in one cup of water that was just boiling. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably covered. Strain the tea, or remove the tea ball if you were using one. Sweeten with honey or stevia if desired.

You can also try your own creation. You might like it so much that you decide to share it with someone on your gift list. Include a tea ball or strainer and a recipe card so they can make more for themselves.

If all else fails, buy yourself a present.

Vitamin C: Powerful Protector

For colds, most people reach for vitamin C to help them get back on their feet sooner. They might chose it because they can tell it helps them feel better, or they might have heard about one of the numerous studies supporting its use. Most studies show that vitamin C reduces the severity of cold symptoms. Even one famous “negative “ study showed that vitamin C reduced the severity of cold symptoms by 20%. This was only considered a negative outcome because these results were not deemed significant. Other studies show that vitamin C accelerates recovery, especially if taken early in the illness. One study using 3000-6000 mg daily showed an 85% reduction in cold and flu symptoms compared to the control. I notice that especially toward the end of a cold, taking vitamin C has a marked effect on my energy levels, helping me get back to work.

Vitamin C can be beneficial for other respiratory issues. In epidemiological studies, increased vitamin C intake is correlated to lower rates of asthma. Supplementation with vitamin C also has been shown to reduce exercise-induced airway reactions such as narrowing of the airways. Additionally, vitamin C may be helpful for asthma that is related to pollution. These benefits are partially due to vitamin C’s anti-histamine effects, which are augmented by the presence of bioflavonoids, compounds that occur in foods alongside vitamin C that potentiate its activity.

Vitamin C’s well-known antioxidant capabilities provide part of its protect of the respiratory tract. When we are exposed to pollutants and toxins, free radicals cause cellular damage, which in turn contributes to inflammation that can exacerbate conditions like allergies and asthma. It is probably these antioxidant actions that help me feel more energetic at the end of a cold. When the immune system is working hard it creates free radicals as part of the process, and these free radicals can contribute to fatigue. By helping remove these free radicals, vitamin C can help you feel normal again. Likewise, vitamin C can protect vital molecules in the body, such as proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and DNA from damage by free radicals that can be generated during normal metabolism as well as through exposure to toxins. This preserves crucial cellular functions and can help prevent cancer. Finally, vitamin C can regenerate the antioxidant capacity of vitamin E, which is in turn one of the most important fat soluble antioxidant that supports heart health by preventing the oxidation of cholesterol. Again, bioflavonoids also can work as powerful antioxidants supporting the activity of vitamin C so I always look for these when I buy vitamin C.

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Essential Oils for Cold and Flu Season

It is that time of year again. The cool weather is hitting us and I have been seeing more people with colds and other contagious illnesses. One of my strategies to stay well when interacting with sick patients is to use antimicrobial essential oils like peppermint and eucalyptus. While many essential oils have antimicrobial benefits, I particularly choose these two for their additional decongestant nature.

Peppermint essential oil is a very versatile and inexpensive remedy to have around for cold season as well as other times of the year. Inhaling peppermint oil can help relieve sinus pressure because of its high concentrations of menthol, which helps open up congested nasal passages. Peppermint also has analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits so it helps ease the discomfort that comes along with sinus issues. Peppermint also helps reduce coughing so you nearly always see menthol added to cough drops. Due to its cooling action, adding 10 drops of peppermint oil to a tepid bath can also be useful for fevers or sunburns. For all times of the year, peppermint oil can be a wonderful digestive soother. Add 2-3 drops to 1-2 teaspoons of a carrier oil like almond or coconut oil and massage some of that blend on the back or tummy to reduce indigestion or nausea. Peppermint oil also works well for headaches that are related to digestive or sinus issues. Finally, inhaling peppermint oil has been shown to increase alertness as well as memory and concentration.

Eucalyptus Leaves

Eucalyptus Leaves

A great essential oil to combine with peppermint during cold season is eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is a relative of tea tree and has nearly as potent antimicrobial action as its well-known cousin. It also helps reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract. It is a popular choice for sinus congestion and bronchitis because it helps to break up mucus. Eucalyptus oil can also be a very useful headache remedy. Combined with peppermint it can be used topically for numerous issues from joint pain to repelling mosquitoes. Always dilute them with water or oil before applying to the skin.

For colds, I add 5 drops of an essential oil to a boiling hot cup of water and inhale the steam for several minutes. In addition to easing respiratory symptoms, these oils can also help prevent upper respiratory tract infections. Inhale these essential oils when you have been around sick people or are travelling by plane to create your own essential oil vapor shield.