While we are all trying to enjoy the change of seasons and soak up the beauty of fall, one question persists among the masses. Should I get the flu shot?
My team and I are constantly asked this question and while we can’t give a blanket statement for the general public, I wanted to take the opportunity in today’s blog to provide you with more information about the flu vaccine so you can make the best decision for you and your family with the help of your local medical doctor.
As a Functional Medicine physician I approach the flu, like all imbalances in the body, which is to say I don’t assume the human body is subject to illness when the proper diet and lifestyle precautions are taken. When a patient is sick, some detective work is necessary to find out what missing pieces are interfering with the efficacy of their immune system.
My goal is to help every single one of you strengthen the integrity of your immune system so there is less risk of a virus affecting you, leaving you vulnerable to its aftermath of feeling sick and miserable.
See, when the immune system is compromised it has less ability to fight off the flu, or really any of the myriad viruses, bacteria or toxins we are perpetually faced with every minute of every day.
That is why my #1 priority is to help you support your immune system! In a previous year’s discussion of the flu, I provided information about the steps I wanted you to take to balance your system and achieve a robust immunity.
You can review my suggestions for preventing the flu and enjoying excellent immunity here: Prevent the Flu. Personally, I always start with food because it is the best medicine.
Functional Medicine is not a one-size-fits-all approach- it is patient-centered and honors each of our individual medical needs. Why does the pharmaceutical industry proclaim that everyone 6 months of age and older should get vaccinated? For starters, I take a look at how flu vaccines work.
Each year health officials inoculate this year’s virus into chickens. Then, they take the created viral strains to use as the antigen-the agent which elicits an immune reaction in the human body so you create your own antibodies against the flu. Antibodies are the body’s way of fighting an illness.
It takes about two weeks after you are vaccinated for your body to create these antibodies. We assume scientists match the vaccine to the exact flu strain going around. It’s an educated guess essentially and the efficacy of the vaccine lies in our ability to match the two correctly.
You can still get the flu if you have been vaccinated if the strain you caught doesn’t match that which was in your vaccine. And you can still get the flu even if the strains were properly matched but your immune system was not intact!
This grey area is why a lot of controversy exists about whether or not the flu vaccine is effective. To learn more about this, go to The CDC’s “Flu View” for weekly updated surveillances on the flu: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/.
What’s In It?
- Egg proteins: Including avian contaminant viruses
- Formaldehyde: Known carcinogen
- Thimerosal: Mercury-based preservative (only in multi-dose vials)
- Other heavy metals such as aluminum: Known neurotoxin
- Sugar: The essence of all inflammatory disease
- Triton X100: A detergent
- Other additives known to cause allergic reactions
The biggest controversy about the ingredients in the shot surrounds the use of the preservative thimerosal. Thimerosal contains mercury. Exposure to mercury leads to systemic health problems running the gamut from neurological dysfunction (memory loss, confusion, inability to concentrate) to depression, renal failure, skin troubles and gastrointestinal disturbances.
Pregnant women and infants are often advised to opt for the single dose mercury-free vaccines as once mercury is in the body it can enter the fetus via the placenta. Studies have also reported that children can become symptomatic from mercury toxicity from as little exposure as 10 mcg/kg/day.
Many vaccines contain up to 25 mcg of mercury per dose so this is one area where I will state how important it is to look for a mercury-free vaccines. Here are some options to ask your doctor about:
Types of Vaccines Available:
- Single-dose vaccines such as Fluzone: Contains a purified, inert virus that is incapable of causing infection and tends to be free of mercury.
- Nasal spray such as FluMist: Contains a small amount of a weakened live virus which might make this form slightly more effective but also poses a higher risk for side effects and complications. These are mercury-free. Not for pregnant women or children 6-24 months.
- Some pre-filled syringes such as Afluria are mercury-free.
- Multi-dose vaccines tend to contain the most mercury.
If mercury is such a problem, then why are we even using it? Mercury is part of the preservative necessary when using multi-dose vaccines. The single-dose vaccine doesn’t require the preservative which is why this vaccine is preferred. It is also the least cost-effective for manufacturers to produce so until this changes. YOU, the consumer, need to advocate for yourself.
How Safe is the Flu Vaccine?
While the CDC reports that safety is always being monitored to ensure risk from the vaccine is negligible, certain serious complications have been reported:
- Allergic reactions (anaphylactic)
- Guillain-Barre Syndrome (can be fatal)
- Neurological disorders
Always contact your local physician if you suspect any serious complications post injection.
While not everyone necessarily needs to get vaccinated, especially if you are generally healthy and follow my advice about boosting your immune system with a whole foods diet and an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, there are still some people that might want to consider it.
The CDC recommends the following people for receiving the flu vaccine: Health-care workers with direct patient contact, pregnant women, caregivers of children younger than 6 months, and children and adults under age 24.
Ideal Candidates for the Vaccine:
- Immuno-compromised patients
- Heart disease patients
- Morbidly obese
Why Do We Get Sick?
Why do we get the flu in the first place? Why is the integrity of our immune system compromised? What changes can we make in order to prevent illness from taking hold rather than suffer its nasty consequences?
Why confuse ourselves about the pros and cons of a vaccine’s worth, safety, and availability when we have so much in our medicinal arsenal to fight the flu’s onset?
Preventing the flu depends on improving the quality of our lifestyles to include more pleasure and relaxation, increasing access to fresh, nutrient-dense food, and limiting sugary and industrial junk food in our lives.
Taking care of the way we eat, keeping fit, getting enough sleep and taking a few nutritional supplements including a multivitamin, fish oil, and vitamin D can prevent most from ever getting sick in the first place. In fact I have never had the flu even though, as a doctor, I am in contact with it on a regular basis.
The influenza virus can be very uncomfortable and cause a major disruption in our busy lives. It is important to remember that most healthy people will suffer a mere 3-5 days.
While the fever/chills, sore throat, headache, and fatigue are definitely not fun, they usually come and go without much major harm caused to the body.
In fact, most deaths are only associated with the flu via contraction of pneumonia and its influence on existing medical conditions. The flu’s mortality rate itself is much less common-in fact, more people die each year from malnutrition than from the flu!
So do yourself a favor and pay attention to your vitamin D status, optimize your diet by focusing on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, eat lean and clean protein and healthy anti-inflammatory fats from fish, nuts, and seeds, and healthy olive, grape seed, and coconut oils.
Stay well hydrated, practice common sense hygiene, and create time to rest and restore your energy. And of course get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer this season!
Wishing you and your loved ones a happy and healthy flu-season.
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD