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Natural Therapies For The Flu This Season

shutterstock_106241129In every encounter in my office this fall and winter, the most common questions I am asked have to do with the flu. Yes, many center on the vaccine.  But as my practice is integrative – we blend safe and effective natural and conventional therapies for common conditions – many of the queries are about natural ways to treat and prevent the flu and similar viral illnesses.    
Our health care system, which I think of as a “disease-treatment” system for the most part, has promoted the use of over-the-counter (OTC) cough-and-cold pharmaceuticals for many years.  Most parents are taught or raised to treat every condition aggressively to suppress symptoms.  While we are not in favor of children suffering, there are times where the body is best able to heal short-and long-term without aggressive pharmaceutical intervention.  
Many pediatricians and parents have known for quite some time that cough-and-cold OTC treatments are questionably effective.  What has come to light more recently is the dubious safety record of typical OTC preparations.  The FDA has issued strong warnings urging parents to be careful about the use of these OTC meds in kids, especially for those under 2 years of age.  One survey of ER departments found that nearly 6% of visits by children were due to adverse effects from cold-and-cough medication use.(1) 
So parents are left to ask – what is safe and effective for me to use both to treat and prevent the flu for my children?  We first advise inexpensive, common sense lifestyle approaches – washing hands, changing clothes, getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, eating health-promoting foods, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough rest/sleep.  The importance of these measures cannot be overestimated.  But what other natural therapies are potentially helpful?  I have listed three below based on published data.  As always, I advise you to consult with your health care practitioner about what is right for you and your family.
•Vitamin D: Deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to a higher incidence of respiratory tract infections. (2)  It has been speculated that the higher prevalence of influenza in winter months corresponds to a decrease in population vitamin D levels as sunlight exposure decreases. (3)  Approximately 70% of children have been found to be vitamin D deficient (4), making this issue a very timely and relevant concern.  It is possible that those individuals with vitamin D deficiencies are at higher risk to contract flu and develop complications from these infections. The most accurate way to assess your vitamin D level is to have a blood test done for 25-OH vitamin D.  This is a relatively simple test that can be done at all commercial laboratories.
•Probiotics: Literally meaning “life-supporting,” probiotics are bacteria and other organisms that colonize our gastrointestinal systems and perform important immune and digestive functions.  One Japanese study found that children who ingested a probiotic drink daily for eight weeks had a significant reduction in flu illnesses, especially for those who did not receive an influenza vaccine. (5)
Another demonstrated that “daily dietary probiotic supplementation for 6 months was a safe effective way to reduce fever, rhinorrhea, and cough incidence and duration and antibiotic prescription incidence, as well as the number of missed school days attributable to illness, for children 3 to 5 years of age.” (6) 
•Elderberry: These dark berries rich in antioxidants come from the Elder tree (Sambucus).  In one study, adults with flu symptoms who took elderberry syrup for five days had a significantly reduced length of illness. (7)  A more recent study found that “flavonoids from the elderberry extract bind to H1N1 virions and, when bound, block the ability of the viruses to infect host cells.” (8)  Furthermore, the authors conclude that the ability of elderberry to block flu virus activity is comparable to that of oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), a pharmaceutical often prescribed for flu symptoms despite very little published pediatric data. 
1. Schaefer MK, et al: Adverse events from cough and cold medications in children. Pediatrics. 2008 Apr;121(4):783-7. 
2. Ginde AA, Mansbach JM, Camargo CA Jr.: Association between serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level and upper respiratory tract infection in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Feb 23;169(4):384-90. 
3. Cannell JJ, et al: On the epidemiology of influenza.  Virol J. 2008 Feb 25;5:29. 
4. Kumar J, et al: Prevalence and Associations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Deficiency in US Children: NHANES 2001-2004. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug 3. 
5. Waki N , et al: Effects of probiotic Lactobacillus brevis KB290 on incidence of influenza infection among schoolchildren: an open-label pilot study. Lett Appl Microbiol. 2014 Dec;59(6):565-71.
6. Leyer GJ, et al: Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug;124(2):e172-9. 
7. Zakay-Rones Z, et al: Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.
8. Roschek B, et al: Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 2009 Jul;70(10):1255-61. 
dr_rosen_bio_pic_3-6-14Lawrence Rosen, MD is an integrative pediatrician and co-author of Treatment Alternatives for Children. He is the founder of the Whole Child Center, one of the country’s first green and integrative pediatric practices, and he serves as Medical Advisor to The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center.  Dr. Rosen’s academic credentials include positions as past Chair of the AAP Section on Integrative Medicine, Clinical Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at UMDNJ, and author of numerous articles and book chapters on integrative pediatrics. He is also the pediatric columnist for Kiwi Magazine and blogs for the Huffington Post. 
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