Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you are probably aware of the flu outbreak in the United States. Schools, offices and hospitals are all feeling the effects of the scourge. I know this well, as I work in a hospital which has been full for weeks. Even the nurses are calling in sick in record numbers.
The programs I hear on the radio state that the only thing we can do to protect ourselves from this epidemic is to get the flu shot and stay away from crowds. While these suggestions can be helpful, it isn’t a comprehensive list of steps people can take to maintain their health. I believe that besides good eating, sleeping and exercise habits, taking 5000 IU of Vitamin D daily during the winter months is extremely important in preventing the flu and other illnesses, a belief that is well documented by extensive research over the years.
The flu virus exists in humans all year round, so why do we only get sick in the winter, or in the tropics, during the rainy season. This happens because we make our Vitamin D from cholesterol that lies under our skin. On a sunny summer day at the beach, a light-skinned person can make 20,000 IU of Vitamin D in 20 minutes, at which time the body shuts down the production of Vitamin D for the day. When cold weather or the rainy season prevents us from getting adequate sun exposure, our Vitamin D levels drop.
Vitamin D controls the activity of over 1000 genes including those in macrophages which are white blood cells in our immune system. Vitamin D turns on genes in the macrophages that produce antimicrobial peptides which act like natural antibiotics that can kill not only bacteria but also viruses.
Vitamin D also activates genes that prevent macrophages from overreacting to an infection and producing too many inflammatory agents called cytokines that can damage infected tissue. In the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, 500,000 Americans died including many healthy young adults. Autopsies often showed complete destruction of the epithelial cells of the respiratory tract due to the macrophage-induced severe inflammatory reaction to the virus. In a tragic twist, the people were killed by their own overactive immune system.
An article in the medical journal Lancet in August 2012 by Michael L. Jackson reviewed the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in the elderly by studying thousands of charts in a health maintenance organization. He found that those who were vaccinated were the ones who took better care of their health in general, which is the group who would be less likely to die of the flu. This fact skewed the results of many flu vaccine effectiveness studies.
In 2005 Dr Simonsen wrote an article in The Archives of Internal Medicine which showed that despite the fact vaccination rates in the elderly tripled between 1980 and 2001, there was no corresponding drop in the death rate. This could be because vaccines work by priming the immune system to recognize and respond to incoming threats. Because the immune system in the elderly slows down, they don’t get as much of a bounce from the vaccine as young adults receive. For this reason, it is even more important for the elderly to take adequate amounts of vitamin D.
The best natural sources of Vitamin D in our diet are wild salmon, mackerel, sardines and cod liver oil. Other sources are foods such as fortified milk and cereals. Blood levels of Vitamin D are measured in nanograms per milliliter. Experts disagree on the optimal blood level for humans. Mary Picciano of the Institute of Medicine believes that 11 ng/ml are sufficient. However, Dr Donald Miller Jr, a cardiac surgeon in Seattle, believes a much higher level is optimal. In his 2007 article “Vitamin D in a New Light”, Dr Miller states that children need >8 ng/ml to prevent rickets and softening of the bones, but optimal health occurs in adults at levels of 50-99 ng/ml.
According to various studies, between 40-70% of Americans have suboptimal levels of this vitamin. Most experts now agree the former recommendation of 400 IU is too low. Dr Donald Miller believes 5000 IU is the right amount to allow Vitamin D to perform at its maximum level for our immune system, our bone health, a sound cardiovascular system and our neuromuscular performance. Our bodies can heal themselves of many maladies. They only need the right tools. With 40% of those receiving the flu vaccine contracting the flu, it would only make sense to add vitamin D to your daily routine.
Jamie Lane has worked as a nurse in western Illinois for 37 years. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.