Oct
05
2013

Fighting Back Against The Flu

Every year there is concern about the upcoming flu season. Mostly the discussion centers on the composition of the latest flu bugs and what type of strains would be included in the latest vaccine recommended. The first flu case of the season has just been reported in a child. Here I am going to review what you can do to minimize your probability of getting the flu, or if you get it, how to minimize the severity of the illness.

The immune system

We know for some time that the antibody-mediated immune system is what helps overcome flus. The body’s immune system produces antibodies against the flu via T-helper cells that recognize the glycoprotein (hemagglutinin) of the flu virus and pass a signal on to B cells (bone marrow derived lymphocytes), which in turn are turned on to produce a lot of antibodies (Ref.1). These protect you from future flus of this type. If you have pre-existing antibodies that fit the bug in circulation you are OK ,and you will usually not get the disease.

The factors that protect you from the flu

However, there are many other factors that support your immune system. I will discuss the most important factors in more detail here.

1. We do know that vitamin D3 strengthens the immune system. I would recommend 1000 to 2000 IU per day in the wintertime, but up to 4000 IU or 5000 IU per day during an active epidemic would be reasonable. There is less flu when people are taking Vitamin D3 supplements.

Influenza A was reduced in school children supplemented with 1200IU of vitamin D3. This study recommended higher doses of 2000 to 7000 IU of vitamin D3 per day; but it also stated that as a precaution serum vitamin D levels should be monitored (technically it is serum 25-hydroxy-vitamin D levels that are measured) to avoid vitamin D toxicity. Normal levels are between 40-70 nanograms per ml. Toxic levels are above 100 nanograms per ml. Your family doctor can order a serum 25-hydroxy-vitamin D level for you.

2. Eating fruit and vegetables is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. In a randomized study from Belfast, UK elderly volunteers (82 of them, aged 65 to 85) were assigned to either eat 2 portions or 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day over 16 weeks. At 12 weeks into the trial both groups received a Pneumovax II vaccination, and the antibody response was measured at the end of the 16th week of the study.  There was a significant increase in antibody binding capacity to pneumococcal capsular polysaccharide in the 5 portion fruit and vegetable group compared to the 2 portion group that had no such increase. The authors concluded that there is a measurable improvement of the immune system when an older population increases their fruit and vegetable intake.

3. Avoid stress, because stress has been shown to weaken the immune system. This review shows that the immune system is weakened by the stress response via the elevated corticosteroid hormones (the stress hormone ACTH stimulates cortisol release from the adrenal glands). The stress of social isolation is also contributing to the weakening of the immune system in older people.

Fighting Back Against The Flu

Fighting Back Against The Flu

4. Exercise moderately and your immune system will get strengthened. Over exercising should be avoided as too much cortisol is released from your adrenal glands, which is toxic to lymphocytes thus weakening your immune system.

5.  Socializing is good for you as studies have shown that you live 2 ½ years longer. This study here is from Connecticut, but other studies confirmed this as well.

6. Make love. The endorphins that are released in the process stimulate the immune system.

7. Take probiotics, because they help your gut flora to stay normal. A normal gut flora promotes a stronger immune system as the Peyer’s patches (clumps of immune cells) in the gut wall are intimately linked to the immune system. In this way probiotics indirectly support your immune system.

8. Avoid smoking.  Smokers have more upper and lower respiratory tract infections than non-smokers. Here is information that explains this as well.

9. Get enough sleep. The circadian rhythm of your hormones ensures that your hormones function at their optimal level. Melatonin from the pineal gland is important in triggering the circadian rhythm, but melatonin itself supports the immune system as well. Your adrenal glands need resetting overnight so that cortisol is secreted according to your stress level, not too much and not too little. Overstimulation from performance sports, grief reactions, car accidents, injuries etc. lead to a surplus of cortisol and weakening of the immune system.

10. Take your flu shot (but without thimerosal) every year, but take it as a single shot (without thimerosal as a preservative). This CDC link explains that single shot flu vaccines are available without thimerosal. I recommend this type of flu vaccine. The central nervous system is extremely sensitive to nanograms of mercury, and it is for this reason that I would not buy into the argument of the CDC that one should not be concerned about safety of thimerosal. The newest for this flu season is the quadrivalent (or four-strain) flu vaccine, which is now available in pharmacies throughout the US.

11. Vitamins and supplements support your immune system, particularly vitamin D3. DHEA, which is available over the counter in the US stimulates antibody production when the flu vaccine is given, particularly in the elderly, in other words DHEA strengthens the immune system Vitamin C is known to support the immune system and is rapidly depleted in those who suffer from any viral infection. There are other nutrients that are useful to stimulate your immune system.

12. Consider herbs: Echinacea, Siberian ginseng, Asian and American ginseng, astragalus, garlic, and shiitake, reishi (also called “lingzhi mushroom”) and maitake mushrooms have all been shown to stimulate the immune system with negligible side effects.

13. Wash your hands, particularly when there is a flu going around. Door knobs for instance are known to keep live viruses for 2 to 8 hours, so washing your hands will reduce the amount of virus you are exposed to.

Conclusion

There is no single solution to prevent the flu, but we can all minimize our exposure to the virus and strengthen our immune system. Although it is wise to get a yearly flu shot to boost your immune system (without thimerosal as a preservative) just before the epidemics come around, this alone is not as good as combining the non-specific factors mentioned here with it. Particularly vitamin D3 (2000 IU to 4000 IU per day) and the old stand-by vitamin C (1000 mg to 2000 mg daily) will stimulate your immune system. Spice up your dinners with mushrooms that stimulate your immune system (maitake, shiitake, reishi mushrooms). Go to bed early enough to allow your circadian hormone rhythms to be reset overnight as you sleep. This will stimulate your immune system (from melatonin and DHEA of your adrenal glands).

More info on the Flu: http://nethealthbook.com/infectious-disease/respiratory-infections/flu/

References:

1. Long: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 4th ed. Prevention. Vaccine. © 2012 Saunders

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014

Aug
31
2013

Peanut Allergies Are Deadly

In the US 1.5 million suffer from peanut allergies (Ref.1). People who have peanut allergies have to avoid peanuts and foods that contain even traces of peanuts lifelong. Here is a recent example of a 13-year old girl who died at a camp when she tried food contaminated with peanuts. Before we discuss peanut allergies in detail, we need to review first how the immune system is functioning.

How the immune system is primed to develop an allergy

Our immune system knows the difference between our own body components and substances that come from the outside. Scientists call this tolerance to our own surface proteins; and scientists call it an immune reaction that is mounting as a reaction to anything different from the surface antigens. There are different cells that make up the immune system. One of the main working cells of the immune system are the lymphocytes, with B cells originating from the bone marrow producing antibodies when an immune reaction occurs. Antibodies fit like a lock and key to the surface of an antigen, in this case the peanut protein. T helper cells are T lymphocytes (thymus derived lymphocytes) that help the B cells to recognize the difference between the own protein components and the outside components. There are also T killer cells, which get activated when parasites or viruses enter the body. With regard to peanut allergies it is the B cells and T helper cells that interact and the B cells produce a powerful, very specific IgE antibody directed against peanut protein. There are memory B cells, which continue to produce these specific anti-peanut protein antibodies and cause severe allergic reactions when future exposure to peanuts (even traces) occurs. So, the more often a person who is allergic to peanuts encounters even traces of peanuts, the immune system will get boosted and produce even more antibodies of the IgE type through reactivated B memory cells (Ref. 2). 98% of the population does not react to peanut exposure with allergies, but the other 2% who may have genetic susceptibility factors that predispose them to this often develop life-threatening reactions (an anaphylactic reaction).

What is an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts?

The most extreme form of allergies involving IgE antibodies can cause anaphylaxis. In the beginning stages of a peanut allergy there may only mild symptoms such as hives on the skin, itching and tingling around the mouth, a runny nose, a scratchy throat, wheezing, stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhea. However, with a more severe allergy an asthma attack can develop, blood pressure drops leading to fainting or shock and severe airway obstruction in the throat or lungs can cause suffocation.

I vividly remember an 11-year-old boy who was brought in by ambulance to the emergency room of the hospital where I was working as the on-call physician. He had a hard time talking as his throat was swelling up as part of his anaphylactic reaction, within minutes he passed out completely (shock). Fortunately an anesthetist was in the department and could intubate him very quickly. However, despite adrenaline treatment, oxygen  by artificial ventilation and high doses of corticosteroid drugs he did not wake up until 10 hours later. In retrospect it turned out that he had eaten some crackers of a familiar brand that he knew as being free of peanut flour. However, he had seen an ad that the same brand of crackers was available as cheese crackers and he tried one of these, which prompted his admission to the hospital. The parents read the ingredients later: the label on the cheese crackers noted in small print that the flour of the cheese crackers contained peanut flour! Always read labels, even if it is a familiar brand! Fortunately for this boy he did not have brain damage from the time of his unconsciousness. He has been extremely careful since and is reading labels and avoiding unknown food items.

Peanut Allergies Are Deadly

Peanut Allergies Are Deadly

Cross-reactions between peanuts and other allergens

Allergies can be made worse when a person has inhalant allergies from pollens of trees or grasses that can share protein components from protein found in foods. The latest findings are that there are cross allergies between Fenugreek and lupine, which are both legumes, as are peanuts, so there are common antigens present in their proteins. A mouse-testing model has shed more light on this. Fenugreek has been shown to control mild diabetes by improving insulin resistance, but it cannot be consumed by persons who are highly allergic to peanuts because of the cross allergy mentioned.

There are other possible cross allergies to legumes like lentils, soy and chickpeas.

Other factors that can cause allergies to get worse

In the past the RAST test was often used.  This is a blood test for common food allergies that can cause severe allergic reactions like egg, milk, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, crustacean shellfish and soy. However, since about 2010 this has been replaced by the more sensitive ImmunoCAP Specific IgE test. Children who have food allergies to egg, milk, wheat, nuts, peanuts and soy often outgrow these allergies when they age, in other words their immune system can develop tolerance to many of these foods. Not so with peanut allergies ! They tend to be very persistent.

The immune responses to food allergies are complicated as there are immediate type immune reactions and delayed type immune reactions. The immediate immune responses are investigated with the above mentioned ImmunoCAP Specific IgE test. The delayed immune responses can be measured using the ELISA test. Positive IgE antibody tests for peanut protein are a marker that the person affected likely has more other allergies and they should be investigated by a knowledgeable allergist in that regard (Ref. 2).

What complicates the allergy sufferers’ lives even more is the fact that new wheat varieties since the 1970’s, called Clearfield wheat have a much higher gliadin (gluten) and lectin content than the old wheat varieties. As a result of exposure to this new type of wheat gluten intolerance and leaky gut syndrome have increased substantially in the world population (Ref.3). In addition, genetically modified foods like soy, corn, sugar beets, canola and others have challenged the immune system of sensitive humans even more. We do know that some people can develop autoimmune diseases from GMO foods and modern wheat, and this may be the reason that a host of diseases that belong into this disease category (MS, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, ankylosing spondylitis etc.) are much more common now than in the past. The geneticists who developed GMO foods seemed to be unaware how sensitive the immune system is, which will detect a few different amino acid sequences in a protein mounting a strong immune response to it.

Treatment for peanut allergies

The key for sufferers from peanut allergies is to avoid exposure to it. Read labels and use common sense. If something is not labeled, do not be tempted to eat it. Peanut flour is often mixed into the dough of crackers, not being labeled properly or only in fine print. With peanuts the antibodies usually circulate in the blood life long as the B memory cells do not diminish and get reactivated very quickly on repeat exposure producing antibodies again. As exposure to peanuts can cause severe asthma or anaphylactic shock, it is important to carry an EpiPen with you and to know how to use it.

In Europe attempts have been made to develop an oral desensitization method for food allergies including peanut allergies, but it has not produced concrete results yet. Recently, however, research from Texas, USA showed that it is possible to desensitize patients with peanut allergy by oral desensitization. In Australia where food allergies are more prevalent than in the US, tolerance to peanut, nut and shellfish allergies is being pursued by oral immunotherapy. Another group in Australia has developed a vaccination method using peptides, which are a sequence of amino acids, but shorter than the full peanut protein. It appears that this is the future direction of  treatment for peanut and other IgE mediated allergies: a kind of vaccination treatment to induce competing antibodies, which will neutralize the allergic IgE antibodies.

Conclusion

Peanut allergies have become more troublesome as the food industry has mixed peanut flour into Thai sauces, drinks, cookies, crackers and such. The person allergic to peanuts must read food labels and eat as much single-ingredient natural food as possible. This goes against the tendency of food processors who produce foods with a long rat tale of ingredients. If you see a label “may contain nuts or peanuts”, stay away from this product, as it is safer. Always carry an EpiPen or Twinject with you, just in case you develop an anaphylactic reaction (you only have a few minutes to stop the allergic reaction with adrenaline). In the future vaccination with a peanut protein specific peptide vaccine as mentioned regarding the Australian research, will probably become the treatment of choice.

More information on status asthmaticus (an acute asthma attack): http://nethealthbook.com/lung-disease/asthma-introduction/asthma-treatment/

References

1. Adkinson: Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practice, 7th ed. Chapter: Food Allergy. © 2008 Mosby.

2. Mandell: Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed.© 2009 Churchill Livingstone.

3. William Davis, MD: “Wheat Belly Cookbook. 150 Recipes to Help You Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health”. HarperCollins Publishers LTD., Toronto, Canada, 2012.

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014