Nature's Flu Fighters Lower Risk of Getting Sick

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This could be a very bad season for the flu and many believe that season could start early. 

With news of H1N1 or swine flu, people are wondering what can be done to get protection a flu shot may not provide. 

Two natural immune system builders could either keep you from getting the flu -- or make it less severe.

First, there's Vitamin D that we get from sunshine or pills. Then there are probiotics, the good bacteria found in yogurt and supplements.

Probiotics are known for their role in aiding digestion.  But they also boost the immune system and might stop the flu. 

A Chinese study released this past summer found encouraging results. Kids whose diets included probiotics didn't get sick as often as children who did not eat foods with healthy bacteria.

During a six-month period that included winter, two of three children without probiotics suffered a fever. But of the kids taking the good bacteria, only one in five had a fever. Plus those on probiotics had fewer coughs and runny noses.

William Schoor, head of probiotics company Essential Formulas, says he's not surprised at those results because we get probiotics as babies.

"Children who are breast fed, they are much healthier with a stronger immune system because of the lactic acid bacteria that they get," he said. 

As you get older, turn to yogurt or supplements for probiotics. Additionally, you can maintain those levels of good bacteria by avoiding junk food, sodas, and sugar. Simple carbs like these feed the body's bad bacteria which then crowd out the good bacteria. 

Vitamin D may be even more powerful as an immune system builder.  Evidence clearly shows loading up on this vitamin can make a difference.

For instance, a study of African-American women found that 2,000 units (IU) a day nearly eliminated flu as well as colds from the group participating. By contrast, the government only recommends a fraction of that -- 200 to 600 IU depending on your age.

But most people don't get enough, especially those up to 21 years of age. A new study found 70 percent of that age group are Vitamin D deficient.

That amounts to more than 58 million young people. Of that group, 8 million are critically deficient, making them extremely susceptible to infections and a range of serious diseases including osteoporosis. Experts call those numbers "astounding" and "frightening."

The good news is that many Americans have built up their vitamin D by being in the summer sunshine. But as the Northern Hemisphere moves into fall and winter, there's less exposure to sun.

That decreasing and less intense exposure means vitamin D levels drop.  Some experts believe that contributes heavily to the severity of the winter flu season.

Dr. John Cannell of the Vitamin D Council says right now is the time to start taking vitamin D as pills, drops, or liquid. Extensive research has convinced him that adults need at least 5,000 IU per day. Children need about 1,000 IU for every 25 pounds of body weight daily.

Cannell says vitamin D is more than a colds and flu fighter, "Pretty much any disease, any infectious disease, that is more common in winter is a target of vitamin D -- even some of the more prolonged diseases such as tuberculosis."

In fact, Cannell recommends vitamin D for everyone.  But he also says flu epidemics can be severe and unpredictable.  So he also recommends taking every reasonable precaution against the flu -- including flu shots.

While there's no guarantee you'll avoid the flu this year, research shows that the combination of pro-biotics and vitamin D can cut your risk more than 50 percent.

*Originally published October 20, 2009

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