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Vitamins You Should Take For Colds and Flu
There are only two vitamins that can help your colds and flu. These are vitamins C and D. Although vitamin C supplements are popular during the cold and flu season, vitamin D is actually the more effective vitamin to help boost your immune system and help you survive the flu season. But how do both vitamins help? What are the limitations of vitamin C? What is the best source of vitamin D? Read on to find out.
Your best defense during this cold and flu season is a healthy and highly functional immune system. Therefore, boosting your immunity is the best way to ensure you do not come down with cold and the flu.
The importance of bolstering the immune system well before the onset of the flu season is the reason why flu vaccination is strongly promoted at the end of the year. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show that flu shots offer full protection even though they can be potentially harmful.
Rather than depend on flu vaccines to survive this cold and flu season, it is best to boost your immunity by other means.
Therefore, you should take natural supplements that are known for their immune-boosting properties. These natural supplements are not only safe but they have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to prevent and/or treat conditions such as cold and flu.
There are different classes of immune-boosting supplements including minerals, vitamins, herbs, probiotics and even blue-green algae. These are best used in combination.
The vitamins proven to help prevent and/or treat cold and the flu are vitamins C and D.
Other vitamins may make smaller contributions. For example, vitamins A and E may also help by their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties but the chief reason to take vitamins during the flu season is to boost your immunity against cold and influenza viruses.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin also known as ascorbic acid or ascorbate. It is a powerful antioxidant and it is required for a number of enzymatic processes in the body.
In addition, vitamin C is required for the synthesis of collagen, for boosting the immune system and for reducing chronic inflammation.
With regards to the immune system, vitamin C enhances the activities of immune cells such as monocytes, lymphocytes and leukocytes.
In addition, it specifically improves the phagocytic activities of white blood cells. This is an important function because phagocytosis is one of the mechanisms by which immune cells engulf and destroy microbes such as the viruses responsible for colds and the flu.
Because vitamin C is soluble in water, it is easily lost in the body through urinary excretion. Unfortunately, humans do not synthesize their own vitamin C but take it from their diet. Therefore, there is a need for constant vitamin C supplementation especially for those whose diets are poor in the vitamin.
Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin C. The vitamin can also be found in milk, oyster, cod roe, liver and meat.
Although 75 – 90 mg/day is the recommended range of the daily dietary allowance of vitamin C, doses as high as 2,000 mg/day are still regarded as tolerable.
However, studies show that even higher doses (up to 6 g/day) of the vitamin are still safe for regular supplementation. In such doses, the side effects of vitamin C become more frequent.
Side effects of high doses of vitamin C include flushing, rashes, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue and sleep disturbance.
Besides oral vitamin C supplements, the other commonly recommended source of vitamin C during the flu season is orange juice. However, citrus fruit juices are not the best sources of the vitamin to take for cold and flu.
Because fruit juices such as orange juice contain simple sugars along with vitamin C, they can increase blood sugar level along rather than serum vitamin C level. In fact, studies indicate that sugars reduce the absorption of vitamin C.
In addition, simple sugars such as glucose are structurally similar to vitamin C. Therefore, they may be absorbed into white blood cells in place of vitamin C.
Since vitamin C is necessary to the optimal functioning of white blood cells, and indeed other immune cells, the substitution of the vitamin with sugar can depress the immune system. One study found that simple sugars such as the ones found in orange juice can impair immune functions for as long as 5 hours after ingesting them.
Therefore, choose other dietary sources of vitamin C besides fruit juices. Vitamin C supplements, for example, are easily absorbed and quite useful for raising your vitamin C status.
Although vitamin C is one of the most popular natural supplements used in the treatment of cold, past studies have not produced a consensus regarding its efficacy.
While some studies found it helpful for preventing cold, some found it useless for treating cold while others concluded that it only “works” by placebo effect. Unfortunately, reviewing these studies is hard because they are mostly not well designed and widely varying doses of vitamin C are used.
Still, the Cochrane Collaboration was able to analyze some of the better designed studies done in this area of research.
The reviewers concluded that daily, long-term vitamin C supplementation can help prevent cold as long as it was started early enough. In their conclusions, they found that regular vitamin C supplementation also shortened the duration of cold by 8% in adults and by 14% in children.
However, vitamin C does precious little to help once cold symptoms have already appeared.
Besides children, the reviewers identified that those who benefited most from vitamin C supplementation are those who are under constant physical and mental stress. For example, vitamin C lowered the risk of catching cold by 50% in endurance athletes.
Overall, it seems vitamin C is definitely better than placebos and can help prevent and/or treat cold. But it is no miracle drug for colds or the flu.
Most of the studies that found vitamin C ineffective used low to moderate doses of vitamin C. However, there is a school of thought in both conventional and alternative medicine that advocates the use of megadoses of vitamin C.
Supplementation with megadoses of vitamin C was first promoted by Linus Pauling. In fact, he recommended vitamin C for a lot of chronic conditions.
Although studies have found that vitamin C is not the panacea that Linus Pauling preached that it was, there are still good evidences that high doses of the vitamin may have some health benefits.
Supporters of vitamin C megadosage often claim that animals that produce their own vitamin C make significantly higher quantities when they are sick or stressed. And they are right. Human studies support this observation by confirming that there is an increased need for vitamin C when we are sick and stressed.
Therefore, high doses (1 – 6 g/day) of vitamin C may indeed help your cold and flu.
At such high doses, vitamin C is likely absorbed in high quantities and more of the vitamin can reach immune cells where they can help boost immunity.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that has the distinction of being the only vitamin produced in humans in sufficient amounts. It is also sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” because it is produced in increasing amount following exposure to sunlight.
To synthesize vitamin D, the skin needs ultraviolet light of certain wavelengths. The body can make all the vitamin D it needs for a day following a 30-minute exposure to sunlight.
There are 5 forms (vitamers) of vitamin D. However, the ones most useful to humans are vitamins D2 and D3. Vitamin D2 can be found mostly in mushrooms (shiitake and portabella) while vitamin D3 is obtained from animal sources including fatty fish, fish liver oil, egg and liver.
Although vitamin D is known for its essential roles in maintaining a healthy bone mineral density, recent evidences show that this vitamin has other important roles in the body.
One of such roles is the ability of the vitamin to enhance the activities of the immune system.
Because sunlight is required for the production of vitamin D in the body, its level is at its least during the winter when the amount of sunshine reaching temperate region is at a yearly low.
Therefore, vitamin D status can follow a seasonal pattern with vitamin D deficiency being most common during the winter. This pattern also coincides with the appearance of flu during the winter and its disappearance thereafter.
Consequently, researchers have found that there is a link between vitamin D status and influenza infections.
It follows then that if low vitamin D level increases your risk of coming down with the flu, raising your vitamin D level can help you avoid or overcome the flu.
There are 3 ways to raise your vitamin D level. These ways include getting more hours of sunshine, eating more vitamin D-rich foods and taking vitamin D supplements.
The best source of vitamin D is still the one synthesized naturally from exposure to sunlight.
The vitamin D synthesized in the skin from a metabolite of cholesterol is vitamin D3. This is the same vitamin found in most dietary vitamin D supplements and also in foods derived from animal sources.
However, the vitamin D naturally synthesized in the skin is sulfated vitamin D3.
Sulfated vitamin D3 differs from the non-sulfated vitamin D3 present in supplements because the sulfate group makes it soluble in water. Therefore, sulfated vitamin D3 is both fat-soluble and water-soluble.
The dual solubility significantly increases the distribution of vitamin D made in the skin compared to both dietary and supplemental sources of vitamin D3. Because sulfated vitamin D3 is easily distributed, it is readily available wherever vitamin D is needed in the body.
It can be immediately used to move calcium to bones and also to boost the immune system.
Where it is impossible to get any sunshine, you should try tanning beds instead. The special lamps used in tanning salons also produce ultraviolet light of the wavelengths needed to produce vitamin D in the skin.
However, where both are not possible, vitamin D3 supplements will still do.
So how exactly does vitamin D help with colds and flu? Vitamin D provides a significant boost to the immune system.
Although regarded as a vitamin, vitamin D can act as a hormone and an immunomodulatory agent when needed. Studies show that vitamin D influences the immune system by reducing inflammation and putting certain immune cells in “attack mode”.
Vitamin D promotes the release and activities of neutrophils, monocytes and natural killer (NK) cells.
In addition, vitamin D triggers the release of a class of natural antimicrobial agents known as cathelicidins. Together with the immune cells listed above, these antimicrobial agents are capable of preventing pathogens from infecting immune cells. They also engulf and destroy these microbes.
The antimicrobial action of vitamin D includes a potent antiviral effect too. In fact, multiple studies have confirmed that vitamin D blocked the replication of multiple strains of influenza virus and was effective for reducing the risk of flu by as much as 50%.
The immune boost provided by vitamin D is not only beneficial for providing a first line of defense against cold and flu viruses, it can also improve the protection offered by flu shots.
Researchers found out that people who had optimal vitamin D levels before receiving flu vaccines were far less likely to come down with the flu than those who were vaccinated but had low vitamin D levels.
This means that vitamin D can boost your immunity with or without receiving flu shots.
Studies also show that vitamin D supplementation is very effective for lowering the risk of flu among the elderly.
This is an important finding because clinical data show that old people have very high risks of coming down with the flu and benefit the least from flu vaccines. As we get older, our immune system starts to fail and respond sluggishly to antigen challenge provided by vaccines and pathogens.
With vitamin D, it is possible to improve immune function in the elderly.
It is recommended that you take daily low doses of vitamin during the flu season. One study found that taking large doses of the vitamin every month does nothing to stop the flu.
Low to moderate doses of vitamin D3 taken every day ensures that you maintain a steady and optimal level of the vitamin throughout the flu season.
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