A Nutritional Defense Against Swine Flu (and other diseases)

By now, you’ve probably heard about this new pathogen called ‘swine flu’ and how it has the potential to be a epidemic. The bad news? Swine flu is a highly contagious virus which we currently have no vaccine against. But the good news is that at its core, it’s just like any other flu. Your body already has a system in place to fight off viruses like the flu, and considering how rarely people get sick compared to the sheer volume of organisms which try to infect us ever day, it works fairly well.

The Reality

No praying required - just common sense (from Flickr user: sarihuella)

No praying required - just common sense (from Flickr user: sarihuella)

Everyone hates getting sick. Even if all you’ve caught is a common cold, there’s the runny nose you have to constantly blow, fever that drains you of all your energy, and a whole slew of other symptoms we all just hate having to deal with. And if minor illnesses aren’t bad enough, getting sick can be much worse. With horror stories of soon-to-be epidemic flus breaking every few months, who wouldn’t want a way to help keep illnesses at bay?

Well, you don’t have to shut yourself in a sterile room and avoid human contact to better your chances of staying healthy. It turns out that you can help your body fight back against the onslaught of disease it faces every day, even against threats like Swine Flu.

Here are a few simple things that can give your body the edge in the fight against the Flu:

Eat Well

Remember that old phrase that says “feed a cold, starve a fever“? Yeah, ignore that. You should feed yourself well before and while you’re ill. When your body is fighting infection, it needs all the fuel it can get to keep the immune system going on top of all the usual energy requirements. Scientists have found that cutting calories actually makes you more susceptible to infection, and even makes flus more severe 2. This is true even if you get a full dose of vitamins – so it really is the raw fuel you need, not just the nutrition.

Of course, there are some nutritious add-ons to your diet you might want to consider. Just listen to the experts [emphasis mine]:

The inclusion of nutritional supplements along with regular diet can prevent the swine flu pandemic,” says Dr. Siva Somasundaram, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Houston-Victoria. Dr. Somasundaram studies the effects of nutrition on the immune system, and originally looked at how nutrition could help against avian flu. “This Swine Flu is similar to Avian Flu,” he says, “and we can adopt the same strategy to prevent it”.

Yumyum keeps away the swine flu...

Yumyum keeps away the swine flu...

Dr. Somasundaram suggests supplementing your diet with vitamins or food that are high in selenium, vitamin E, NAC/glutathione, resveratrol, and quercetin. These vitamins, minerals and compounds have been shown scientifically to help your body fight against viruses 3. Here are some foods that rich with these:

  • Selenium: Nuts, Cereals, Meat, Fish, and Eggs – particularly calf’s liver, tuna, crab and lobster.
  • Vitamin E: Sunflower seeds, Nuts, Avocado, Olives, Spinach and other leafy greens, Wheat germ and hwole grain foods.
  • NAC/Glutathione: Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage and Cauliflower all contain cyanohydroxybutene which increases glutathione levels. Avocados, Peaches, and Watermelons have also been found to boost NAC/glutathione.
  • Resveratrol: Grapes, blueberries and other dark colored fruits, and Peanuts.
  • Quercetin: Capers, Lovage, Apples, Red Grapes, Citrus Fruits, Tomato, Broccoli, other leafy green vegetables and a number of berries.
Helps tumeric absorb into the body

Helps tumeric absorb into the body

Dr. Somasundaram added that if you really want to boost your flu-fighting powers, you can drink a cup of 2% boiled milk with a teaspoon of tumeric powder and a pinch of ground black pepper mixed into it. The pepper aids your stomach’s absorption of the tumeric, which contains high levels of circumin – which is otherwise tough to add to your diet.

And just to be clear: you don’t have to avoid pork. Swine flu is spread person to person, not through eating pig products. Just cook your chops like you would normally and there’s no reason to fear them.

Act Smart

There are other, simple behaviors that can help keep you healthy. Sleep well, for example. The simplest thing you can do to help prevent sickness is to take things lying down – literally. Getting the right amount of deep, uninterrupted sleep is key to having a healthy, fully-functioning immune system.  Sleeping regulates stress hormones and other signaling pathways which are key to immune response 1. If you don’t sleep well, you weaken your body’s ability to fight off whatever infections you might come across. For that matter, try to lower the stress in your life. Not only will stress screw with your sleep, it can lower your immune function all by itself, making you more susceptible to infections.

At the center of the crisis... (from Flickr user: sarihuella)

At the center of the crisis... (from Flickr user: sarihuella)

Perhaps the most obvious thing you can do is stay clean. It’s no secret that the world we live in is full of germs, but wiping down door handles and counter tops, washing your hands regularly, and generally keeping clean can help keep the bad bugs from getting into your system. Really, it’s just common sense – you wouldn’t go licking surfaces that people have coughed on, but if you eat food with your with hands that have touched the doorknob touched by their hands that they just coughed in, you might as well be doing just that.

Stop smoking, if you can. Smoking not only has long-term risks that I’m sure you’re well aware of, it damages your lungs’ mucous lining which is the first line of defense against airborne pathogens. By damaging this protective barrier, you’re making it easier for pathogens to get into your system to make you sick. Smokers also run higher risks of complications and tend to have more severe infections.

Another shot from D.F. ()

Another shot from D.F. ((from Flickr user: sarihuella))

Avoid sick people. You don’t have to wear a mask and rubber gloves around to steer clear of disease – just do your best to avoid people who are coughing, sneezing, and generally seem ill. Tell your friends that you love them, but you’re not going to go out to dinner with an oozing mess of germs. Avoiding air travel and public transportation, if you can, will also help reduce your exposure to diseases. And, to be nice to the world, stay home if you’re sick! You don’t want someone showing up at your work spreading stuff, so don’t be that person. Besides, getting rest will help you get better quickly.

And, of course, if you’re worried and you think you might have something, go see your doctor. It’s their job to diagnose and treat sicknesses – there are some anti-virals which can help against the flu, and at least they might be able to prescribe something to make you feel a little better.

Tune in

They publish updates about the crisis

They publish updates about the crisis

The best way to avoid pandemic diseases like swine flu is to stay informed. Keep your eye on the CDC’s Swine Flu page for updates on the spread and danger of the disease. If something changes that you need to know about it, they’ll tell you.  Already they suggest limiting travel to Mexico, for example. The more information you know about the latest discoveries related to an infectious disease, the better chance you have at avoiding it.

Most of all right now, don’t panic. Swine influenza isn’t Ebola – if you were to get sick, you have a high likelihood of survival, though the very young and old are the most at risk for complications. Right now, only 64 cases have been confirmed in the USA, and one one person (a young child) has died. Act smart, eat well, and tune in and you probably have nothing to worry about.


1. Dickstein, J.B. & H. (1999) Moldofsky. Sleep, cytokines and immune function. Sleep Med Reviews, 3 (3): 219-28.
2. Ritz, B. W.,  I. Aktan, S. Nogusa & E. M. Gardner (2008). Energy Restriction Impairs Natural Killer Cell Function and Increases the Severity of Influenza Infection in Young Adult Male C57BL/6 Mice.  Journal of Nutrition, 138 (11): 2269-2275.
3. Friel, H. &  H. Lederman (2006). A nutritional supplement formula for influenza A (H5N1) infection in humans? Medical Hypotheses, 67 (3): 578-587.

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