How to Beat the Flu and Winter Blues

In my 20+ years of living in southern California, this winter has been the least, shall I say, “fun.” Perhaps it was the flu that hit my whole family like dominoes over the Christmas break, or the non-stop busy holiday season that’s just kept revving through January, or the recent series of storms and gray skies. Likely, it’s my island roots that are in utter shock, “What is going on?! Where’s the sun?? The bundling up in scarves and boots is cute and all, but I need my shorts and rubber slippers!!!” Thankfully, I’m armed with medical wisdom that has enabled me to recover quickly from the flu, to be resilient and positive with life’s stressors (like, oh, say, a distracted driver hitting my husband’s relatively new suv on Christmas Eve and the insurance company assessing it as a total loss), and to stay cheery and grateful about career life and family life, no matter how utterly full my plate may appear. I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite cold-season supplements that are scientifically confirmed (no old wive’s tales or unfounded practices here) to help you avoid the flu, recover quickly if you do get sick, and combat fatigue and depression during these colder, cloudier months.
1. Vitamin D
This crucial vitamin is necessary for fighting infections including the common cold, regulating immune function, absorbing calcium, and reducing your risk of osteoporosis, autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, and heart attacks. Vitamin D deficiency is strongly linked to mood disorders, depression, and chronic fatigue. Studies show over 80% of the population are deficient in Vitamin D. Our bodies convert sunlight into vitamin D, so the best way to optimize our levels is through direct sun exposure to bare skin. The general rule for safe sun exposure is half the time it takes for your skin to show a mild sunburn. So if you are fair-skinned, that’s about 10 minutes in the sun wearing a tank top and shorts – no sunscreen, about 3-4 times a week. The more pigmented your skin is (African or Middle Eastern heritage) the more direct sun exposure you will need in order to meet your daily vitamin D needs. So if you are darker-skinned, you may require 30 minutes or so, 3-4 days a week. Because most of us live and work indoors the majority of the day, and because few of us want to be scantily clad searching for sunrays during the winter months, it is essential to supplement with vit D. A safe and effective dosage is 2,000-3,000 IU per day (more if you are significantly deficient). To optimize your vit D supplements, also take vitamin K2 because they work in tandem. Vit D helps direct calcium from the gut (small intestine) into the blood, and Vit K helps to direct calcium to bone, so that it thankfully doesn’t deposit into and harden our soft tissues. Foods rich in vitamin K are kale, brussell sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, scallions, and natto (fermented soy).
2., Vitamin C
Vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron, combats adrenal fatigue, supports healthy immune function, and decreases the duration and intensity of the common cold. Because it is a potent antioxidant, vit C also helps to repair and regenerate tissues, and protects against heart disease and cancer. Our bodies run through vitamin C quickly and regularly, especially during times of physical or emotional stress. Thus, daily, frequent supplementation of vitamin C during the busy holiday season, and pretty much throughout the year, is extremely helpful. Get your vitamin C from brightly colored berries, kiwis, and other whole, low-sugar fruits. Avoid the OJ and other fruit juices bc it will spike your sugar and insulin levels. You can also take supplements – I take vitamin C when I’m extra busy or feeling run down, to augment my adrenal function, and I give it to my husband and my sons during the flu season, to augment their immune function.
3. Omega 3 fatty acids
Deficiency in this critical nutrient affects a whopping 98 percent of the population. Omega 3 fats are crucial for supporting cellular membrane structure and function, brain function, regulating your mood, improving your metabolism, preventing diabetes, and reducing inflammation. If you find yourself often battling the blues, or if you are at risk for cardiovascular disease, supplementing with omega-3s is especially important. Foods rich in omega-3s are wild-caught salmon, herring, sardines, krill, and flaxseed.
4. Magnesium
Magnesium is one of my favorite nutritional supplements because it serves as an essential cofactor in over 600 biochemical reactions in our bodies and possesses numerous relevant benefits for the everyday American. Magnesium reduces migraine headaches, relaxes tense and spasmed muscles, decreases high blood pressure (it’s a vasodilator) relieves constipation, improves quality of sleep, calms nervous tension, and helps regulate neurotransmitters (brain and nerve messengers). Specifically, magnesium facilitates the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which in turn increases production of mood-stabilizing serotonin and sleep-optimizing melatonin. Insufficient levels of magnesium are a prime contributor to depression and seasonal affective disorder, aka SAD, aka winter-time blues. To boost magnesium levels during winter, take 400-600mg before bed.
5. 5-HTP
5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) is a naturally occurring amino acid and a a precursor to serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter that helps to keep us happy and emotionally stable. Supplementing with 5-HTP has been shown to decrease mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stabilize mood, and improve appetite, libido, and sleep. If you suffer from depression, 5-HTP is a must-try. Consider taking it with hypericum (St. John’s wort).
6. NAC
N-acetyl-cysteine is my newest favorite supplement because of its powerful antioxidant, detoxifying and mucus-eliminating effects. NAC boosts production of glutathione, our body’s most abundant detoxifying molecule. NAC also breaks down disulfide bonds, making it a potent mucolytic (breaks up mucus). It’s no wonder NAC has been used by physicians for acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose, influenza and helicobacter pylori infections, COPD (congestive obstructive pulmonary disease), and asthma. If your lungs are congested and you’re achy and phlegm-y from the common cold or flu, take NAC. I use this on a regular basis for myself and my family, because we live in Los Angeles – air pollution is always a concern in urban areas, and we have a family history of asthma on both sides. Keeping our lungs clear of toxins is important!
Of course, exercise is always at the top of the list of tips to stay healthy, happy and strong, as it is one of the primary ways to boost serotonin levels, optimize immune function, maintain muscle mass, and decrease inflammation and toxicity. Remember, the bacteria and viruses that make us sick and achy do so by invading our tissues and releasing toxins, which cause inflammation. So reducing inflammation and ridding ourselves of their toxic by-products are necessary processes to get us back to feeling 100%. Couple the exercise with a dedicated diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense plant foods, avoid the refined carbs and hidden sugars, get your 8 hours of sleep, engage in positive outlets for stress, nourish your spirit and renew your mind with regular prayer and meditation… and you’ll be outstandingly healthy and infectiously joyful not just through the winter season, but throughout your entire life!