Now that October has arrived, it’s time to get ready for winter, pick up some Halloween candy, and line up for flu shots – or so we’re told.

Given the hard sell from doctors and government agencies, you may think that you’re a flu case waiting to happen if you don’t get vaccinated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While immunization may reduce your risk (depending on whether or not the soothsayers selected the correct viral strains for this year’s vaccine), it’s far from a sure thing. And flu shots certainly don’t protect against the numerous other bugs that cause the majority of respiratory infections.

Death from the flu?

You’ve probably also been led to believe that influenza is deadly and that flu shots save lives. Although no one wants to deal with congestion, cough, fever and other miseries of the flu, symptoms are usually short-lived and not particularly serious.

Far more worrisome are complications such as bacterial pneumonia, which causes most of the thousands of annual deaths that are chalked up to the flu. Flu shots are purported to reduce hospitalization by a third and cut deaths in half. But this notion has been shot down as well.

A study published in The Lancet found that flu shots do not reduce risk of pneumonia in people over age 65. In fact, during peak flu season, pneumonia rates were actually higher in vaccinated individuals. The researchers concluded that this lack of benefit means one of two things: Either influenza is not a primary cause of pneumonia, or the vaccine is ineffective.

Let me make it clear that this study involved people over 65 living on their own. Previous research suggests that flu shots may be advisable for frail older people in assisted living facilities.

But for most of us – and that includes children – the current scientific research doesn’t even come close to supporting the wildly overblown claims about the value of flu shots.

Defend yourself with vitamin D

This doesn’t mean you should go through flu season unarmed. The most important step you can take is to increase your daily dose of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).

Vitamin D has profound effects on the immune system. Because sunlight stimulates its production in the body, vitamin D levels fall precipitously during the winter. Annual declines may well be the “missing link” in the seasonal nature of influenza.

Ask your doctor for a 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) test, or you can order a blood spot test kit that is easy to use and allows you to test your vitamin D levels at home. Take enough supplemental vitamin D3 to bring your blood level into the 50-80 ng/mL range. My experience is that most adults need 2,000-5,000 IU per day to reach this level.

According to a study published last year, vitamin D also has potential for treating flu. If you do get sick, you might consider increasing your daily dose to 50,000 IU for up to seven days.

Fears of toxicity are overblown. Vitamin D is perfectly safe at the daily dosage range listed above and, for short periods of time, in much larger doses (i.e., those recommended for treating flu). However, while high-dose vitamin D may be required to overcome deficiencies or treat illness, it should be taken only under the care of a physician.

Add other immune-boosting supplements

There’s a whole arsenal of other immune-boosting supplements that can help prevent and – in many cases – treat flu and other viral infections.

Taking a potent, antioxidant-rich multivitamin and mineral supplement every day offers protection, as do probiotics. Although these beneficial bacteria are best known for their effects on gastrointestinal health, they’re also a boon for the immune system.

In one study, children who took probiotic supplements daily for six months had significant reductions in fever, runny nose and cough incidence and duration, antibiotic prescriptions and days missed from school.

And if someone in your family or at work gets sick, add extra vitamin C (1–10 g per day in divided doses), echinacea, colostrum and other immune boosters to your daily supplement regimen. The homeopathic flu remedy Oscillococcinum is also effective, but you need to use it at the first signs of flu symptoms.

You can find all of these supplements in health-food stores and some pharmacies. Use as directed on the product label.

The decision is yours

Discuss this information with your physician and decide for yourself whether or not you’re an appropriate candidate for vaccination. But regardless of your decision, for maximum protection, I strongly encourage you to beef up your supplement program this fall and winter.

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