Pandemics and Adaptogens


The flu bug is commonly believed to be a mere pest that can cause fever, nausea, and aches and pains -- although it has had periods of pandemic proportions. The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919, for example, has been called the worst infectious pandemic in history, with estimates ranging between 20 million and 40 million deaths worldwide.

Aside from this highly publicized outbreak, the common flu bugs (influenza A and B) wreak havoc on an annual basis. The respiratory infections hospitalize an estimated 114,000 Americans annually, and they cause about 36,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Influenza vaccination is the most common means of preventing the flu, and the CDC recommends it for at-risk age groupsÑsuch as children and the elderly -- before seasonal increases in infection. (The flu season lasts from December through March.) However, there are also natural means to possibly bypass infection and boost immunity.

Black Elderberry Extract
The black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is known for its antioxidant and healing properties, and it has been used traditionally for maladies ranging from skin conditions to coughs. More recently, in a 1995 issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Israeli researchers reported a significant improvement in flu symptoms, including fever, in 93.3 percent of patients treated with a standardized black elderberry extract (as Sambucol, the exclusive US distributor of which is Springville, Utah-based Nature's Way). Researchers also reported that a complete cure was achieved within 2-3 days of treatment as compared to 6 days in the placebo group.

One reason for black elderberry's positive effects is its ability to enhance immune function, as noted in the November 2002 issue of The Israeli Medical Association Journal. Researchers found that three formulations of Sambucol activated healthy immune function by stimulating cytokine production.

Echinacea is more than just a pretty purple flower. Case in point: Animal research published in October 2002 in Planta Medica demonstrated that a water-alcohol mixture containing Echinaceae purpureae radix and Echinaceae pallidae radix inhibited influenza A virus pathology and increased survival rate.

A human trial of echinacea was conducted by researchers at York College of Pennsylvania, where cold and flu patients were randomly assigned to take an herbal tea (Echinacea Plus by Sebastopol, California-based Traditional Medicinals) or a placebo. Questionnaires filled out by the participants demonstrated faster symptom relief in the treatment group as compared to the control group.

A known adaptogen (a substance that stimulates the body's defense mechanisms), ginseng has been identified as a likely herb for reducing flu complications and incidence. A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed American ginseng (as CVT-E002, from Canada's CV Technologies Inc.) may prevent influenza-caused acute respiratory illness (ARI) in elderly patients.

Researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk randomly assigned 198 patients to take ginseng or placebo during flu season. Despite the fact that 90 percent of subjects received vaccinations, those in the treatment group had an 89 percent reduced risk of ARI compared to the placebo group.

One reason for the anti-flu effects of ginseng could be that it enhances immune response to the vaccination, as noted in a 1996 issue of Drugs Under Experimental and Clinical Research. Italian investigators gave 227 volunteers either 100 milligrams (mg) of a standardized ginseng extract (Ginsana G 115, distributed in the United States by Pharmaton Natural Products of Ridgefield, Connecticut) or a placebo for 12 weeks, with flu vaccinations being administered at week four. Treatment with ginseng reduced flu incidence, increased antibody concentrations and enhanced natural killer cell function.

Different from herbal remedies, Oscillococcinum (manufactured by Lyon, France-based Boiron) is a homeopathic preparation created according to the "law of similars," which basically states that like will cure like. This means that, if a healthy person were to take Oscillo, flu symptoms would arise; so by this determination, a person exhibiting flu symptoms can be cured by taking the substance that might cause those symptoms in times of health.

Indeed, research seems to show Oscillo as a promising flu remedy, as noted in a 2004 Cochrane Database Review. The review, which included seven Oscillo trials and a total of 3,459 subjects, indicated that the homeopathic remedy decreased flu duration by 0.28 days and was likely to increase patients' confidence in treatment efficacy.

Vitamin C
And last, but certainly not least -- what story about the flu would be complete without a discussion of vitamin C? Vitamin C has long been hailed for its antioxidant properties, and people across the globe believe that megadoses of this essential nutrient can improve immunity and help stave off infection.

And for good reason: A 1999 study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics indicated that mega-doses of vitamin C -- 1,000 mg/hour for 6 hours and 1,000 mg three times daily afterward -- can effectively relieve or even prevent flu symptoms. Researchers assigned 463 students to the treatment group and 262 to the control group. Those who took vitamin C reported an 85 percent decrease in symptoms.

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