As the days grow shorter and colder, there is a lot of speculation as to what flu season will bring.
On one hand, there is potential for COVID-19 and influenza to spike simultaneously, bringing us a “twindemic” or two concurrent pandemics.
On the other hand, we can often predict the pervasiveness and severity of the boreal flu season based on what has just happened during the austral winter. This year, with significantly decreased travel, the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season has been exceptionally mild. In addition, precautionary measures that limit the spread of COVID-19–social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing–could also curtail the spread of influenza. This could mean good news for those living north of the equator.
But this is speculation. We won’t know how these two viruses will interact and ultimately impact our communities for a few months. Meanwhile, now is the time to get the annual flu vaccine.
In my opinion, the answer is a resounding YES. Vaccines have helped us contain, and almost eliminate, many diseases that used to cause significant disability and death, such as measles. With fewer people vaccinating, we’re seeing those diseases return. When I worked in the pediatric intensive care unit in residency, I took care of several otherwise healthy children on ventilators due to measles. Childhood illness is always heartbreaking. These cases were particularly painful because I knew they were easily preventable.
That said, the flu vaccine is far from perfect. It protects about 40-60% of the population. Serious adverse reactions to vaccines are rare but possible. When we get vaccinations while we are already sick, it puts extra strain on the immune system and can lead to undesired outcomes. So you’ll want to prepare your immune system before getting any kind of vaccination.
Imagine that your immune system looks like a bunch of little soldiers fighting off an enemy, such as a virus or bacterial infection. Our immune system has several different layers to it (see diagram below). Normally, the immune soldiers ward off potential threats without us even knowing. We are constantly encountering potential antigens; only when they make it through to the humoral system do we develop symptoms.
If our humoral soldiers are attacking something and they get ambushed from behind (the vaccine), they can become overwhelmed and confused and may start attacking parts of the body by accident. This can lead to conditions like Guillain-Barré syndrom where the immune system attacks the nervous system causing nerve weakness and possibly even death (if the nerves controlling the breathing muscles are affected).
So how do we prepare our immune system for a worthwhile vaccination? We do everything we can to keep our body in the parasympathetic nervous system (aka rest and digest) and minimize stress. We make sure we get adequate sleep which means somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep. We exercise and eat an anti-inflammatory diet with nutrient-dense foods. Basically, we double down on the things we know improve health and longevity.
Peptides are also great immune modulators. Peptides are amino acid sequences that act on various parts of the body. Insulin, for example, is a peptide. Thymosin Alpha is a peptide that regulates the thymus gland which is primarily an immune system gland. It works well to help us when we’re sick and it also helps prepare our immune system for vaccines. It can be injected just like insulin and has also been shown to be helpful for decreasing the duration and severity of viral infections such as COVID-19.
None of us wants a bad flu season on top of COVID. You can do your part to minimize the impact by getting vaccinated. Eventually, we’ll have a vaccine for COVID-19, too. Just make sure in both cases that your soldiers are only fighting one antigen at a time and prepare your body adequately prior to vaccinations.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?