What research says (and does not say) about the flu shot

Diane Sanfilippo fighting a cold, Research 22 Comments


It’s the shot heard ’round the world… every winter.

It seems no one can escape flu-shot fear mongering. As cold weather moves in, the CDC and those enigmatic “health officials” (who are those guys anyway?) are bombarding you with recommendations regarding this years dangerous influenza virus outbreak. We’re told to stay home when sick, get plenty of rest and get your flu shot! That is usually accompanied by a report of severity regarding this year’s strain.

I happen to be one of those geeks that actually enjoy looking at the research behind the often-reported effectiveness of medical interventions.

For example, 2012 brought the FDA approved Flublok to market for prevention against influenza. This is a new type of vaccine that doesn’t use the virus itself, but rather a protein called hemagglutinin. This is a protein on the virus that our natural immune antibodies recognize and attack. The vaccine contains no thimerosal (mercury), no egg and no antibiotics. Statistically, it’s reported to be 44% effective in flu prevention. Wow, that sounds pretty great!

Not so fast, greedy pharmaceutical company (queue Darth Vadar music).

Let’s look a little deeper.

First, where does the 44% efficacy claim come from? Every vaccine must contain an informational pamphlet. Looking at their own information from 2011, we can see that only 1.9% of those that got the shot ended up with a confirmed case of influenza. Sounds pretty good. How about the placebo? 3.4%!!! So the reported 44% effectiveness is derived from reducing your overall risk of influenza infection from 3.4% (without shot) to 1.9% (with shot).

Which statistic is more compelling? Which sells more vaccines?

flushotHave you ever wondered why there is a ‘season’ for influenza? Let’s look at another study that may shed some light on this from the Journal of Leukocyte Biology (yes, there’s even a journal for white blood cells!). Researchers determined that low levels of vitamin D were associated with lowered innate immunity.

Stop for a moment and remember something amazing about yourself: The only reason you are alive is thanks to your innate immunity. We are exposed to antigens everyday, and our immune systems are constantly tending to them, largely without our knowledge.

Anyway, back to the question of seasonal outbreaks. In addition to immunity, vitamin D (which is actually a pro-hormone) is an essential cofactor in the prevention of various conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes, dementia and cardiovascular disease.

Thankfully, humans have developed a wonderful ability to synthesize vitamin D via skin exposure to sunlight. However, since the northern hemisphere has less sunlight in the winter months, vitamin D levels tend to run low this time of year.

Is it possible the seasonal aspect of the flu outbreak is due to systemically lower vitamin D? The editor of the journal, Dr. John Wherry concludes that, “This study shows that sunlight, or more precisely the lack of vitamin D could have a role in the seasonally higher rates of infection.”

I don’t know about you, but supplementing a healthy diet with a natural source of vitamin D makes more physiologically congruent sense to me than injecting an insect-derived protein into my body for a 1.5% reduced ‘risk’ of contracting something my immune system will destroy anyway.

fcloAt Balanced Bites, we like (and recommend) Green Pastures fermented cod liver oil (we think the cinnamon flavor goes down the easiest), which naturally has vitamins A & D in the proper ratio. If you really want to geek-out on vitamin synergy, Dr. Chris Masterjohn did an epic piece in which he tracks the importance of vitamin K2 as a synergistic necessity for vitamin A & D absorption. Diane and Liz also recently spoke to Chris on an episode of The Balanced Bites Podcast all about these exact topics.

The other part of this study looked at the effects of age on innate immunity. And sure enough they found that older individuals, not only have blunted immune responses, but lower vitamin D levels as well. Double whammy.

Health really is all about the application of knowledge. We know that if you’re older and live in areas with less sunlight you’re more susceptible to illnesses like influenza. One paradigm says, get the shot. Another says, maximize innate potential. Or like grandma used to say, “Take some [fermented] cod liver oil!”

In the meantime, please be informed beyond media hype and headlines. Trust your innate potential to be healthy. You are designed for health and healing.

Yours in health,
Dr. Scott

(Legal Disclaimer: The opinions of this author should not be considered substitute for medical advice.)

  • Julia Coughlin

    Influenza Virus has a season because of humidity and temperature conditions. People in sunny equatorial countries also contract Influenza. I’m sure that weakened winter immune systems due to lack of Vit D etc. only benefit the virus and contribute to the intensity of the season.

  • Snicci

    What makes the Green Pastures fish oil better than others? Because its fermented? I’m trying to learn more about these supplements and everyone seems to agree that green pastures is the best, but why?

  • http://dareyoutoblog.com Meredith

    Ohh Haha If only I’d have gone through my reader earlier this morning, my question to you on the Green Pasture blend would have already been answered!

    Interesting on the flu shot research, and pathetic marketing claims on the 44%. Shameful!

  • Anna Llewellyn

    First of all, you can’t get the flu from the vaccine. It isn’t made with live virus. However, as with any vaccine (or any antigen exposure), it takes two weeks for your body to build up protective antibodies. In addition, the flu vaccine protects against the three flu strains that have been determined by epidemiologists to be the most likely to cause major outbreaks in the coming year. Therefore, if you are exposed to the flu before you have developed protective antibodies from the flu shot OR if you are exposed to a flu variant not included in the vaccine, then you will likely get sick. I do not doubt that taking a vitamin D supplement will help boost your immune system, but I also have no doubt that the flu vaccine is safe and an important public health tool. Getting the vaccine will not only help protect you against getting the flu, it will help prevent you from transmitting it to your family, friends, and by extension the populations in our society that are mortally vulnerable to infection (such as the very young, the very old, and the very sick). I’m sure the chiropractor who wrote this article is very skilled and educated, but not in this field. As a PhD microbiologist employed by the Emory Vaccine Center, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing an expert opinion piece on subluxations after reading a few articles. In my opinion, this is an irresponsible blog post and you have just lost a reader.

    • Jill Antoniazzi

      As an ER physician working on the “front lines”, I couldn’t agree more with Anna. Suggesting that FCLO should be taken, which I do everyday by the way, instead of getting your flu shot is not only irresponsible, but downright ignorant. Thanks for speaking up Anna. I am really disappointed to read this on what I had considered to be a reputable website.

    • Anita

      Thank you Anna. As a PhD student in microbiology I found this blog post incredibly misleading as we have already enough problems with re-emerging diseases due to the widespread misconception that vaccines are harmful. I am very disappointed as I was otherwise a big fan of this blog.

    • http://www.livewellchiropracticpa.com Scott Mills

      Anna, Jill and Anita,
      Appreciate the comments and concerns. I wanted to clarify a few things from the post. First, the point of the blog is simply to bring to light the disparity between media headlines and truth regarding the (lack of) efficacy studies of this Flublok product. I’m simply unveiling the company’s own efficacy research. It is not compelling to say the least.

      Second, no where in the article did I say one can get the flu from the shot. If you are interested in adverse reactions though, again using their own reported research the following systemic adverse reactions were found ” headache (>15%), fatigue (>15%) and myalgia (>11%)”.

      Finally, it seems folks have extrapolated the FCLO recommendation as the one and only requirement to help protect against or fight the flu. I’m sure we can all agree that the best defense against any illness is a healthy immune system. Supplementation is merely one part of the puzzle.

      It’s our hope that readers will ultimately take responsibility for their own health, and not let media hype and headlines dictate their health decisions for them. Not even mine!

      • KDM

        These obviously intelligent ladies, by reading into the article things that were never said specifically, are actually proving Dr. Mills’ point. Being scientists who no doubt saw the title and disagreed before even reading it, they interpreted that the author did not know what he was talking about. Had they been reading for contenet rather than for argument points, they would have seen the citation of the manufacturers own information packet rather than assuming he had just “read a few articles”. This is exactly what commercials do. They tell you what you want to hear. They want to either entice you buy their product (this car has 27 cup holders!) or frighten you into buying their product (if you don’t drive this car, your family will not be protected in a car crash). Show me a drug advertisemnet that isn’t “misleading”. Listen closely to the disclaimers and you’ll learn that this headache drug causes headaches in 30% of test subjects.
        I’m still looking for the “irresponsible” part. Is it the part that says to be informed about what you put in your body? Or the part that encourages people to take care of their overall health, rather than pop a pill or needle every time the evening news tells us to?

  • http://eatingforidiots.com Johnny

    I’m so tired of hearing about the flu but it’s hitting California now. Brace yourselves, west coast!

  • http://balanceandspice.com Kat @ Balance & Spice

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful article. I got the flu vaccine last year, as I was planning a two month backpacking trip around Europe and didn’t want to fall ill on the trip. While the days following the shot made me feel dizzy and nauseous, I will say that during my time in Europe, I was healthy as the proverbial horse, even though I was exposed to constant cold, not the cleanest living conditions, and a variety of unusual foods. This year, however, I have spent the year boosting my immune system through supplements, plenty of sunshine, and healthy, whole foods. I feel better than ever, and even when everyone around me was falling ill, I felt healthy and vibrant. I believe that vaccines have their place, but they are not the be-all and end-all. It is such a part of our culture to blame the germ rather than our own immune systems, and I am working (as an n=1 experiment!) to change that.

  • http://www.bipolarspirit.com Rev. Katie

    This post does not say “don’t get the flu shot” but it is easily read this way and that does need to be taken into consideration when writing such a post. What I worry about is that people will assume this post is suggesting not to get the shot and it does not address one of the main reasons most of us should get the flu shot. Many of us live with or work with immunocompromised people. Even if we would be healthy enough through whole foods and lifestyle to get the flu and not have it that bad, we are risking the health of many people around us. I got the flu shot as I am a caregiver for my Mom in hospice. For most of us there are small risks for the shot (giving us antibiotics and some things we would rather not have in our bodies) but we can handle it once a year. I do not feel, if weighing the risks to my life and my Mom’s, that I should choose not to get the shot. I already know six people hospitalized for the flu this month.

    Maybe an added disclaimer which clarifies that you are not suggesting or not suggesting the shot, just providing increased information, and that each person should research on their own- especially if they work or live with immunocompromised people- might be of help to readers.

  • John Gilmore

    A reduction in flu contraction from 3.4% to 1.9% is exactly what the pharma company claims–a 44% reduction in likelihood of the flu. To call the latter statistic compelling and the former something less than that seems really absurd, even mathematically illiterate. The medical illiteracy comes into play in this way: In their study the placebo had 3.4% rate of flu contraction. The flu viruses are unpredictable and can rise to epidemic levels relatively quickly, and strains do become prominent that affect a greater than 3.4% of the population. Whether it’s 3.4% or 7%, you decrease your risk of getting the flu by Approximately 44% by getting a shot with close to zero side effects and a very low cost.

    If you want a 44% reduction in the likelihood of flu, get a flu shot. And let’s give science a bit of credit for saving a great deal of lives and for increasing quality of life this year and every year with these vaccines. No doubt the drug and medical industries and the USDA spew an enormous amount of misinformation and ignore solid biochemistry in the area of nutrition, but we know this by evaluating nutrition scientifically (instead of politically or as a profit area), not by disregarding solid science as this post does.

    I rarely see chiropractors applying this sort of hardheaded approach to the statistics surrounding their own practices.

    • Jen

      Thanks John, I agree with you. Any risks from a flu shot are so minimal, I’d rather just get it, as well as use any other resources available to me in order not to get sick.

      Also, it certainly reads as though the author advocates NOT getting a flu shot. If he didn’t mean it that way, than he should have been more precise in his argument. I’m all for supplementing vitamin D, as a lot of us are deficient, but I’d rather increase my chances of staying healthy (by 44%) by doing both.

      BTW, I really enjoy Diane’s blog posts and podcasts, I thought she had set a higher standard for this site…

  • Kate

    I am disappointed to see this type of article on balanced bites. What people don’t realize is that the flu is not merely an inconvenience; for some segments of the population it is down right deadly.

    I always find it interesting that the people who are anti-flu shot, inevitably leave out the influenza related mortality statistics in their writings ( 3,000 to 49,00 per year).

  • Shannon

    Thank you for this article. I do not feel it was misleading or suggestive in any way whether to get a flu shot or not. I do believe the public gets caught up in media hype and make choices out of fear rather than what is right for their particular situation. I personally do not get a flu shot and actually have never had one. I don’t get the flu and no one in my immediate family gets the flu. Perhaps it is something in our natural immune system? Maybe because we all take a daily vitamin? Regardless, I am happy to see this discussion of Vitamin D as I have been wondering about this possible connection. In fact, during a regular checkup, my husband’s Dr recently recommended and prescribed Vitamin D for the winter.

    • http://newleafeats.com Michelle

      I too have never had the flu shot. I have gotten the flu on a handful of occasions growing up, and even had a mild flu for a few days this year (early stages of pregnancy. Immune system was down-regulated). For me, it has never made sense to get a flu shot for something I can handle by staying home, drinking lots of fluids, and getting plenty of rest. I will say, this round of the flu came a went more efficiently than ALL the other flu episodes I’ve had in the past. My fever remained low-grade and I was 75% back to normal and no longer contagious after four days. I think I can credit this to a much better diet last year and supplementing with vitamin D for about a month right before getting the flu.

  • Peter

    For those that decline flu shots due to the thimerosal, there are preservative free versions available. Just ask at the pharmacy if decide to get one. The risks and costs of getting one are low, considering that somewhere around 35,000 people die of influenza yearly.

  • Sarah

    The whole point is, eat whole foods, practice clean hygiene, and supplement if needed when not able to get it from food sources. This equals=you won’t get sick, or if you do your body will know how to fight it off /get through the illness efficiently. Never had a flu shot in my life and I cant even remember the last time I had the flu. Its not rocket science, take care of yourself! Don’t rely on vaccines for protection, because in the end the state of your health will determine said illnesses/deseases.

    • Snicci


  • rogerston

    “. Trust your innate potential to be healthy. You are designed for health and healing.”

    In a post full of moronic drivel aimed to exploit the ignorant, this was the choice quote. Just a wee dash of creationism with your woo woo.