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.)


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