Very hot debate but very cool subject in this time approaching winter, when we want to be “protected” from influenza ever-changing viruses that debilitate the whole body. If you read carefully, the web is full of the latest science news concerning efficacy of influenza vaccine compared to a simple vitamin D supplementation or proper management.
More and more often, supplementation of vitamin D is coming to attention of the medical and health care domain for its exceptional properties which support different body systems, from bones to the brain to the immune system. Although this vitamin became famous initially because its deficiency causes rickets due to its role in the absorption of calcium into the bones, we now know that missing a proper amount of vitamin D is associated with a host of other conditions, such as cancer (vitamin D helps prevent different forms of cancers, including pancreatic, lung, ovarian, prostate and skin cancers), autoimmune diseases, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and brain degeneration and even heart disease.
How can one single vitamin be so powerful? Think for example that vitamin D alone affects 1/10 of our all genes, many cells in different organs display receptors for the vitamin D, and that without it, the cells of our immune system remain dormant!
Lately a lot of scientific research has been going on regarding both the capacity of vitamin D to prevent flu and the comparison between supplementation of vitamin D and flu shots in fighting influenza virus.
The results emerging from these scientific studies show that supplementing with vitamin D is a very efficient way to boost your immune system before the arrival of the flu viruses, and -even more interesting !- that this efficiency is stronger than the flu shot itself!
The positive effects of vitamin D supplementation are more evident in people who are deficient in this precious vitamin, when the plasma levels are below 25nmol/L. When someone’s vitamin D levels are this low, vitamin D supplementation is 10 times more effective than the flu vaccine.
This deficiency is not such a rare event since about 1/2 of the population of New Zealand, Australia and the US for example have values below the accepted threshold. In addition, dark skinned people and women have lower levels of vitamin D. And in winter we get all pretty poor in vitamin D….
How do we get so deficient? Vitamin D mainly comes from exposing the skin to the sun, from which we protect sometime excessively with abundant use of sunscreens regardless the time of the day and exposure length. In so doing we block the UV rays that are necessary for the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin (remember, vitamin D prevents appearance of cancers...) .
Also, in winter we tend to have fewer hours and fewer days of sunshine and rarely expose our skin, therefore we risk to become deficient especially in these colder months. Some scientists even suggest that the high rate of respiratory infections in the cold months, from colds to flu, are the result of such lack of sun exposure in winter. Some vitamin D comes from food as well such as fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines), eggs, liver.
How is it that vitamin D is so essential for fighting viruses? Researchers recently understood that vitamin D is necessary for the cells of the immune system to be activated. Without enough vitamin D, our fighter cells do not even attempt to start a fight against viruses or bacteria.
To clarify what the immune system is and does: it is a complex network of organs and tissues including the skin, the mucosa (i.e. walls of the digestive system and respiratory system, from the mouth and nose to the anus and lungs), cells in the blood and lymph, the vitamin D that activate them, hormones and the millions of microorganisms hosted in the digestive system. The immune cells can recognize foreign and dangerous particles like viruses, bacteria, parasites, proteins etc. and also detect local but dangerous cells like the cancer ones to destroy them.
For a good functioning of this complex system, we need to eat a good complete diet and to avoid pollutants (endocrine disruptors like those found in plastic bottles and containers, heavy metals, PCBs etc.) and stress, etc. Thus, when we do not have a proper diet, when we are under stress, when we are exposed to toxins in air, water or food, or when we lack vitamin D, our immune system is not more fully capable to protect us.
It is thus a good suggestions to replenish our body if vitamin D by exposing our skin (arms) to the sun for at least 40 minutes every day in winter, by eating eggs and sardines or taking fish liver oil, or by regularly supplementing (daily or weekly, better than monthly dosage) with vitamin D. To know the right dose to supplement, you would need to test your blood vitamin D levels, plus needs vary with age, skin colour, location, sun exposure and more. In general it is recommended a daily intake of D2 or D3 (this latter being more effective in raising blood vitamin D) of 1000 to 2000 IU for adults, and 400 to 1000 IU for babies and children. If you supplement with vitamin D, also make sure to boost your vitamin K2 and magnesium intake, as these nutrients help optimize vitamin D levels in the body.
So, on the other plate of the comparison, how much does the flu vaccine protect you or your children (without touching on the subject of negative effects)? This is what research found:
- Several large-scale reviews of 51 studies (involving 260,000 children, age 6 to 23 months), published in 2006 and 2008, found no or little evidence that the flu vaccine is any more effective than a placebo in children under two.
- A study regarding older people published in 2010 tells that there is also poor-quality evidence about safety, efficacy or even effectiveness of influenza vaccines for people aged 65 years or older.
- From further studies, it results that the level of protection from flu virus is higher in people who had not been vaccinated during the 5 years previous, while vaccinating in the present year would protect you equally as the vaccination from the previous year. Therefore this would suggest you should not do it every year.
- The flu vaccine may also increase (double) your risk of contracting other, more serious influenza infections, like the swine flu, compared to people who do not receive the shot, as it happened in 2008.
- Compared to children who do not get an annual flu vaccine, those who receive influenza vaccinations have a 3 times higher risk of flu-related hospitalization.
Consider also that since the influenza vaccine - contrary to vitamin D -, does not prevent the other 80 percent of all respiratory or gastrointestinal infections during the flu season, you or your children still get prone to all these other viruses.
Australian Spinal Research Foundation, 2017. Vitamin D More Effective Than A Flu Shot?
Gallagher, J. 2017 Vitamin D pills 'could stop colds or flu' By BBC news Health
Huong Q. McLean Mark G. Thompson Maria E. Sundaram Jennifer K. Meece David L. McClure Thomas C. Friedrich Edward A. Belongia 2014 Impact of Repeated Vaccination on Vaccine Effectiveness Against Influenza A(H3N2) and B During 8 Seasons, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 59, Issue 10, 1375–1385
Martineau Adrian R, Jolliffe David A, Hooper Richard L, Greenberg Lauren, Aloia John F, Bergman Peter et al. 2017. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data, British Medical Journal 2017; 356 :i6583 http://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583
Mercola, 2017. Vitamin D Is More Effective Than Flu Vaccine, Study Says, https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2017/02/27/vitamin-d-better-than-flu-vaccine.aspx
Raynolds, S. 2017. Vitamin D vs The Flu Vaccine - Is There A Stand-Out Winner?, Funciontla Medicine, https://www.fxmedicine.com.au/blog-post/vitamin-d-vs-flu-vaccine-there-stand-out-winner
Vitamin D supplementation: Navigating the debate, Bpac NZ, better medicine. Best Practice Journal > 2011 > BPJ: 36 > https://bpac.org.nz/BPJ/2011/june/vitamin-d.aspx