H1N1 / Swine Flu Risk Increased by Low Vitamin D

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November 9th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Flu season is here in the northern hemisphere. While there’s still no epidemic of “novel H1N1 flu” or “swine flu” as has been feared since last year, medical centers across the United States are reporting widely varying levels of flu infections. To date, sunny warm areas like Southern California have few infections, cold and cloudy areas like the Upper Midwest have many more. You can find maps showing the US CDC’s attempt at showing levels of infection outbreak across the United States at 2009 H1N1 Flu U.S. Situation Update. Unfortunately, these maps are of poor quality as they really don’t show much of any useful data because the CDC considers most areas to have “widespread” flu outbreaks at this time their maps don’t distinguish sufficiently between the level of flu activity in different areas.

(from Swine Flu: What the CDC Map Won’t Tell You)

According to the CDC’s map of flu activity, 46 states are currently reporting widespread H1N1 flu cases. Since almost all states have by now reported outbreaks, this map, which only a month ago was dappled with the different colors of flu levels, is now almost uniformly brown.

The CDC notes on its site that the map only shows geographical trends and “does not measure the severity of influenza activity.” But with the CDC reporting little variance between states, let alone within each state, it is easy to conclude that the amount of swine flu activity is the same across the country.

A check of 60 hospitals by ABC News suggests a very different picture. The collection of reports from these hospitals, though not a scientific sample, suggested that not only does the extent and severity of the illness vary from region to region, but in some cases it varies even among hospitals in the same state.

In order to get a better idea of how flu activity varies across the nation, we asked hospitals to rate their level of flu activity in their emergency department and report the number of H1N1 patients in their intensive care unit (ICU) — a sign that at least some cases were severe enough to warrant extraordinary treatment measures.

At least 10 out of the 60 hospitals reported heavy activity of H1N1 in their emergency departments, but nearly twice as many said flu levels were “moderate” and the largest proportion, 21 hospitals, said that the situation was “light” in their ER and reported few, if any, patients in the ICU due to swine flu-related problems.

There is no doubt that there are areas where flu activity is high. The Midwest remained the heaviest area of activity, and other “heavy” hospitals were spread out across the country.

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Kids and School Hit Hard

Outbreaks of flu are particularly problematic in juvenile populations as children often have poor hygiene practices and are in close contact for hours per day during the school year. Around the country, over 600 schools have been closed at various times since the start of the 2009-2010 school year due to flu outbreaks. As explained, in the article Swine flu closes more than 600 schools in U.S., administrators of schools that are hit with dozens or even hundreds of ill students figure it is better to simply shut down their schools for a few days or a week in light of how many children will fall behind on their studies and to slow the spread of the illness.

(from Swine flu closes more than 600 schools in U.S.)

CHICAGO – The number of students staying home sick with the flu is multiplying nationwide and normally quiet school nurses’ offices suddenly look like big city emergency rooms, packed with students too ill to finish the day.

The federal government has urged schools to close because of the swine flu only as a last resort. But schools are closing by the dozens as officials say they are being hit so hard and so fast by the H1N1 virus that they feel shutting down for a few days is the only feasible option.

“There was nothing else we could do,” said Michael Frechette, the superintendent of Connecticut’s Middletown Public Schools where a middle school closed for the rest of the week after 120 students stayed home sick Monday and another 25 were sent home by noon. “The only way to stop that transmittal was to keep the kids home for the rest of the week.”

At least 351 schools were closed last week alone — affecting 126,000 students in 19 states, according to the U.S. Education Department. So far this school year, about 600 schools have temporarily shut their doors.

The number of closures this year appears on target to surpass the roughly 700 schools closed last spring when the swine flu outbreakfirst hit.

“This is scary,” said Kathryn Marchuk, a nurse whose son attends St. Charles East High School outside Chicago, which closed for three days last week after about 800 of its 2,200 students called in absent. “So many people are sick. It’s just everywhere.”

Some schools have had problems with flu outbreaks yet try to keep the situation quiet as this comment from a parent indicates:

(from Swine Flu: What the CDC Map Won’t Tell You)

The CDC map and our local schools here in Livingston CA, will not tell you that there is currently an ongoing outbreak in our elementary schools. My granddaughter was one of the only confirmed cases because we insisted upon her being tested. There have been reports (and rumors) of classrooms having 8-9 students being sent home with flu like symptoms in one day. It even got so bad that the school reportedly stopped even bothering to send kids home. One of my granddaughter’s friends had a 104 degree temp and her parents were not contacted. We have been trying to get the school to notify parents about this but still, after over three weeks, they refuse to do so.

Epidemic On the Way?

While some are fearful of an impending flu epidemic or pandemic that could kill millions, so far the flu season doesn’t appear to be vastly different from other years. In recent years, it’s not unusual for 30,000 to 50,000 Americans to die in a year from flu infections and their complications. Deaths are often the result of the body overreacting severely to an infection, killing itself with out of control inflammatory processes.

(from Epidemic Influenza And Vitamin D)

It’s only a question of when a pandemic will come, not if it will come. Influenza A pandemics come every 30 years or so, severe ones every hundred years or so. The last pandemic, the Hong Kong flu, occurred in 1968 – killing 34,000 Americans. In 1918, the Great Flu Epidemic killed more than 500,000 Americans. So many millions died in other countries, they couldn’t bury the bodies. Young healthy adults, in the prime of their lives in the morning, drowning in their own inflammation by noon, grossly discolored by sunset, were dead at midnight. Their body’s own broad-spectrum natural antibiotics, called antimicrobial peptides, seemed nowhere to be found. An overwhelming immune response to the influenza virus – white blood cells releasing large amounts of inflammatory agents called cytokines and chemokines into the lungs of the doomed – resulted in millions of deaths in 1918.

Vitamin D Deficency Linked to Cold/Flu Season and Infections

Dr. John Cannell and many other doctors and researchers have been discovering in the last several years that there may be an explanation for both the “flu season” and why some people get very sick from the flu while others are not affected severely even though they do become infected. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to both situations. Vitamin D blood levels tend to decline significantly during winter months, and this corresponds to the flu seasons. Further, vitamin D has been found to have a significant influence on destroying invading microbes in the body by boosting the body’s production of antimicrobial peptides that bind to receptor sites on the invaders, thus damaging or destroying them and preventing them from causing more harm in the body.

(from Epidemic Influenza And Vitamin D)

A short while later, a group of scientists from UCLA published a remarkable paper in the prestigious journal, Nature. The UCLA group confirmed two other recent studies, showing that a naturally occurring steroid hormone – a hormone most of us take for granted – was, in effect, a potent antibiotic. Instead of directly killing bacteria and viruses, the steroid hormone under question increases the body’s production of a remarkable class of proteins, called antimicrobial peptides. The 200 known antimicrobial peptides directly and rapidly destroy the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including the influenza virus, and play a key role in keeping the lungs free of infection. The steroid hormone that showed these remarkable antibiotic properties was plain old vitamin D.

As colds and flus are both respiratory viral infections that are more common in the winter, often times the recommendations and findings for one also apply to the other. Recent studies have shown that the risk for catching the common cold is significantly elevated by vitamin D deficiency.

(from Lower vitamin D levels associated with common cold)

Nineteen percent of the participants reported having a recent cold. For those whose serum vitamin D levels were lower than 10 nanograms per milliliter, the incidence was 24 percent, for subjects whose levels were 10 to less than 30 ng/mL the incidence was 20 percent, and the rate dropped to 17 percent among those with levels of 30 ng/mL or higher. After adjustment for demographic and other characteristics, those whose vitamin D levels were lowest experienced a 36 greater risk of URTI, and those whose levels were 10 to less than 30 ng/mL experienced a 24 percent greater risk compared with participants whose levels were at least 30 ng/mL. The association was significantly stronger for those with asthma.

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Flu Seasonal Factors Suspected for Decades,
Sun Exposure and Vitamin D May Be Explanation

Dr. R. Edgar Hope-Simpson spent his career working on virus research. About 50 years ago, he discovered the cause of shingles was a latent recurrent infection caused by a burst of activity from the herpes family virus that causes chicken pox. He also spent considerable years trying to solve the mystery of why influenza epidemics as a rule happen during the winter, whether that winter is in the northern or southern hemisphere. He was among the first to suspect that something about the time of year and its effects on people was causing the seasonality of epidemic flu, but he didn’t know much about vitamin D. Fortunately, research in the past decade has vastly increased knowledge of how vitamin D works in the body to boost the immune system and uncovered shockingly high rates of vitamin D deficiency, especially among populations far from the equator.

(from Epidemic Influenza And Vitamin D)

The British researcher, Dr. R. Edgar Hope-Simpson, was the first to document the most mysterious feature of epidemic influenza, its wintertime surfeit and summertime scarcity. He theorized that an unknown “seasonal factor” was at work, a factor that might be affecting innate human immunity. Hope-Simpson was a general practitioner who became famous in the late 1960’s after he discovered the cause of shingles. British authorities bestowed every prize they had on him, not only because of the importance of his discovery, but because he made the discovery own his own, without the benefit of a university appointment, and without any formal training in epidemiology (the detective branch of medicine that methodically searches for clues about the cause of disease).

After his work on shingles, Hope-Simpson spent the rest of his working life studying influenza. He concluded a “seasonal factor” was at work, something that was regularly and predictably impairing human immunity in the winter and restoring it in the summer. He discovered that communities widely separated by longitude, but which shared similar latitude, would simultaneously develop influenza. He discovered that influenza epidemics in Great Britain in the 17th and 18th century occurred simultaneously in widely separated communities, before modern transportation could possibly explain its rapid dissemination. Hope-Simpson concluded a “seasonal factor” was triggering these epidemics. Whatever it was, he was certain that the deadly “crop” of influenza that sprouts around the winter solstice was intimately involved with solar radiation. Hope-Simpson predicted that, once discovered, the “seasonal factor” would “provide the key to understanding most of the influenza problems confronting us.”

Today, scientists are reasonably sure that decreased sun exposure leading to much lower vitamin D levels for many people during winters is a major culprit in flu seasonality.

Without Sufficient Vitamin D, Body Overreacts to Flu

It has been known for nearly a century that flu infection triggers a powerful inflammatory response in the human body. That reaction can be so severe that the body literally destroys itself from the inside out, particularly in the respiratory system.

(from Epidemic Influenza And Vitamin D)

Hope-Simpson had no way of knowing that vitamin D has profound effects on human immunity, no way of knowing that it increases production of broad-spectrum antimicrobial peptides, peptides that quickly destroy the influenza virus. We have only recently learned how vitamin D increases production of antimicrobial peptides while simultaneously preventing the immune system from releasing too many inflammatory cells, called chemokines and cytokines, into infected lung tissue.

In 1918, when medical scientists did autopsies on some of the fifty million people who died during the 1918 flu pandemic, they were amazed to find destroyed respiratory tracts; sometimes these inflammatory cytokines had triggered the complete destruction of the normal epithelial cells lining the respiratory tract. It was as if the flu victims had been attacked and killed by their own immune systems. This is the severe inflammatory reaction that vitamin D has recently been found to prevent.

With the recent understands of how sufficient vitamin D influences increased antimicrobial peptide production, there are at least a couple of plausible ideas for why vitamin D prevents this sort of “suicidal” inflammation:

  • Sufficient vitamin D means there are enough peptides in the body to target the flu virus, thus keeping it from spreading widely inside the body and thereby preventing the inflammation triggered by the flu from becoming severe.
  • If the flu virus is spreading within the body and the body cannot find other defenses (such as peptides against the virus), it reacts by ramping up inflammatory processes in hopes of inflammation-mediated immune cells more effectively attacking the virus.

Whether either or both of these possible explanations is true remains yet to be proven by further research. However, if either is true, it means that increasing the vitamin D level in the body is likely to significantly reduce the most detrimental effects from flu and some other infections.

Bottom Line: Vitamin D Reduces Your Risk From Flu

What is particularly alarming is that a very large percentage of the population suffers from inadequate levels of vitamin D, thus placing them at higher risk for catching the flu and suffering from it more severely. As described in 70% of US Children Have Low Vitamin D Levels, recent research is showing that most children are deficient in vitamin D, placing them at higher risk for a variety of illnesses including flus and colds. The same is true of adults, but perhaps even more so. As reported in the December 2009 issue of Life Extension Magazine’s article “Are You Getting Optimal Flu Prevention?”, 87% of adults are thought to be vitamin D deficient.

Getting your vitamin D levels up to optimal range can help reduce your risk from flu in at least two ways:

  • Lowers the chance of getting flu infection in the first place
  • Reduces the risk of deadly inflammation reaction from flu infection

If you’d like to learn more about adjusting your vitamin D levels using supplements and blood tests, please see our article Adjusting Your Vitamin D Intake to Optimal Levels.

For more on methods to prevent catching flu, see our article Preventive Measures for Swine Flu.

Dr. James Dowd’s book The Vitamin D Cure explains why people don’t get enough vitamin D, the health problems this causes, and how to improve health through vitamin D supplementation.


5 Stars! A mother of Dr. Dowd’s patient, June 4, 2009
By Val R (South Lyon (Detroit area), MI)

My son was lucky to be referred to Dr. Dowd when he was 13 years old. Dr. Dowd discovered he didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis (like his MD has suspected) or even “growing pains” like I suspected, but had low levels of vitamin D. After 4-6 weeks of vitamin D supplements, all his joint pain was gone! In addition, he stays much healthier (colds, flu, etc.) and much to our surprise, the warts on his feet finally went away…after three different doctors and three different methods of treatment for the warts!

Having the opportunity to meet Dr. Dowd is amazing. He is so smart and able to explain the immune system and the role of vitamin D in language even my 13 year old son could understand. Three years later, and my son is still symptom free as long as he keeps taking the vitamin D.

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Further Reading

Life Extension Advice on Cold/Flu Infections Including H1N1

Preventive Measures for Swine Flu

70% of US Children Have Low Vitamin D Levels

Adjusting Your Vitamin D Intake to Optimal Levels

Best Deals on Vitamin D3 Supplements

H1N1 Swine Flu Special Report: Tips That Can Help Prevent Influenza Infection

Long-term high dose vitamin D well tolerated

Lower vitamin D levels associated with common cold

High-Dose Vitamin D – One of the Best Nutritional Supplements on the Market

Swine Flu: What the CDC Map Won’t Tell You

US CDC Site on H1N1 Flu

Epidemic Influenza And Vitamin D

Linus Pauling Institute: Vitamin D

Dr. John Cannell’s Paper “Epidemic Influenza and Vitamin D”

Epidemic influenza and vitamin D

Epidemiology and Infection, Volume 134, Issue 06, December 2006 pp 1129-1140

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned in this post are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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