Cold and Flu Supps in Autoimmune Conditions (some will make you WORSE)
Updated: Jan 28
The cold and flu season is upon us, but before you reach for that herbal supplement that works so well, consider what it might be doing to your autoimmune condition....
Many such supplements are referred to as immune 'boosters'. The trouble is, when your immune system is already overactive and attacking parts of your body, as it does in autoimmune disease, the last thing you want to do is boost it!
The immune system must maintain a balance between cells known as T-Helpers type 1 and 2. Since autoimmune conditions often involve TH 1 dominance, using supplements that stimulate TH 1 cells to kill viruses is ill advised and may actually exacerbate the disease process.
Supplements you should avoid using if you have an autoimmune condition (such as Crohn's, IBD, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, MS, celiac disease, graves, hashimotos, psoriasis) include:
- golden seal
- olive leaf extract
- high potency garlic
- medicinal mushrooms
So what CAN you do to avoid going down with the flu this winter?
The best thing to do is to make yourself less vulnerable over the long term, rather than suddenly loading yourself with supplements when the virus hits. If you are living with an autoimmune disease, there are a number of things you can do that will both support a balanced immune system and prevent viruses and bacteria taking hold.
1. Probiotics - studies show a healthy microbiome supports immune function in multiple ways. In this study defense against viral infections was strengthened by particular probiotic strains.
2. Avoiding sugar is extremely important for reducing the inflammation driving an autoimmune condition, but it also helps support the readiness of the immune system for defence against colds and flu. 100g of sugar (found in softdrink, or a couple of slices of cake) appears to suppress the action of white blood cells in destroying pathogens for 2-5 hours after consumption!
3. Vitamin D - Studies show a strong relationship between vitamin D status and the onset and progression of autoimmune disease. Vitamin D stores can easily be compromised during the winter months so you may need a supplement to maintain optimal levels. The British Medical Journal published an article about the effectiveness of vitamin D supplementation in preventing respiratory tract infections. There is some evidence to suggest that vitamin D supplementation may be as effective as the flu vaccine.
4. Zinc - While 30mg is a fairly standard dose of zinc, you may like to increase to 60mg per day for a short time when fighting a cold. Studies show that taking zinc within 24 hours of the first symptoms can shorten the duration and severity of the infection.
5. Alpha Lipoid acid - I can't tell you the science behind it, but I have found this particular anti-oxidant efficacious against flu viruses when taken at the first sign of symptoms. As a bonus, it is also useful in supporting balanced immunity in autoimmune conditions and reducing inflammation.
Lastly, a lot of people ask me my views on having a flu shot when you have an autoimmune condition. On the one hand it seems to make sense to do so to avoid getting sick, since the flu itself can make your condition flare up. However, the verdict is still out in my view regarding immune stimulating vaccines and autoimmune conditions. I personally avoid them due to personal experience of disease exacerbation following vaccination. Here is one study highlighting the need for caution, while every case should be considered individually.
All in all, if you are utilising healthy nutrition in the war against an autoimmune disease, you are less likely to fall prey to viral infections. Add to that healthy hygiene habits such as regular hand washing and you should be able to head into the winter months with confidence!