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Seasonal Flu Vaccines: Less Effective than a Placebo?

Every year in the run-up to flu season, one of the main pieces of advice we are given is to get flu vaccines. This is to prevent hospitalization from influenza’s notorious respiratory symptoms.

Creating flu vaccines to be effective for everyone is not an easy task. Each year the viruses change and mutate, and there are several strains to contend with.

To be ready for the next flu season, the vaccines are produced in advance. So scientists use specific data to recommend which strains to include in the next vaccines.

Therefore, the effectiveness of the flu vaccines varies every year, because not all of the current strains can be included.

Before we delve into the data of typical vaccine effectiveness, let’s look at some simplified steps of how flu vaccines are made so we can better understand the process.


How flu vaccines are made:

Step 1

The most deadly and fast-growing strains of influenza are chosen to be included in the vaccine. The dangerous part of the gene is then removed, and the HA and NA genes are spliced from the flu strain into circular pieces of DNA called plasmids.

Step 2

A different influenza strain that has little to no effect on humans is then chosen. Next, some of those safe parts are removed from the gene and new plasmids are made in the same way as the deadly flu strain.

Step 3

The HA and NA genes from the deadly virus are then mixed with the six plasmids from the second less deadly flu strain. This is then put into animal cells to begin the growing process in the laboratory.

Step 4

After a short time, the genes in the plasmids instruct the animal cells to make the desired new flu strain.

Step 5

The new flu strain is then given in a vaccine. When correctly done, this new flu strain will cause your body’s immune system to create antibodies for the deadly HA and NA genes, without causing you to be sick. If it is not produced correctly or you have a weakened immune system, you may get sick with possible side effects.

You may imagine that after this process you would be protected from the flu right? Unfortunately not! Your body has to get to work creating the antibodies to protect you.

The flu vaccination simply utilizes your body’s immunes system to protect you by giving it an opportunity to create antibodies.

And since every strain cannot be included, you could still catch the flu even after the vaccine.

Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

So, let’s measure the recent success.

The flu vaccine is considered very successful if it has a 60% effectiveness rate.

What are the results? Here is the data from the past 5 years, taken from the CDC website.

2014-2015: 19% vaccine effectiveness

2015-2016: 48% vaccine effectiveness

2016-2017: 40% vaccine effectiveness

2017-2018: 38% vaccine effectiveness

2018-2020: 29% vaccine effectiveness

As you can see from the data, vaccine effectiveness has varied over the years and has not reached the 60% effectiveness of what’s considered a successful flu vaccine.

When you consider that a placebo actually has a higher rate of success at 50% effectiveness, you can see why it’s important not to solely rely on flu vaccinations for protection.

Potential side effects.

How would we know about potential side effects? The government have created a tracking system for this called VAERS: Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

There is a section on their website about adverse reactions and what their steps are should you find yourself in that situation.

Strengthening Your Immune System

The data has shown that it is wise not to exclusively rely on the flu vaccine for complete protection from influenza.

Strengthening your immune system is the best way to increase protection from flu and give your body a better chance to create the antibodies it needs after receiving the vaccination.

These are some of the top ways to strengthen your immune system naturally:

  1. Immune Boosting Foods

There are some foods like broccoli, garlic, and citrus fruits that are packed with nutrients to support your immune system. However, other foods to avoid that will lower your immunity such as processed meals, high sugar snacks, and alcohol.

Zinc, selenium, and potassium are also essential nutrients for good health because when there is a mineral deficiency, the immune system tends to be weaker. Foods containing vitamins A, C and E are also recommended to help repair cell damage and help your body recover.

To strengthen your immune system naturally, include lots of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet like berries, red grapes, and olive leaf extract. The powerful compound inside olive leaves, oleuropein, is an ancient medicine that has been proven to strengthen immunity with its anti-viral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.  A high-quality olive leaf extract with 20% oleuropein is enough to protect the body against invading micro-organisms.


  1. Sleep

Our immune system and sleep are intricately connected. This is why we naturally want to curl up and sleep when we are unwell because our body wants to go into rest and repair mode.

If we don’t get enough quality sleep, our body can’t release enough hormones to help regenerate the system. This leaves your immune system weakened and disrupts the functioning of your entire body.

Sleep scientist Matt Walker shared how people who report less than 7 hours per night are almost 3x more likely to catch a cold. Furthermore, sufficient sleep could actually help the flu vaccine work better, as more antibodies are produced after a full night sleep.


  1. Sunshine

Of course, we are all cautious of the dangers of skin cancer, but mild sunlight exposure is essential for good health and helps to release vitamin D in your body.

Vitamin D is actually a hormone and is vital for your immune system because it enhances the function of immune cells. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to increased susceptibility to infection and disease.

Just like plants, we thrive with just enough, but not too much sunlight. Around 15-20 minutes of sun per day can be enough for us to experience the benefits and help strengthen your overall immunity.


  1. Avoid toxins and smoking

Smoking is renowned to decrease the amount of oxygen being delivered to your cells. If your cells don’t receive adequate oxygen, they cannot function properly and are more susceptible to illness.

Furthermore, cigarettes also contain carcinogenic substances that make your immune system weaker to fight against incoming pathogens and viruses.

Try to use natural products to avoid further intake of toxins and drink plenty of water to help your body release the waste. This helps to strengthen your immune system as your body is not using so many resources trying to detoxify from synthetic ingredients and artificial preservatives.


  1. The gut-mind connection

Have you ever had a gut feeling, or butterflies in your tummy when nervous about something? This is the mind-gut connection in action.

Why is this important for strengthening your immune system? Firstly, the gut has a higher concentration of immune cells than anywhere else in the body.  When the gut health is good, the immune system is stronger.

Secondly, that strong mind-gut connection, means that if you feel stressed or anxious, it can disrupt our microbiome. This can result in digestive issues, diarrhea,  and make us more susceptible to illness.


So, not only can you boost your immune system through your gut with food and drink, you can also do it by taking care of your gut.

Flu vaccines may have some way to go before reaching a very effective status consistently. However, these natural ways of boosting your immune system will help your body to respond better to the vaccine and any other incoming pathogens.


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