Can Alternative Remedies Prevent Swine Flu?

Herbal remedies are being touted as immunity-boosters that protect people, but one expert has doubts.

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I've received numerous news releases over the past few days from companies hoping I would tout the benefits of their swine-flu-fighting products. One was hawking a "flu safety kit," a small, snap-closed bag that contained tissues, disinfecting wipes, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer, all for just $5.77, plus shipping and handling. A press release from Consumer Reports tells me that the right face mask can help prevent the spread swine flu, provided I get one that's labeled N-95 or higher, a standard set by the Food and Drug Administration that ensures the filter blocks viruses from passing through. Another press release from Ice-Qube advertised masks, four for $4.99 or 10 for $9.99—not such a bad deal, until I query the company and find out that the masks don't meet the FDA standard.

At the moment, I'm not game for these products. I can buy a small bottle of hand sanitizer at my local drugstore for 95 cents, and I'm not ready to don a face mask—provided I can even find an appropriate one. I might, though, be willing to try some lifestyle remedies to boost my immune system, provided they actually worked.

I received an E-mail from Maharishi Ayurveda Products International that promised "ancient, time-tested knowledge" for strengthening my body's defenses against the flu, including things like eating warm foods or certain spices. While Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India for several thousand years, "time-tested" doesn't mean tested and shown to be efficacious in an actual scientific study.

Is it worthwhile for me to do the following Ayurvedic practices, as the news release suggests?

  • Eat nourishing, warm foods with "immune-enhancing" spices like tumeric.
    • Eat only organic foods because impurities in nonorganic foods impair my immune function.
      • Avoid eating or drinking anything cold during meals in order to improve my digestion, which protects immune strength.
        • Do daily warm sesame-oil massage because sesame oil has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
        • I asked Adriane Fugh-Berman, a physician and associate professor in the complementary and alternative medicine master's program at Georgetown University Medical Center, about this. She had to answer me back by E-mail because she's currently in Shanghai researching the overpromotion of the flu vaccine. She writes: "The statements in the press release you sent me are not [based on] scientific evidence. There are some herbs that stimulate the immune system, but that's not a good idea on a chronic or preventive basis." Overstimulating the immune system, she explains, can cause problems like inflammation and arthritis.

          She adds that wearing masks is a good public health measure if people find them socially acceptable. Isolating sick individuals also helps prevent the spread, but our workaholic culture seems to encourage us to drag ourselves into the office even when we're sick. (Though I'm guessing bosses, at the moment, would rather have us call in sick than potentially infect the rest of the office with swine flu.) "If you get sick, lie down and act sick," Fugh-Berman advises. "Catch up on sleep, read, avoid gatherings." I took her advice and slept in this morning when I woke up feeling under the weather; I also kept my mildly ill daughter home from school.

          [Read more on flu dilemmas faced by working mothers.]

          With regard to frequent hand washing and hand sanitizers, it's good for preventing the transmission of germs from the infected person but doesn't do much for those trying to protect themselves from being infected, says Fugh-Berman. "If you wash your hands until they're raw, it won't protect you from someone misting your mucous membranes [nose, mouth] with virus when they're sneezing in an elevator."

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