Notes from a Food Doctor - Flu Edition

It's Time to Get Past Orange Juice

I’m a pediatric ER doctor in Atlanta, and for the past few weeks I’ve been on the front line of treating what has undoubtedly been the worst flu outbreak, in terms of sheer volume of patients, that I’ve ever seen in the past 20 years of practicing.

My colleagues and I work across a multitude of Emergency Departments, large and small, in hospitals scattered in and around metropolitan Atlanta. In each one of those departments, we’ve broken every record we use to have over the past two weeks.

Without a doubt, we can say that more people getting flu shots would help to substantially decrease the numbers of patients we’re seeing, even though the most recent vaccination has not been 100% protective against the flu. Simple measures to avoid contracting and spreading the flu can also go a long way, but people are scrambling to “boost” their immunity during this time.  

Another part of my life -- the startup side -- is devoted to plant-based food innovation. So I was surprised to see a report by Wall Street Journal a few days ago, detailing a recent spike in orange juice sales. Don’t get me wrong, it has been driven into our brains for decades that vitaminc C may help support your immune system. But eating an orange (whole food) may make a lot more sense than running to the store for that juice. Read on and you’ll find out why.

The Force of Immunity

The force flows through all of us. At least that what they told us in Star Wars. But, it’s sort of true. There is a force within us, it’s called our immune system.

Our immune system is an incredibly advanced army of organs, cells and biochemicals that facilitate coordinated attacks on foreign intruders -- viruses, bacteria, fungi and toxins that enter our bodies every day, whether we like it or not. Our knowledge and understanding of how our immune systems work has grown tremendously over the past century. While we have made great advances, it’s humbling to admit that we still have such a long way to go.

Like all vitamins and minerals, vitamin C is a type of micronutrient — nutrients we use in small quantities, not as calories/fuel (macronutrients), but as elements that make our army of organs, cells and chemicals work better. In fact, our bodies’ require these nutrients (in small quantities) to work properly, as we can’t make most of them on our own.

Science, like all things, evolves.

As human beings, it’s in our nature to get excited about discovery. In healthcare, starting with antibiotics more than 100 years ago, medicine was revolutionized. Soon after, the earliest versions of vaccines also helped us increase human lifespan by finding ways to both prevent and treat the most common threat to almost all living organisms on this planet: Infection.

These leaps in science were made possible by advances in opening the window into how our immune systems work. The thing that we keep learning, with each advance in science, is that we haven’t quite opened the window as much as we think we have. More than 50 years ago, as theories were being made as to how certain micronutrients, like vitamin C, played a role in bolstering immunity, we got excited for good reason. Since then, billions upon billions of dollars have been spent globally, now more than ever, on nutrients and supplements to make us healthier. Orange juice sales are soaring!!

But we’re not healthier. Not even close. Life span, especially for the next generation of Americans, may actually be going down, due mostly to the way we eat. How in the world do we still expect vitamins to be the cure to our ailments when we can’t even keep ourselves healthy when we’re not actually ‘feeling sick’?

The Window is Still Opening

As discovery and understanding of the human microbiome has advanced, we now realize that the way we’ve been approaching vitamins and minerals for health and immunity has been looking through a window that has been only partially open.

We now know that within all of us there exists a world of close to 100 trillion bacteria (probiotic, or ‘good bacteria’) that plays an integral part in the functionality of our immune systems. This ‘world within us’ can actually weigh between 3-5 pounds, if you were to bring all these bacteria together and place them on a scale. Some call this microbiota — the term to properly describe this entity that coexists within us — our second brain, as we are just tapping in to the extent to which our microbiota interacts with our entire body to help us.

We still don’t know just how far we’ve opened this window, but here is what we do know: Good bacteria are super important in working hard to help us fight infection, but also have the potential to wreak havoc on our bodies when imbalanced, by provoking inflammation in a bad way. Researchers in multiple fields are now exploring ways that our second brains inside us may help solve a multitude of illnesses, including heart disease and conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Let’s Not Ignore the Basics...back to Wisdom

As we continue to open this window into just how much more complex immunity is, beyond vitamin C, there’s some recent discoveries that are being constantly ignored, by industry and consumers alike. In order to support your microbiome and promote a good balance your good bacteria need prebiotic fiber as fuel for them to digest.

What is prebiotic fiber and where does it come from, you ask? It comes from whole plants: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and herbs. That’s right, we get to this incredibly evolved scientific understanding in immune function only to learn that grandma was right: “eat more fruits and veggies”!

There’s a lesson here and it’s humbling. Wisdom is valuable and we can’t escape it. Yes, knowledge, technology, yada yada is sexy in the modern world. If you accept that we have a long way to go, in terms of evolving as a culture and civilization, then perhaps getting there means we need to apply more wisdom to the knowledge we’ve gained.

Sujit Sharma M.D.                                                                                           

CEO at Chuice                                                                                                                        Pediatric ER Physician, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta                                              Board of Directors, Georgia Organics