By Mark Toomey, Ph.D., Director of Ayurvedic Programs at The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa, Fairfield, Iowa
Watch out! The family Orthomyxoviridae is coming to get you. They are incredibly adaptable, stealthy and can be deadly. Most likely they'll leave you alive but wishing you had never tangled with them. They are known as RNA viruses but we know them as the infectious disease called influenza, or the flu. Once they take hold, you may experience chills, fever, sore throat, muscle pain, headache, weakness, fatigue and general discomfort. If it really gets serious you may get pneumonia and if you're too young, weak or elderly it may be fatal. Every year up to 35,000 people die and 200,000 are hospitalized in the US from the flu. Fortunately Maharishi Ayurveda offers powerful insight into this threat and how to avoid getting sick.
The word influenza was first used by the Italians to mean "influence" and was associated with an unfavorable astrological chart. Later on, as scientific thought became predominant, the word became associated with the disease we are all familiar with.
Viruses are tiny organisms that can only replicate in living cells. Influenza infection and replication is a multi-step process: first the virus has to bind to and enter the cell, and then the virus delivers its genome to a site in the cell where it can produce new copies of viral proteins and RNA. Then, it assembles these components into new viral particles and finally exits the host cell.
Influenza can be spread in many ways: direct transmission, the airborne route (this is when someone inhales the droplets from an infected person coughing or sneezing) or from hand-to-eye, hand-to-nose, or hand-to-mouth transmission, or from contaminated surfaces or from direct personal contact such as a handshake. In the airborne route, the droplets are small - just 0.5 to 5 µm in diameter and inhaling just one droplet might be enough to cause an infection.
The influenza virus can persist outside of the body, and can be transmitted by contaminated surfaces such as money, doorknobs, light switches and other household items. The length of time the virus will persist on a surface varies, with the virus surviving for one to two days on hard, non-porous surfaces such as plastic or metal, for about fifteen minutes on dry paper tissues, and only five minutes on skin. However, if the virus is present in mucus, this can protect it for longer periods (up to 17 days on dollar bills). So this is one tough family. This type of fortitude and adaptability makes one gasp with admiration...but don't get too close.
Vaccination against influenza with an influenza vaccine is often recommended for high-risk groups, such as children and the elderly, or in people who have asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or who are immune-compromised. The effectiveness of these influenza vaccines is variable. Due to the high mutation rate of the virus however, a particular influenza vaccine usually confers protection for no more than a few years. Influenza viruses mutate so quickly that they can render one season's vaccine ineffective by the next season.
It is possible to get vaccinated and still get influenza. The vaccine is reformulated each season for a few specific new flu strains but cannot possibly include all the strains actively infecting people in the world for that season. It takes about six months for the manufacturers to formulate and produce the millions of doses required to deal with the seasonal epidemics. Occasionally, a new or overlooked strain becomes prominent during that time and infects people who have been vaccinated but not against that strain. Also, since the vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective, it is possible to get infected just before or after getting the vaccine and get sick with the very strain that the vaccine is supposed to prevent.
So, what's a person to do, hide for the winter, cover oneself in a space suit?
Well, before you start searching the internet for spacesuits let's consider this. You already have one of the most intelligent systems for protection in the universe - it's called your immune system. Your body's first line of defense against viruses is your innate immune system. This system comprises cells and other mechanisms that defend you from infection in a non-specific manner but it does not confer long-lasting or protective immunity. Your highly adaptive immune system produces specific antibodies that bind to the invading virus and render it non-infectious. This is called humoral immunity. A second line of defense against viruses, called cell-mediated immunity, involves immune cells known as T cells. The T cells stop the viruses from reproducing by killing the infected cell and its close neighbors.
People with strong immune systems are less likely to get influenza. Only about 5-20% of the population gets influenza each year. Many infected persons do not develop symptoms of influenza, even though they are still contagious. Young, healthy people are especially likely to have influenza infections without feeling ill. Recent research findings suggest that healthy individuals may have immune memory that recognizes the 2009 H1N1 strain and therefore can mount some measure of an immune attack. This is one reason some people don't get influenza - they have good immune memory.
So, this flu season boost your natural immunity with Maharishi Ayurveda, whether you get vaccinated or not. Beej-bhumitheory describes immunity from the Ayurvedic perspective. It literally means the seed and land. Just as a farmer prepares the land so his seeds will grow, so an individual through bad habits, poor diet, irregular routine and a stressful life prepares his body for the seeds of disease to grow - in this case for the virus family Orthomyxoviridae to take hold and shake you down.
The Sanskrit word bala means strength - the strength of one's immune system. If one has good bala then the immune system is resistant to disease. But, if one has prepared the land for any stray virus to fall and sprout through the previously mentioned bad habits, then one will most likely get sick.
There are three levels of immunity that Ayurveda recognizes:
- Hereditary (Sahaj), the innate level of immunity which you are born with;
- Seasonal (Kalaj), the fluctuating levels of immunity in your body due to the change of seasons, different stages of life, and planetary cycles; and
- Established (Yuktikrit), which is a balanced, permanent level of immunity that can be gained by following a healthy Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle.
If one has proper knowledge of diet and seasonal routines along with balanced agni (digestive fire) then one creates ojas,as opposed to ama. Ama is a sticky substance resulting from undigested food due to poor digestion and poor dietary habits. Ama is a little like what you get if you never change the oil in your car's engine - sludge! And consequently the engine does not run very well. The human physiology is a dynamic information network - whether it is the immune cells communicating with one another that an invader in the form of a virus is present, or a thought that begins a cascade of neuropeptides to communicate to your cells.
For information to flow it needs channels to flow through and the body has billions of communication networks. If those channels get blocked because of ama (sludge) then so does the flow of information. That is why ama is the fertile ground for sowing the seeds of disease. Ojas is the opposite of ama - it is what the body wants to make. It is the finest product of digestion and allows for the frictionless flow of information between cells.
Tips for Strengthening Immunity
Maharishi Ayurveda recommends that you do the gentle purification treatments called panchakarma during the transitions between the seasons, in the fall and the early spring. Maharishi Panchakarma includes a full program of Ayurvedic massage, steam baths and intestinal cleansing treatments to rid your body of ama accumulated during the previous season. Panchakarma also strengthens your agni, or digestive fire, so more ama won't be accumulated. These specialized treatments are available at The Raj in Fairfield, Iowa, America's premier Ayurvedic spa.
Virologists investigating transmission of the flu virus have found that it is more likely to spread at colder temperatures. The dry, cold conditions of fall and winter pull moisture out of the droplets released by coughs and sneezes and this allows the virus to linger in the air. Additionally, cold, low humidity air dries out the nasal passages causing cracks and making virus transmission more likely. So, oil up the sinuses with Organic Clear and Soothe nasal oil spray from Maharishi Ayurveda to nourish and lubricate the sinuses to help prevent the flu.
Diet for Boosting Natural Immunity
Another key factor in Ayurveda for boosting immunity is eating according to the season, and in the context of the strength of your appetite and digestion. Never overeat and never eat before the previous meal is digested. In winter, food should be nourishing, warm and unctuous. Avoid eating or drinking anything cold, because cold foods and drinks will reduce your digestive fire leading to more ama. Use spices as they enhance digestive power and have also been shown to enhance immunity. Try Vata churna in your food this winter.
A Vata pacifying diet in fall and early winter is the most appropriate diet. Vata churna contains all six tastes but has more sweet, sour and salty tastes to balance vata. Vata-pacifying foods include nourishing whole grains such as basmati rice and couscous; sweet, juicy fruits such as cooked apples or pears; squashes, zucchini, and asparagus; and light, easily digestible proteins such as mung dhal.
Immunity-boosting foods include those that are fresh, organic, and easy to digest. These include ojas creating foods like fresh organic milk, vegetables, fruits, cooked whole grains, and ghee (clarified butter). Foods that are hard to digest should be avoided if you want to increase your immunity and not create ama. Avoid heavy, fried food, packaged food, leftovers and takeout food. These foods have no prana or life force.
Lifestyle Tips for Boosting Immunity
Maharishi Ayurveda also recommends a healthy daily routine or Dincharya to keep immunity strong. Start the day with a daily oil massage before your shower or bath, do yoga asanas and pranayama (yogic breathing), and daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation program to allow the body to deal with the stress of the day.
Sleep is necessary to allow the body to rest and rejuvenate. Recent research shows that sleep is a behavioral state which is essential for optimal immune function in the presence of a respiratory tract pathogen. Your best sleep, which is best for rejuvenation, happens before midnight, so get to bed before 10 p.m.
Exercise is another important aspect of an Ayurvedic routine, because it helps enhance Agni and burns away toxins. A variety of studies have shown that exercise induces significant physiological change in the immune system. It's important to choose the right exercise for your body type and for the season. Daily walks and yoga postures are good for balancing all the doshas, especially for Vata types, while more vigorous daily exercise is excellent for Kapha types to stay healthy. But, beaware that over exercising has been shown to reduce immune functioning. Ayurveda has always recommended exercising to 50% of one's capacity. Exercise is especially important during Kapha season, because it helps to boost agni and your immunity.
Maharishi Ayurveda Herbs for Immunity and Respiratory Health
- Protection Plus Respiratory System contains 26 potent herbs that act synergistically to protect the lungs from respiratory problems. This is a holistic, powerful formula to separate the ama from the Shleshaka Kapha, the moistening aspects of the respiratory system. The formula also cleanses the channels of ama and nurtures, lubricates, and restores balance to the lungs as the impurities are dissolved, supporting the natural immunity of the respiratory system.
- You may also drink a warm, immunity-enhancing tea such as Sniffle Free Tea, twice a day with your meal or after it. The herbs in this tea help balance Kapha immediately. If your head is starting to feel heavy or congested, you can also use Sniffle Free Aroma Oil to help create balance and clear the sinuses.
- Bio-Immune is a powerful supplement that strengthens neuro-immunal responses, purifies the liver and blood, and dissolves ama. Take one tablet of Bio-Immune each morning and evening to enhance overall immunity.
- Cold Weather Defense offers nutritional support for the body's natural immunity. It regulates fluid balance and mucus in the lungs and sinuses, removes toxins from the lungs, and cleanses the micro-circulatory channels that have been blocked byama. It supports the body's natural defenses and removes toxins that weaken resistance.
- Sniffle Free tablets are aimed more at the upper respiratory system and bolster your body's natural resistance to the cold. Sniffle Free helps clear the channels, strengthens the digestive fire, balances the production of moisture and mucus, improves resistance to cold temperatures, and enhances the bioavailability and circulation of vital nutrients.
- Amrit Kalash is the most powerful Maharishi Ayurveda food supplement for boosting immunity and overall well-being, as shown in several research studies. Other studies have shown that it is 1000 times more effective than Vitamin C in scavenging free radicals, the reactive molecules that are responsible for disease and decay in the body.
So, you don't have to feel that you are home alone facing the threat of influenza this winter even though the virus family Orthomyxoviridae is out there. Maharishi Ayurveda is your partner in protecting your health.
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