Smorgasbord Health Column- Winterising your Body – Influenza the opportunistic pathogen.


Influenza can have a very serious effect on the very young and old and those who have poorly functioning immune systems.  As we head into October I am going to repeat my series on winterising the body.

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the First World War. Between 20 and 40 million people died and because the figures were so horrendous we may never know the true extent of this awful two-year period. Very few countries were spared and its effects on an already devastated world population were horrendous. It was called the Spanish Flu because the earliest mortalities were in Spain were over 8 million people died.

Anywhere that soldiers or refugees gathered in large numbers became infected and the early outbreaks were largely ignored. Returning soldiers from the front brought the disease home to every city, town and village. Most of the populations throughout Europe were poorly nourished following the war years and were in no condition to fight off this virulent infection especially as there were none of the drugs that we have available today.

How ironic to have survived the war years, including years in the trenches to then succumb to an infection. They estimate that over a fifth of the world’s population was infected and those most at risk appear to have been between the ages of 20 and 40. The exact same age as those that fought for four hard years on various battlefronts. 28% of Americans were infected and over 675,000 Americans died. Of the US soldiers who died in Europe half were killed by influenza.

The initial cause of the outbreak has never been established. The theory was that conditions in the trenches and the use of chemicals such as mustard gas created the environment where the infection thrived. There have been links to unusually humid weather, which certainly created the perfect environment to foster viral and bacterial infections amongst sick, injured and immune suppressed soldiers and the medical staff who cared for them.

We have never seen anything like this since, but these figures illustrate that we cannot take these infections lightly and with the current threat of more virulent pathogens crossing the species barrier and taking advantage of our modern travel patterns, we need to take our own health seriously and look at ways to prevent infection.

What is influenza (Flu)

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. In a person with a strong immune system the symptoms may be very mild with a headache, feverishness, sore throat, muscle aches and a runny nose. In very young children or in elderly patients there can also be gastric complications with vomiting and diarrhoea.

If left untreated or if a person has very little resistance to infection there can be complications including pneumonia. Dehydration is a problem that can exacerbate existing problems such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.

How do we catch the flu?

The virus is spread in respiratory drops caused by coughing and sneezing although it is possible to catch the virus after touching contaminated surfaces and then passing the virus to the nose or mouth as with the common cold.

One of the problems with the flu is that you can infect someone else a day before you show the symptoms which gives you 24 hours to put others at risk at work, in schools or on public transport. Who of us has not sat next to someone on a plane for a few hours while they cough and splutter the way on holiday? An infected person is still contagious for five days after their symptoms have appeared. This usually means that it is very difficult to avoid contagion within a family where you live together in a close knit unit.

How do we prevent infection

The same rules apply for the flu as for the common cold that I covered yesterday. Your main form of defense is the simple act of washing your hands frequently. It is also essential to limit your contact with people who are obviously suffering from an infection. As I have just mentioned this is difficult due to the nature of the progression of the influenza, that 24 hour window when there are no symptoms can result in multiple infections.

One answer during the flu months of October, November, December, January and February is to stop kissing and shaking hands with friends and family when you meet them. My mother when she hit 90 had a couple of colds one after the other and I put a ban on her usual habit of kissing everyone she met… For the next five years she did not get one cold. She also had an alcohol based hand sanitizer that she used when going out and after meeting people.

Also in the UK everyone over 65 can have an annual flu shot as can the carers of vulnerable groups. My mother had this every year and it obviously helped. There is some controversy over the vaccine and its safety. It is a decision you need to make after discussing with your doctor but my opinion on the subject is that certainly for those in their mid-70’s and 80’s the risk of the disease is greater than the jab…

The flu shot that is available from the autumn onwards. The vaccine contains killed virus and can be given to anyone over 6 months old.

Drug Resistance

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections not viral infections, so going to your doctor and asking for them is not going to help.  However, antibiotics do play a role in the spread of infectious diseases.  Since their first use for the general public in the late 40’s and 50’s, antibiotics have been regarded as a cure-all.  As a child living in South Africa in the early 60’s I suffered six bouts of tonsilitis over the period of a year until my tonsils were removed. Within six months I had gained nearly 42lbs and it began a lifelong battle with my weight until I reached 330lbs 22 years ago.  It is a story that I have heard hundreds of times as I work with clients who are overweight, suffer from repeated infections and who suffer from specific food intolerances (not allergies).

Antibiotics are usually broad spectrum and therefore have a shotgun approach to killing bacteria responsible for infection…In the past and sadly far too often in the present, doctors do not take a urine, blood sample or swab to send off for testing to determine the specific bacteria causing the infection and will therefore prescribe the generalised formula antibiotic for that broad type of infection.

This results in a shock wave of bacterial death which does not only kill harmful bacteria but can devastate colonies of our beneficial bacteria in the chemical soup that is essential for life and health.

This includes the absolutely critical good bacteria in our intestines (the gut brain) where all our food is processed for nutrients and passed back into the bloodstream to keep us healthy.  So, repeated doses of antibiotics regularly to treat minor bacterial infections as well as erroneously for viral infections will compromise not just your health but your immune system which is your first line of defense.

Obviously, this does not mean that if you are currently taking a course of antibiotics prescribed for you by your doctor you suddenly stop.. If it is for a bacterial infection it is crucial that you always complete the course.  If you stop because you feel better you are setting yourself up for reinfection because pockets of the disease have not been killed off.  This will mean that within a short space of time you will need another course of drugs.

Non-completion of antibiotic prescribed courses is one of the leading causes of more serious infections taking hold in the body.

gingergrapefruit seed extract

There are a number of natural anti-bacterial and viral preparations that can help particularly if you have a healthy immune system.  These include the foods I mentioned in previous post.

Those most at risk of getting influenza

The most at risk are 65 years old and over because they are more likely to have medical conditions that put them at risk of infection.
People who live in long term care facilities or hospitals.
A person of any age who is already suffering from a pre-existing condition such as heart disease or asthma.
Anyone on long term medication or repeated courses of antibiotics.
Children between the ages of 6 months and 24 months.
Anyone who is on assisted respiratory machinery.

Other Precautions

For healthy people there is the option of a nasal spray that contains live but weakened flu viruses that do not actually cause the flu but stimulate the antibodies needed to protect against the full strength influenza virus.

It is very important that your immune system is as strong as it needs to be before the winter months. Apart from avoiding contact with those you know to be infected you have to guard against those people who are not showing symptoms. You will have no idea who has the virus or not so your best line of defense is to ensure your body is strong enough to fix the problem fast.


  • If you have the infection then do cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and discard hygienically straightaway.
  • Wash your own hands with soap and water at every opportunity or use a specific alcohol based hand cleaner.
  • Avoid touching your own eyes, nose or mouth to avoid re-infection.

Next time how to help the body recover from colds and influenza and some recipes for immune boosting soups that are tasty too.  Following that a post on alternative ways to boost your immune system

©sally cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2018

My nutritional background

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

You can find all my books here with links to Amazon:

You can find the other posts in the Health Column in this directory:

Thanks for dropping in and hope this has proved helpful. Thanks Sally


Smorgasbord Health – The Skin – Acne not just a teenage problem.

Some organs play a major role in our survival and others can be removed without impacting our general health in any significant way. As we have evolved, so an organ’s function may have changed to accommodate our modern environment, especially if their role is protective as in the case of the liver and the elimination of toxins. In this polluted world our body is under increasing stress and keeping the individual organs healthy ensures the general well-being of the entire body.

The skin
In this series I am expanding on posts that I wrote last year on foods for healthy skin and eczema by covering some of the other skin conditions that can cause absolute misery and in some cases severe pain.

The skin in in fact our largest organ and weighs 12% to 15% of our body weight and has three vital roles to play. It protects us from external contaminants, acts as a temperature and moisture controller and is essential in the elimination of waste products.

There is a complex structure to our skin that is invisible to the naked eye and apart from slapping a bit of moisturiser on last thing at night; most of us are unaware of the crucial role that it plays in our general health.

Because of the skin’s role in the elimination of waste products and as a barrier to external contaminants it comes under increasing stress as we get older. Free radicals attack it from the outside from chemicals in household cleaners, cigarette smoke, pollution and ultra-violet light. From the inside it is the victim of a poor diet low in essential fatty acids, processed foods, food intolerances and toxins produced from an inefficient and under nourished operating system.

Some of the signs of skin under stress are acne, cold sores, eczema, psoriasis, hives, impetigo, shingles, warts and of course wrinkles. Today I am going to be covering acne, a bane for teenagers but can also come back to haunt us in our middle years as we go through another hormonal change.



I remember as a teenager getting a few spots at certain times of the month but was thankfully clear of major acne outbreaks. I did have a friend at school that was devastatingly affected by the condition and when you are a 16 year old girl or boy it can have a detrimental impact on not just your physical appearance but also your mental and emotional health.

Let’s face it, spots that are on your back and covered up on your arms are unsightly and irritating but if your face is covered in blackheads, whiteheads and scarring then it can result in lack of self-esteem that can last for years afterwards. In severe cases acne can lead to severe depression, withdrawal from both school and social activities and suicide.

Unfortunately even when the acne has departed in can leave scarring which varies in severity and often because it is deep and pitted it remains for a lifetime. The reason that it is so deep is because of the inflammation in the dermal layer of the skin which heals abnormally leaving the pitted surface.

The numbers across the western world when added together make acne the 8th common disease in the world. It is estimated that it affects over 80% of teenagers adding up to a huge 600 million people worldwide.

There are a number of suspected causes and I will take a brief look at these.

Most of us will associate spots that appeared during our teen years with hormonal changes after puberty. Sex hormones called androgens result in several changes within the body but also in the skin. The trillions of pores on the surface of our skin are really minute openings into canals called follicles. In each follicle you will find a hair and a sebaceous (oil) gland. This helps keep our skin supple and hydrated and also assists in the disposal of old skin cells that we are shedding continuously.

Skin Cross section

At puberty and for girls each month the surge of hormones results in a change in the follicle causing them to grow larger and produce more oil. Whilst this affects both sexes in the teen years it also affects women who become pregnant at any age or who suffer from PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). PCOS is caused by a woman producing too many of the male androgens affecting her menstrual cycle and ability to become pregnant.

With teenagers it is not just the increase in androgens such as testosterone which can cause acne. At that age there is a growth spurt particularly in boys that can take place between the ages of 16 and 24 and the hormone responsible for this is GH or HGH. Additionally IGF-1 a hormone that is similar in structure to Insulin and plays a role in growth in both teenagers and later with a different affect in adults can result in a similar response.

It is unusual for acne to develop after the body has completed its growth cycle in the early to mid-twenties.

It is believed that around 75% of acne could be genetic which is supported by studies with twins and also with immediate family members. Polygenic inheritance pattern controls our height, skin colour, eye colour and also it is believed our weight. Rather than just one gene being involved it requires a combination of two or more genes to affect these characteristics. Certain genes have now been identified that could be related to acne and that is an ongoing study.

This genetic link is reinforced by the incidences of severe acne associated with a dysfunctional immune system. This is not lifestyle related but an inherent over sensitivity to bacteria that results in an unusually aggressive immune system response. When bacteria are detected by the body the immune system produces large amounts of inflammatory cytokines. These induce white blood cells to unleash destructive enzymes and free radicals into the site of infection. Because this response is unusually aggressive it can cause damage to the surrounding tissue. This in turn results in another release of cytokines and it becomes a perpetual cycle resulting in long term inflammation and of course the associated acne. In this type of environment bacteria thrive rather than be killed off.

With the other form of genetic dysfunctional immune response the white cells themselves are under powered and do not have the ability to deal with any harmful bacteria that they encounter. Usually white blood cells work on the principal of divide and conquer, they are designed to ingest any bacteria they come across, isolating the bacteria in a special casing called a phagosome and then pumping toxic enzymes inside to kill it. It is then broken up into small particles that are absorbed back into the immune system. The system then takes these particles and designs anti-bodies that will be able to fight future infections of this bacteria.

In a faulty immune system the white cell takes in the bacteria but is not equipped to kill them adequately. They keep trying however, exhausting themselves in the process and dying. This releases the bacteria still alive and allows it to thrive. It also means that the immune system does not get the chance to develop anti-bodies to fight that particular strain of bacteria leading to long term infections.

The most common of the bacterial infections associated with acne is Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) is a bacteria that grows deep inside of pores where it obtains its energy from the oil in the follicle canal. It is anaerobic which means that unlike most bacteria it is tolerant to oxygen so the low oxygen, oil rich environment of the follicle is perfect for its growth. Because it forms clumps of bacteria it can block and protect itself within the canal leading to persistent infections into the 20s and beyond. Unfortunately the bacteria have become resistant to a number of the anti-biotics used to treat acne including Penicillin.

There have been many assumptions made over the years about acne and its causes. Including the fact that some teenagers do not have a close relationship with cleanliness, that poor diet full of fats and sugars is to blame and the habit of the young today to spend more time indoors rather than out in the fresh air. In reality I believe there is an element of all of these factors involved. And in particular the increase in the use of both male and female facial and body beauty products.

Today we are spoiled for choice when we buy skin products in the pharmacies, supermarkets and online. The prices also vary from very cheap to extremely expensive but unfortunately whilst simple is better, cheap may not be so. Many cheap skin products have ingredients that could irritate skin further. This also applies for make-up that teenage girls are going to use to cover up spots and scars.

Most acne prescribed medication is designed to dry up the oil that feed the bacteria and may be causing the outbreak in the first place. This can result in dry and flaky skin and irritated patches.

The temptation is to buy moisturisers that are heavy and greasy to counteract the dryness but it is better when suffering from acne to use a light weight moisturiser with ingredients such as glycerine that will not clog your pores with more grease. Avoid those that have ingredients such as cocoa butter for example.

The one lifestyle activity which is definitely implicated in causing skin irritation and increasing the chances of acne is smoking.

You might find the following daily cleansing ritual helpful.
A mild cleanser for the face (ask advice on your skin type) Using your fingers gently massage the skin for a few minutes. Wipe off the excess  with a clean cotton wool wipe. Then rinse your face in luke warm water to remove all the lotion. Pat the skin dry and then apply the light moisturiser. You can use a mild exfoliant (and I mean mild) once or twice a week which can be helpful in cleaning the skin slightly more thoroughly.

These days there are a lot of products on the market but do be careful about just buying off the shelf. Ask advice from a pharmacist and check for side effects.

There are a number of prescribed medications available now to treat acne including topical creams. Antibiotics are also prescribed but there is a danger that this will then create a resistance to future antibiotics if over used. For girls sometimes being prescribed birth control pills can regulate hormone levels reducing the surge of hormones each month. I do advice however that you do not self-medicate by buying products online. Get professional guidance and if you add to your acne scarring by using the wrong product it will stay with you for life.

Alternative therapies.
You must be extremely careful with your skin as whilst it does a very tough job it is also very delicate. I have found that taking Echinacea for six weeks at a time may help boost immune system function. And also taking Grapefruit seed extract to help control an overgrowth of Candida Albicans, which as a fungal infection of the intestines, does impact the efficiency of the immune system.

Topically, apart from the cleansing regime I have already mentioned, you may find that a couple of drops of tea tree oil mixed with your morning and night time moisturiser may also help kill off the bacteria. Do monitor and if it causes any irritation or redness of the skin stop using.

The fact that the incidences of acne is certain cultures that are not exposed to the less healthy aspects of our western diet is virtually non-existent, leads to the assumption that sugars, trans fats and other additives in our food are contributing to acne. It also confirms of course the genetic link to the disease especially when those populations have remained isolated.

As you will have seen there is a genetic link to a dysfunctional immune system that results in persistent acne but there are also dietary and lifestyle related immune system issues that need to be addressed with a balanced diet and exercise.

It is tough when you are a teenager to stick to a really healthy diet when your friends are enjoying burgers, pizzas and other great tasting food. Nobody wants to be the odd person out but tough as it is, it is so important to eat a mainly fresh unprocessed diet with lots of vegetables and fruits with the antioxidants needed for a healthy immune system and of course skin health. Also lean protein and good fats and most importantly plenty of water to keep the skin hydrated.

You can find out more information about diet and eczema in these two previous posts.

Next time I will be covering Shingles.. anyone who has Chicken Pox is at risk of developing in later life.