Written by Dr. Jewel Alfoure, ND
During the last two years, the words "Flu Season" became a serious part of our everyday life.
Never before have we been so concerned about the concept of preparing for the flu season as we are right now.
While the concept of worrying about the "Flu Season" may still feel new to us, in reality, natural medicine has been regarding the change of season as a time to prepare for, for thousands of years.
The Yellow Emperor's records talk about Change of Season Tonics that date back to about 2700 B.CE. (1).
Whether you believe solely in the evidence-based approach or you entertain the knowledge of our wise ancient practitioners of natural medicine, chances are, you know that seasonal change is stressful on the immune system.
Studies show that times of seasonal change are those with the highest spikes in infectious diseases, including upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) (2, 3).
Modern medicine attributes the seasonal spike in upper respiratory illness to the increase in time spent indoors.
The theory is that when the weather is cold, people are more likely to spend time in closed areas where they can spread infections to each other more easily.
While there is some truth to this theory, there is much more to the problem than time spent indoors (3).
There appears to be a direct correlation between the increase in colds/flu and the lack of exposure to the sun which is a reminder of how important Vitamin D is for our everyday life and immunity (4).
A Hot Immune System that Never Loses its Cool
The immune system is a place of great complexity and high synchronicity.
It thrives on the multidimensional approach, meaning that it functions optimally by utilizing many overlapping defences for the same purpose.
Such overlap prevents invaders from falling through the cracks.
Another reason for the overlap is that the immune system is designed with safety in mind.
Immunity is made to maintain the moderate activity of all defences to be conducive to life.
Having one over-functioning defence can be highly destructive to the body if it goes out of hand and becomes too keen at breaking down both body tissues and predators.
Thus, a healthy immune system is always watchful and sharp yet, never overzealous with its efforts to protect the body (5).
Why Do We Get Sick More Often In Cold Weather?
Seasonal change can be an exciting time that disrupts the balance of immunity for many reasons.
Such reasons include a change in temperature, humidity, lifestyle, diet and overall stress.
For example, the common cold and the flu are linked to colder temperatures (3).
While Asian/ Eastern medicine believes in cold being a pathogenic factor, Westen medicine does not.
Pathogenic or not, exposure to the cold triggers vascular contraction and shunts the blood away from the upper respiratory cavity.
Upon breathing cold air, the immune components in the blood are shunted away from pathogens allowing them to replicate and making the odds better for them.
Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that some pathogens replicate better in the drying, harsh conditions of the colder season (3).
Note that IgA secretion is more influenced by prolonged exercise than it is influenced by cold exposure.
IgA is an immunoglobulin found in secretions and works optimally when the secretions are liquid enough to cover the tissues.
Simply put, the less slimy the nasal secretions are, the easier it is for pathogens to invade.
Drying up the nasal cavity and the mouth reduces barrier protection as well as IgA protection.
The reduction in barrier protection is independent of IgA levels (6).
Nigella Sativa: The Botanical of Immunity
Black Seed is a Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern botanical that is used both for culinary purposes and for medicinal purposes.
In eastern traditions, its affinity for enhancing "the breath" earned it the prophetic proverb that it has a cure for everything but death (7).
Though the proverb appears to be a bit hyperbolic, the point of view of evidence-based medicine on Black Seed may be even more shocking.
A quick search for scientific evidence demonstrating the health tonifying properties of Black Seed reveals properties that are almost too hard to believe.
Verified with lab studies, in silico (computer model) trials, animal studies and clinical trials, the following are a few of Black seed's effects on the body:
Tonify white blood cell count
Tonify cell-mediated immunity
Improves pulmonary function tests
Decreases allergic markers
Inhibits histamine release from mast cells
Improves allergy symptoms
Exhibits anti-microbial and anti-viral properties
Improves immune function as an anti-oxidant (7,8)
Nigella sativa: A Lymphatic Antioxidant
It may seem like every plant component being advertised is some form of an anti-oxidant.
While it is true that many plant components are anti-oxidants, not all anti-oxidants have the same affinity or functionality.
Vitamin C, for example, is known to be a highly functional, fast-acting anti-oxidant.
In contrast, beta-carotene is known to be a slower anti-oxidant that has an affinity for deeper tissue anti-oxidation (9).
Black seed, on the other hand, is a potent anti-oxidant with an affinity for the immune system.
One of the most stressful aspects of maintaining immunity is the overload in oxidation.
The immune system is a system that utilizes oxidation as a defence mechanism (10).
The enzyme Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) makes reactive oxygen species to neutralize pathogens.
While the immune system is generally excellent at maintaining balance, some infections can throw off the balance of reactive oxygen species.
High oxidation in the blood is known to decrease immunity (5, 11).
Studies on conditions like Thalassemia and The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) demonstrate the oxidative bystander effect.
The bystander effect is a known phenomenon that addresses the destruction of cells that are only bystanders of a cellular-destructive event.
Thus, in order to destress the body and have the most number of immune cells ready to participate in battle, it may be beneficial to guard the body against the bystander effect (12).
Books can easily be authored about the benefits of Nigella sativa for the body’s system of defence.
For the purposes of the everyday user, it may suffice to say that Black seed has an excellent safety profile.
Black seed may be incorporated as a healthy part of seasonal defence preparation.
As Black seed is a botanical with great effectiveness, it is always advised to use it on a seasonal basis.
Meaning that the use of Black seed oil is only necessary for months at a time.
Ask your naturopath about incorporating Black seed oil in your morning routine for a period of 2-3 months and see if your defences are stronger this change season.
Black seed oil can have an effect that is trackable with a blood test known as The Complete Blood Count (CBC).
Ask your doctor if it is appropriate for your case to have a CBC ordered prior to and after Black seed oil use.
Other markers to track include inflammatory markers like ESR, CRP, and RF.
Do not forget that Black seed oil has platelet lubricating, vasodilating, bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory effects.
All of those effects make Black seed excellent as the anti-oxidant of choice in times of immune stress (7, 8, 11).
Ask your naturopath about using Black seed as soon as you feel any symptoms of cold and flu.
It is advised to utilize aromatic essential oils several times a day for best results.
Remember that moving the Black seed oil around in your throat may help it effectively combat sore throat and cough.
Jianhua Y. Discussion on the Seasonal Regularity of Life: a Theory from The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Medicine [J]. JOURNAL OF BEIJING UNIVERSITY OF TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE. 1998;4.
Rodgers L, Sheppard M, Smith A, Dietz S, Jayanthi P, Yuan Y, Bull L, Wotiz S, Schwarze T, Azondekon R, Hartnett K. Changes in Seasonal Respiratory Illnesses in the United States During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2021 Apr 29.
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Coussens AK. The role of UV radiation and vitamin D in the seasonality and outcomes of infectious disease. Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences. 2017;16(3):314-38.
Smilek DE, Ehlers MR, Nepom GT. Restoring the balance: immunotherapeutic combinations for autoimmune disease. Disease models & mechanisms. 2014 May;7(5):503-13.
Walsh NP, Bishop NC, Blackwell J, Wierzbicki SG, Montague JC. Salivary IgA response to prolonged exercise in a cold environment in trained cyclists. Medicine and Science in sports and Exercise. 2002 Oct 1;34(10):1632-7.
Hussain DA, Hussain MM. Nigella sativa (black seed) is an effective herbal remedy for every disease except death-a Prophetic statement which modern scientists confirm unanimously: a review. Adv Med Plant Res. 2016 Apr;4(2):27-57.
Kooti W, Hasanzadeh-Noohi Z, Sharafi-Ahvazi N, Asadi-Samani M, Ashtary-Larky D. Phytochemistry, pharmacology, and therapeutic uses of black seed (Nigella sativa). Chinese journal of natural medicines. 2016 Oct 1;14(10):732-45.
Niki E, Noguchi N, Tsuchihashi H, Gotoh N. Interaction among vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 1995 Dec 1;62(6):1322S-6S.
El-Gindy Y, Zeweil H, Zahran S, Abd El-Rahman M, Eisa F. Hematologic, lipid profile, immunity, and antioxidant status of growing rabbits fed black seed as natural antioxidants. Tropical animal health and production. 2020 May;52(3):999-1004.
Marikovsky M, Ziv V, Nevo N, Harris-Cerruti C, Mahler O. Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase plays important role in immune response. The Journal of Immunology. 2003 Mar 15;170(6):2993-3001.
Cloyd MW, Chen JJ, Wang L. How does HIV cause AIDS? The homing theory. Molecular medicine today. 2000 Mar 1;6(3):108-11.