A year ago today, we NEVER could have imagined we would still be swimming in the COVID-19 quagmire. Yet here we are, a little more adjusted to masks and distancing and a lot more stir-crazy and wishing it would end. We are totally over COVID-19, but it isn’t over us yet.
After many thousands have been vaccinated in clinical trials, and tens of millions have been vaccinated in real life, we are all feeling a lot more comfortable about COVID vaccine safety.
But let’s be clear. These vaccines are not FDA approved; they are FDA emergency authorized. They have not been fully tested, which can take 10 years at least (see below). They were tested in very large clinical trials (twenty to forty thousand people) and then released for immediate use because of a global emergency.
I was cynical about the vaccines when they were under development. I have seen cases of vaccine injury and medical mistakes. I was wary of a vaccine that was not tested thoroughly and rushed to market too soon. I was concerned that our desperation to escape COVID could cause more harm than good.
However, even to the most scrutinizing integrative and functional medicine practitioners, these vaccines are performing quite well. They are providing protection against severe illness and death. And the side effects are quite low.
The Best COVID Vaccines
- The Pfizer vaccine has 95% efficacy and has been tested on 43,538 people in phase 3.
- The Moderna vaccine has 94% efficacy and has been tested on 30,420 people in phase 3.
COVID Vaccine Side Effects
- Flu-like symptoms
- Local skin reactions
- Bell’s palsy, which is weakness or paralysis of the face that usually goes away (7 cases out of 40,000 who received Pfizer or Moderna vaccines)
- Anaphylaxis (2-11 cases per one million shots), an allergic reaction that can be life-threatening
- Immune thrombocytopenia, bleeding disorder due to low levels of the cells that help with clotting (37 cases out of 31 million vaccinated).
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine data (not peer reviewed) shows 66% efficacy and it has been tested on 43,783 people in phase 3 clinical trial.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has 67% efficacy and has been tested on 23,848 people in phase 3.
Check out this table comparing the vaccines, the ingredients, side effects, and more from The Institute for Functional Medicine.
Reports of Death Very Low
A total of 1,913 people have died after vaccination, as of March 15, 2021. Out of 109 million vaccinations, this comes to 0.0018% reports of death. Of those, many were elderly, frail, and lived in long-term care facilities. Older, sick people may be harmed by these vaccines, but the numbers are very low. It is also possible that the vaccine didn’t cause death, but occurred coincidentally around the time of death. The vaccine safety committee has not changed their vaccination recommendations, even in the elderly.
Normal Vaccine Development
Vaccine development is normally a long process and may take 10-15 years. It includes an exploratory stage and a pre-clinical stage (laboratory, cell, and animal studies). Once it’s ready for use in humans, there are Phase I (a small group of subjects, maybe 20-80), Phase II (several hundred subjects), and Phase III trials. Once a vaccine makes it to Phase III trials, it is given to thousands or tens of thousands of people and studied for two years. They are measuring safety, adverse effects, efficacy, and more. Once it passes Phase III, it is ready for distribution. And safety monitoring continues through Phase IV trials (optional), the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, and the Vaccine Safety Datalink. This is still an important part of monitoring vaccine safety because issues can crop up in certain subgroups of the population, that were not part of the original clinical trials (i.e. the elderly, the sick, the pregnant, etc…). Also, very rare side effects can show up that would only be seen when millions have been given the vaccine.
Vaccines for Kids
Children aren’t part of the COVID vaccine discussion right now. They aren’t being offered the vaccines and their risks are incredibly low from wild type SARS-CoV-2 (non-variant). Hopefully, vaccinating children will be delayed until we have much more long-term safety data.
One of the best arguments I’ve heard for vaccination is that there is no protocol or treatment to date that gives 95% efficacy against COVID. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are pretty good protection with very low risks of side effects, from what we know so far.
What Should I Do to Prepare for the COVID-19 Shot?
Whether you choose to get vaccinated or not is a personal decision. But here’s what you should know if you are waiting to get your vaccine.
Take These Steps to Get the Most Out of Your COVID Vaccine
When you get a vaccine, you are getting a tiny dose of the virus and training your immune system to handle it. We want an optimum immune response to the vaccine so that you will get maximum protection, but no serious side effects.
These are common-sense steps to optimize your health before vaccination. However, they do not take the place of a knowledgeable healthcare provider. Talk with your medical practitioner about your specific health history and what vaccine preparation steps are best for you.
Make sure your body is in tip-top shape by cutting out sugar and packaged foods. Get plenty of vegetables in a rainbow of colors. Make home-cooked meals with vegetables, fruits, and meats. Take a high-quality multivitamin-mineral. Take nutrients that optimize immune health: vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin A.
Make Sure You Are Infection- and Inflammation-free
If you get a cold, fever, feel sick, or if you have a flare-up of a chronic illness, then you need to postpone your COVID shot. Let your body handle one thing at a time. Side effects are more likely if the body is in a weakened state.
Boost Your Microbiome
The gut microbiome and the oral microbiome help fight COVID and boost the immune system. Make sure your microbiome is strong and healthy. Eat a plant-based, fiber-rich, low sugar, whole foods diet. Consider a high-quality probiotic such as CP-1 or TruFlora. A good prebiotic supplement is Biotagen from Klaire Labs.
No Vaccination During Autoimmune Flare-ups
If you have an autoimmune disease, make sure your body is calm and at ease before taking the COVID vaccine. If you are having a flare-up, just wait to get the COVID vaccine until next time and continue isolating. Discuss your options with your integrative and functional doctor. The vaccine is going to increase inflammation and if you are inflamed, it won’t be pretty. Also, it may increase the risk of side effects.
It makes you feel like a million bucks and it will help you respond appropriately to the COVID-19 shot. Get plenty of sleep at least the three days before vaccination so your body is restored, rejuvenated, and ready for action. Sleep promotes a healthy immune system and is one of the best ways to heal.
Lower Your Stress
Easier said than done in this record-breaking stressful global pandemic, but lowering your stress will help your vaccine take effect. Stress is bad for your immune system. Stress lowers your ability to fight infections. It makes it easier for you to get sick. And when you get the COVID shot, you want a good immune system to make the most out of the vaccine. A strong immune response to the vaccine means you get more protection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On the other hand, chronic stress is inflammatory. It puts your immune system in overdrive. The vaccine is going to deliver a dose of inflammation, but you don’t want too much.
Some things you can’t change. But some things you can change to lower your stress. Here are some techniques to lower stress. My favorite is mindful meditation. Even five minutes a day can bring inner peace, regardless of the hustle bustle of daily life.
Having too much estrogen or testosterone can affect the vaccine’s performance in your body. If you are already working with an integrative practitioner, continue to improve hormone balance by testing, treating, eating a healthy diet, and supporting hormone detoxification.
Pause on Pain Relievers
It’s ideal to avoid pain relievers two days before you get your COVID shot, if possible. Pain relievers (Advil, Motrin, Tylenol) taken before vaccination can dampen your immune system. A healthy immune response to the vaccine means you are better protected. Consult with your doctor if this isn’t easy for you to do.
Pause on Anti-inflammatory Supplements
If you are taking herbs or supplements to lower inflammation, decrease them two days before and after the vaccine. A good inflammation response is needed to get the most out of your COVID shot. Examples are curcumin, bromelain, resveratrol, sulforaphane, Boswellia and possibly omega-3 fatty acids. Discuss this with your healthcare provider.
Stay Safe Even After Vaccination
Even after you’re vaccinated, remember, it’s not time to burn the masks and go party hardy! There’s still a small chance you can get the virus. Hopefully you can’t spread it, but we don’t know for sure. We don’t know if the COVID vaccine can really protect from the SARS-CoV-2 variants. Moderna and Pfizer may be the best vaccine options for now. They have been tested in tens of thousands of people in phase 3 trials and have been given to millions of people in practice. Side effects are possible but rare. Tune up your nutrition, microbiome, hormones, sleep, and stress to get the most out of your vaccine. If you get sick or have an illness flare-up, reschedule your vaccination for another time and continue isolating.
This information came from Dr. Joel Evans’ presentation in The Institute for Functional Medicine’s “COVID-19 Vaccines: Current Evidence and Clinical Considerations,” Dr. Heather Zwickey, and Dr. Bethany Hayes (private communications).
Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS, is a researcher, author, educator, and laboratory consultant. She studied medicinal plants in the rain forests of Panama as a Fulbright Scholar and then launched a career in science and natural medicine. Early on, she studied ethnobotany, ethnopharmacology, and drug discovery at the University of Georgia and AptoTec, Inc. She joined innovators at Metametrix Clinical Laboratory as a medical education consultant helping clinicians use integrative and functional laboratory results in clinical practice. She owns Health First Consulting, LLC, a medical communications company with the mission to improve human health using the written word. Ms. Nelson-Dooley is an oral microbiome expert and author of Heal Your Oral Microbiome. She was a contributing author in Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine and Case Studies in Integrative and Functional Medicine. She has published case studies, book chapters, and journal articles about the oral microbiome, natural medicine, nutrition, laboratory testing, obesity, and osteoporosis.