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Scientists from the Michigan State University discovered that a common substance added to food can aggravate flu symptoms.
The substance is called tert-butylhydroquinone [tert-BYOO-til-HAHY-droh-kwi-NOHN] (TBHQ). It is a preservative usually found in processed food, frozen meat, and cooking oil.
In addition to making the flu worse, TBHQ can lessen the efficacy of flu shots, which are vaccines that strengthen the immune system to fight against the flu. According to the scientists, the findings can explain why the flu remains to be a major cause of death around the world.
To obtain these findings, the scientists conducted an experiment using mice. They gave the animals flu shots and fed them with food containing TBHQ. After some time, the mice exhibited slow recovery from the flu and lost weight.
Findings showed that the mice displayed poor health because TBHQ slowed down two types of cells that work with the immune system in warding off diseases. The first type, called the “helper T cells,” prompts other cells to fight viruses that have entered the body. The second type, known as the “killer T cells,” actively identifies infected cells and destroys them.
How TBHQ exactly triggers flu symptoms is still unknown. Nevertheless, the scientists speculate that the substance stimulates proteins inside the body that suppress the helper and killer T cells.
Robert Freeborn, one of the scientists, said that it is difficult to tell if one is consuming TBHQ as the substance is not always indicated on ingredient lists. Because of this, Freeborn advises people to limit their exposure to TBHQ by making better food choices, such as adopting a low-fat diet and eating less processed food.