Should Cancer Patients Take Supplements?

Does Supplementation Interfere With Cancer Treatment?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SupplementationSupplementation for cancer patients is a controversial topic.

  • Dr. Strangelove and his friends promote a variety of herbal ingredients, vitamins, and minerals as a cure for various kinds of cancer.
  • Unscrupulous supplement companies hype their cancer “cures”.
  • Doctors often tell their patients to avoid all supplements while they are being treated for cancer.
  • Nutrition experts and some doctors tell us that a good diet and basic supplementation help normal cells recover from cancer treatment and improve patient outcomes.

Where is the truth? For this article I will break it down into three questions:

1) Does supplementation improve outcomes for cancer patients? That is the topic of the study (AL Shaver et al, Cancers, 13: 6276, 2021) I will review today.

2) Does supplementation interfere with cancer treatment? I will provide a perspective and practical advice on this question based on my 40 years of cancer research.

3) Does supplementation prevent (reduce the risk of) cancer? I have covered this topic in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Just put cancer or breast cancer in the search box to find the relevant articles.

But before I answer these questions, I should cover my favorite topic as a Biochemist, “Metabolism 101”. Specifically, “Does Stress Increase Our Need For Supplementation?”

Metabolism 101: Does Stress Increase Our Need For Supplementation? 

professor owlLet me start out by saying that there are two kinds of stress.

  • Psychological stress is our body’s response to a hectic day or a stressful work environment.
  • Metabolic stress is our body’s response to trauma or a major disease.

Dr. Strangelove and his buddies will tell you that psychological stress increases your nutritional needs. And they just happen to have the perfect blend of vitamins and minerals for you. However, this is a myth.

Psychological stress has relatively little effect on your nutritional needs. If you have a nutritional deficiency, supplementation can help you cope with psychological stress, but psychological stress doesn’t create nutritional deficiencies.

Metabolic stress, on the other hand, has a major effect on your nutritional needs.

  • Trauma and major diseases put you in a catabolic state. Catabolism literally means “breaking down”. You are breaking down your body tissues at an alarming rate. This affects every aspect of your health, including your immune system.
  • Trauma and major disease also increase your need for certain micronutrients. Plus, there are often loss of appetite and mobility issues that prevent you from getting the nutrients you need.
  • Research in the 60s and 70s showed that providing hospitalized patients with protein, energy in the form of healthy fats and carbohydrates, and micronutrients significantly shortened hospital stays and improved outcomes. Today, nutritional support is the standard of care for severely ill hospital patients.

Cancer is the poster child for metabolic stress.

  • It forces the body into a catabolic state to provide nutrients the cancer needs to grow.
    • That is why cancer patients often experience dramatic weight loss and weakness from muscle loss.
    • Catabolism also weakens the immune system, which is one of the most important tools in our fight against cancer.
  • To make matters worse:
    • Cancer treatment destroys normal cells as well as tumor cells. Because of this cancer patients sometimes die from the treatment, not the cancer.
    • Cancer treatment often causes nausea and/or suppresses appetite, which makes it even harder for cancer patients to get the nutrients they need from their diet.

Because of this, you would think that nutritional support would be the standard of care for cancer patients, but it isn’t. Because of fears that nutritional support might “feed cancer cells” or interfere with chemotherapy, there have been very few studies of supplementation in cancer patients. That is what makes this study so important.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study took advantage of the fact that supplementation is prevalent among cancer patients even though their doctors may not have recommended it.

This study drew on data from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES). NHANES is a yearly survey that monitors the health and nutritional status of non-institutionalized adults in the US population.

NHANES participants were asked to respond to a medical condition questionnaire in their homes by a trained interviewer. In one portion of the interview, they were asked if they had ever been told they had cancer, arthritis, diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or hypertension. The participants were also asked if they had been hospitalized with one of those diseases.

The study consisted of 14 million people who answered ‘yes’ to the question, “Have you ever been told you had a cancer or malignancy?” The participants were selected to give an equal number of supplement users and non-users who were closely matched for age, sex, race, and other demographics.

All NHANES participants were asked to fill in two 24-hour dietary recalls separated by 3-10 days. The dietary recalls included supplement use but did not identify the kind of supplements used.

Finally, participants in the NHANES survey were asked to rate their physical and mental health on a scale from 1 (excellent health) to 5 (poor health). Participants were also asked to indicate on how many days in the past 30 days their physical or mental health was not good. A quality-of-life score was calculated from these data.

Does Supplementation Improve Outcomes For Cancer Patients?

good newsThe study found that for cancer patients:

  • Hospitalization rates were 12% for supplement users versus 21% for non-users.
  • This is important because:
    • Cancer patients who have been hospitalized have 6-fold higher odds of all-cause mortality than those who do not require hospitalization.
    • Health care costs the first year after cancer diagnosis average $60,000 versus an estimated $350-$3,500 yearly cost of supplementation.
  • The self-reported quality of life score was significantly higher for supplement users versus non-users.

This study strongly supports the idea that supplementation significantly improves quality of life and health outcomes in cancer patients.

  • This finding is consistent with previous studies showing that nutrition support significantly improves health outcomes for hospitalized patients admitted with trauma or other major diseases.
    • A major strength of the study is the large sample size (> 14 million US adults).
    • A major limitation of this study is that the NHANES survey does not record which supplements people were using.

The authors concluded, “Adequate nutrition provides a cost-effective strategy to achieving potentially optimal health [for cancer patients]. Further studies are needed to determine the effects of specific nutrient doses and supplementation on long-term outcomes for different kinds of cancer…Given the overall cost-effectiveness of dietary supplementation, there is a need for better provider education about how to talk with cancer survivors about their nutrient status and filling nutrient gaps through both food and supplements. Immune-supportive supplementation may prove to be a clinically effective and important tool that is accessible via telemedicine.”

Does Supplementation Interfere With Cancer Treatment?

Question MarkThe reason that supplementation is not more widely recommended for cancer patients is two-fold.

1) There is a fear among many doctors that improved nutrition will feed the cancer cells and promote tumor growth.

    • This thinking is like the famous quote from a general during the Vietnamese war that, “It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it [from the Viet Cong]”.
    • We need healthy normal cells to fight the cancer and for good quality of life while we are fighting the cancer. We need to protect these cells while we are destroying the cancer cells. We cannot afford to destroy the whole “village”.
    • For example, both cancer treatment and the catabolism associated with the cancer weaken the immune system, and a strong immune system is essential to successfully fight the cancer.

2) There is also a fear that supplementation will interfere with cancer treatment. This is a more legitimate fear and deserves a more in-depth analysis.

    • There are some instances where supplementation can clearly interfere with treatment. For example,
      • Radiation treatment relies on the production of free radicals. High-dose antioxidants have been shown to interfere with radiation treatment.
      • Some drugs act by suppressing folate levels in cells. High-dose B complex or folic acid supplements would clearly interfere with these drugs. However, high-dose folic acid supplementation is often used before and after drug treatment to “rescue” normal cells.
    • There are other cases where supplementation is likely to interfere with treatment.
      • A few drugs depend in part on free radical formation. High-dose antioxidants have the potential to interfere with these drugs.
      • Some herbal supplements activate enzymes involved in the metabolism of certain anti-cancer drugs. While these interactions are rare, they could interfere with the effectiveness of these drugs. [Note: This concern only applies to certain herbal supplements. It does not apply to vitamin-mineral supplements.]
    • Most other fears about supplement-drug interactions are theoretical. There are neither potential mechanisms nor evidence to support those fears.

However, there is a strategy for minimizing the potential for supplement-drug interactions based on the science of pharmacokinetics. Simply put:

  • Most cases of supplement-drug interactions can be avoided by assuring that high doses of anti-cancer drugs and nutrients that might interfere with those drugs are not present in the bloodstream at the same time.
  • Pharmocokinetic studies tell us that most anticancer drugs and nutrients are cleared from the bloodstream in 24-48 hours.
  • So, my standard recommendation is to avoid supplementation for a day or two prior to cancer treatment and wait to resume supplementation for a day or two after cancer treatment. This recommendation does not apply to radiation treatment since it is done on a daily basis.

However, there are a few drugs that are cleared from the bloodstream more slowly, so it is always best to check with your pharmacist or doctor before deciding on the appropriate window to avoid supplementation. The goal is always to protect normal cells without interfering with the drug’s ability to kill cancer cells.

Should Cancer Patients Take Supplements?

SupplementationWith the information I have shared above in mind, I am now ready to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article, “Should cancer patients take supplements?” The answer is a qualified, “Yes”.

Let me start with the yes, and then talk about the qualifications.

  • This study makes clear that cancer is like every other major disease that can land you in the hospital. Nutritional support, including protein supplements, vitamins, and minerals, can reduce your risk of hospitalization, get you out of the hospital quicker, and improve your quality of life.
  • A strong immune system is important for fighting cancer, so immune-supporting supplements may also be important for cancer patients.
  • Note I did not say that supplementation can cure cancer. There is little evidence to support that claim.
  • The role of supplementation in preventing cancer is complex. I have covered this in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Let me summarize by saying that supplementation can play a role in preventing cancer when nutrient levels are suboptimal. However, the evidence that megadoses of nutrients can prevent cancer is scant.

The qualifications mostly revolve around taking supplements while undergoing cancer treatment. To summarize what I said above:

  • There are a few cases in which supplements clearly interfere with cancer treatment.
  • There are other cases in which supplements are likely to interfere with cancer treatment.
  • However, in most cases supplement-treatment interactions are only theoretical.
  • In most cases any interaction between supplements and anti-cancer drugs can be minimized by avoiding supplementation for a day or two prior to cancer treatment and waiting to resume supplementation for a day or two after cancer treatment.
  • However, there are exceptions to this rule, so it is always best to consult your pharmacist or doctor if in doubt.

The Bottom Line

A recent study looked at the effect of supplementation for patients with cancer. The study found that for cancer patients:

  • Hospitalization rates were 12% for supplement users versus 21% for non-users.
  • This is important because:
    • Cancer patients who have been hospitalized have 6-fold higher odds of all-cause mortality than those who do not require hospitalization.
    • Health care costs the first year after cancer diagnosis average $60,000 versus an estimated $350-$3,500 yearly cost of supplementation.
  • The self-reported quality of life was significantly higher for supplement users versus non-users.

This study strongly supports the idea that supplementation significantly improves quality of life and health outcomes in cancer patients.

  • This finding is consistent with previous studies showing that nutrition support significantly improves health outcomes for hospitalized patients admitted with trauma or other major diseases.

The authors concluded, “Adequate nutrition provides a cost-effective strategy to achieving potentially optimal health [for cancer patients]. Further studies are needed to determine the effects of specific nutrient doses and supplementation on long-term outcomes for different kinds of cancer…Given the overall cost-effectiveness of dietary supplementation, there is a need for better provider education about how to talk with cancer survivors about their nutrient status and filling nutrient gaps through both food and supplements. Immune-supportive supplementation may prove to be a clinically effective and important tool that is accessible via telemedicine.”

For more details, a discussion on the effect of supplementation on cancer treatment, and a summary of what this study means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Who Benefits Most From Supplementation?

Supplements Are Part of a Holistic Lifestyle

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

need for supplementsThe headlines about supplementation are so confusing. Are they useful, or are they a waste of money? Will they cure you, or will they kill you? I feel your pain.

I have covered these questions in depth in my book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, but let me give you a quick overview today. I call it: “Who Benefits Most From Supplementation?” I created the graphic on the left to illustrate why I feel responsible supplementation is an important part of a holistic lifestyle for most Americans. Let me give you specific examples for each of these categories.

 

Examples of Poor Diet

No Fast FoodYou have heard the saying that supplementation fills in the nutritional gaps in our diets, so what are the nutritional gaps? According to the USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, many Americans are consuming too much fast and convenience foods. Consequently, we are getting inadequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, D, E and C. Iron is considered a nutrient of concern for young children and pregnant women. In addition, folic acid, vitamin B6, and iodine are nutrients of concern for adolescent girls and pregnant women.

According to a recent study, regular use of a multivitamin is sufficient to eliminate all these deficiencies except for calcium, magnesium and vitamin D (J.B. Blumberg et al, Nutrients, 9(8): doi: 10.3390/nu9080849, 2017). A well-designed calcium, magnesium and vitamin D supplement may be needed to eliminate those deficiencies.

In addition, intake of omega-3 fatty acids from foods appears to be inadequate in this country. Recent studies have found that American’s blood levels of omega-3s are among the lowest in the world and only half of the recommended level for reducing the risk of heart disease (K.D. Stark et al, Progress In Lipid Research, 63: 132-152, 2016; S.V. Thuppal et al, Nutrients, 9, 930, 2017; M Thompson et al, Nutrients, 11: 177, 2019). Therefore, omega-3 supplementation is often a good idea.

In previous editions of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have talked about our “mighty microbiome”, the bacteria and other microorganisms in our intestine. These intestinal bacteria can affect our tendency to gain weight, our immune system, inflammatory diseases, chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases, our mood—the list goes on and on. This is an emerging science. We are learning more every day, but for now it appears our best chances for creating a health-enhancing microbiome are to consume a primarily plant-based diet and take a probiotic supplement.

Finally, diets that eliminate whole food groups create nutritional deficiencies. For example, vegan diets increase the risk of deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and long chain omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study reported that the Paleo diet increased the risk of calcium, magnesium, iodine, thiamin, riboflavin, folate and vitamin D deficiency (A. Genomi et al, Nutrients, 8, 314, 2016). The Keto diet is even more restrictive and is likely to create additional deficiencies.

Examples of Increased Need

pregnant women taking omega-3We have known for years that pregnancy and lactation increase nutritional requirements. In addition, seniors have increased needs for protein, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have also shared recent studies showing that protein requirements are increased with exercise.

Common medications also increase our need for specific nutrients. For example, seizure medications can increase your need for vitamin D and calcium. Drugs to treat diabetes and acid reflux can increase your need for vitamin B12. Other drugs increase your need for vitamin B6, folic acid, and vitamin K. Excess alcohol consumption increases your need for thiamin, folic acid, and vitamin B6. These are just a few examples.

Vitamin D is a special case. Many people with apparently adequate intake of vitamin D have low blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. It is a good idea to have your blood 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels measured on an annual basis and supplement with vitamin D if they are low.

More worrisome is the fact that we live in an increasing polluted world and some of these pollutants may increase our needs for certain nutrients. For example, in a recent edition of “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study reporting that exposure to pesticides during pregnancy increases the risk of giving birth to children who will develop autism, and that supplementation with folic acid during pregnancy reduces the effect of pesticides on autism risk. I do wish to acknowledge that this is a developing area of research. This and similar studies require confirmation. It is, however, a reminder that there may be factors beyond our control that have the potential to increase our nutritional needs.

Examples of Genetics Influencing Nutritional Needs

nutrigenomicsThe effect of genetic variation on nutritional needs is known as nutrigenomics. One of the best-known examples of nutrigenomics is genetic variation in the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene.  MTHFR gene mutations increase the risk of certain birth defects, such as neural tube defects. MTHFR mutations also slightly increase the requirement for folic acid. A combination of food fortification and supplementation with folic acid have substantially decreased the prevalence of neural tube defects in the US population. This is one of the great success stories of nutrigenomics. Parenthetically, there is no evidence that methylfolate is needed to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in women with MTHFR mutations.

Let me give you a couple of additional examples:

One of them has to do with vitamin E and heart disease (A.P. Levy et al, Diabetes Care, 27: 2767, 2004). Like a lot of other studies there was no significant effect of vitamin E on cardiovascular risk in the general population. But there is a genetic variation in the haptoglobin gene that influences cardiovascular risk. The haptoglobin 2-2 genotype increases oxidative damage to the arterial wall, which significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. When the authors of this study looked at the effect of vitamin E in people with this genotype, they found that it significantly decreased heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths.

This has been confirmed by a second study specifically designed to look at vitamin E supplementation in that population group (F. Micheletta et al, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, 24: 136, 2008). This is an example of a high-risk group benefiting from supplementation, but in this case the high risk is based on genetic variation.

Let’s look at soy and heart disease as a final example. There was a study called the ISOHEART study (W.L. Hall et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82: 1260-1268, 2005 (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/6/1260.abstract); W.L. Hall et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83: 592-600, 2006) that looked at a genetic variation in the estrogen receptor which increases inflammation and decreases levels of HDL. As you might expect, this genotype significantly increases cardiovascular risk.

Soy isoflavones significantly decrease inflammation and increase HDL levels in this population group. But they have no effect on inflammation or HDL levels in people with other genotypes affecting the estrogen reception. So, it turns out that soy has beneficial effects, but only in the population that’s at greatest risk of cardiovascular disease, and that increased risk is based on genetic variation.

These examples are just the “tip of the iceberg”. Nutrigenomics is an emerging science. New examples of genetic variations that affect the need for specific nutrients are being reported on a regular basis. We are not ready to start genotyping people yet. We don’t yet know enough to design a simple genetic test to predict our unique nutritional needs. That science is 10-20 years in the future, but this is something that’s coming down the road.

What the current studies tell us is that some people are high-risk because of their genetic makeup, and these are people for whom supplementation is going to make a significant difference. However, because genetic testing is not yet routine, most people are completely unaware that they might be at increased risk of disease or have increased nutritional requirements because of their genetic makeup.

Examples of Disease Influencing Nutritional Needs

Finally, let’s consider the effect of disease on our nutritional needs. If you look at the popular literature, much has been written about the effect of stress on our nutritional needs. In most case, the authors are referring to psychological stress. In fact, psychological stress has relatively minor effect on our nutritional needs.

Metabolic stress, on the other hand, has major effects on our nutritional needs. Metabolic stress occurs when our body is struggling to overcome disease, recover from surgery, or recover from trauma. When your body is under metabolic stress, it is important to make sure your nutritional status is optimal.

The effects of surgery and trauma on nutritional needs are well documented. In my book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, I discussed the effects of disease on nutritional needs in some detail. Let me give you a brief overview here. It is very difficult to show beneficial effects of supplementation in a healthy population (primary prevention). However, when you look at populations that already have a disease, or are at high risk for disease, (secondary prevention), the benefits of supplementation are often evident.

For example, studies suggest that vitamin E, B vitamins, and omega-3s each may reduce heart disease risk, but only in high-risk populations. Similarly, B vitamins (folic acid, B6 and B12) appear to reduce breast cancer risk in high risk populations.

Who Benefits Most From Supplementation?

Question MarkWith this information in mind, let’s return to the question: “Who benefits most from supplementation? Here is my perspective.

1) The need for supplementation is greatest when these circles overlap, as they do for most Americans.

2) The problem is that while most of us are aware that our diets are not what they should be, we are unaware of our increased needs and/or genetic predisposition. We are also often unaware that we are at high risk of disease. For too many Americans the first indication they have heart disease is sudden death, the first indication of high blood pressure is a stroke, or the first indication of cancer is a diagnosis of stage 3 or 4 cancer.

So, let’s step back and view the whole picture. The overlapping circles are drawn that way to make a point. A poor diet doesn’t necessarily mean you have to supplement. However, when a poor diet overlaps with increased need, genetic predisposition, disease, or metabolic stress, supplementation is likely to be beneficial. The more overlapping circles you have, the greater the likely benefit you will derive from supplementation.

That is why I feel supplementation should be included along with diet, exercise, and weight control as part of a holistic approach to better health.

The Bottom Line

In this article I provide a perspective on who benefits most from supplementation and why. There are four reasons to supplement.

  1. Fill Nutritional gaps in our diet

2) Meet increased nutritional needs due to pregnancy, lactation, age, exercise, many common medications, and environmental pollutants.

3) Compensate for genetic variations that affect nutritional needs.

4) Overcome needs imposed by metabolic stress due to trauma, surgery, or disease.

With this information in mind, let’s return to the question: “Who benefits most from supplementation? Here is my perspective.

  1. A poor diet alone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to supplement. However, when a poor diet overlaps with increased need, genetic predisposition, or metabolic stress, supplementation is likely to be beneficial. The more overlap you have, the greater the likely benefit you will derive from supplementation.

2) The problem is that while most of us are aware that our diets are not what they should be, we are unaware of our increased needs and/or genetic predisposition. We are also often unaware that we are at high risk of disease. For too many Americans the first indication they have heart disease is sudden death, the first indication of high blood pressure is a stroke, or the first indication of cancer is a diagnosis of stage 3 or 4 cancer.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Can Vegans Have Strong Bones?

When Is Supplementation Important? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy BoneWhole food, vegan diets are incredibly healthy.

  • They have a low caloric density, which can help you maintain a healthy weight.
  • They are anti-inflammatory, which can help prevent all the “itis” diseases.
  • They are associated with reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
  • Plus a recent study has shown that vegans age 60 and older require 58% fewer medications than people consuming non-vegetarian diets.

But vegan diets are incomplete, and as I have said previously, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. Vegan diets tend to be low in several important nutrients, but for the purposes of this article I will focus on calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D is a particular problem for vegans because mushrooms are the only plant food that naturally contain vitamin D, and the vitamin D found in mushrooms is in the less potent D2 form.

Calcium and vitamin D are essential for strong bones, so it is not surprising that vegans tend to have less dense bones than non-vegans. But are these differences significant? Are vegans more likely to have broken bones than non-vegans?

That is the question the current study (DL Thorpe et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 114: 488-495, 2021) was designed to answer. The study also asked whether supplementation with calcium and vitamin D was sufficient to reduce the risk of bone fracture in vegans.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the Adventist Health Study-2. This is a study of ~96,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America who were recruited into the study between 2002 and 2007 and followed for up to 15 years.

Seventh-day Adventists are a good group for this kind of study because the Adventist church advocates a vegan diet consisting of legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. However, it allows personal choice, so a significant number of Adventists choose modifications of the vegan diet and 42% of them eat a nonvegetarian diet.

This diversity allows studies of the Adventist population to not only compare a vegan diet to a nonvegetarian diet, but also to compare it with the various forms of vegetarian diets.

This study was designed to determine whether vegans had a higher risk of hip fractures than non-vegan Adventists. It was performed with a sub-population of the original study group who were over 45 years old at the time of enrollment and who were white, non-Hispanic. The decision to focus on the white non-Hispanic group was made because this is the group with the highest risk of hip fractures after age 45.

At enrollment into the study all participants completed a comprehensive lifestyle questionnaire which included a detail food frequency questionnaire. Based on the food frequency questionnaire participants were divided into 5 dietary patterns.

  • Vegans (consume only a plant-based diet).
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian (include dairy and eggs in their diet).
  • Pesco-vegetarians (include fish as well as dairy and eggs in their diet).
  • Semi-vegetarians (include fish and some non-fish meat (primarily poultry) as well as dairy and eggs in their diet).
  • Non-vegetarians (include all meats, dairy, and eggs in their diet). Their diet included 58% plant protein, which is much higher than the typical American diet, but much less than the 96% plant protein consumed by vegans.

Every two years the participants were mailed follow-up questionnaires that included the question, “Have you had any fractures (broken bones) of the wrist or hip after 2001? Include only those that came from a fall or minor accident.”

Can Vegans Have Strong Bones?

Unhealthy BoneThe results of this study were striking.

  • When men and women were considered together there was an increasing risk of hip fracture with increasing plant-based diet patterns. But the differences were not statistically significant.
  • However, the effect of diet pattern on the risk of hip fractures was strongly influenced by gender.
    • For men there was no association between diet pattern and risk of hip fractures.
    • For women there was an increased risk of hip fractures across the diet continuum from nonvegetarians to vegans, with vegan women having a 55% higher risk of hip fracture than nonvegetarian women.
  • The increased risk of hip fractures in vegan women did not appear to be due to other lifestyle differences between vegan women and nonvegetarian women. For example:
    • Vegan women were almost twice as likely to walk more than 5 miles/week than nonvegetarian women.
    • Vegan women consumed more vitamin C and magnesium, which are also important for strong bones, than nonvegetarian women.
    • Vegan women got the same amount of daily sun exposure as nonvegetarian women.
  • The effect of diet pattern on the risk of hip fractures was also strongly influenced by supplementation with Calcium Supplementcalcium and vitamin D.
    • Vegan women who did not supplement with calcium and vitamin D had a 3-fold higher risk of hip fracture than nonvegetarian women who did not supplement.
    • Vegan women who supplemented with calcium and vitamin D (660 mg/day of calcium and 13.5 mcg/day of vitamin D on average) had no increased risk of hip fracture compared to nonvegetarian women who supplemented with calcium and vitamin D.
  • In interpreting this study there are a few things we should note.
    • The authors attributed the lack of an effect of a vegan diet on hip fracture risk in men to anatomical and hormonal differences that result in higher bone density for males.
    • In addition, because the average age of onset of osteoporosis is 15 years later for men than for women, this study may not have been adequately designed to measure the effect of a vegan diet on hip fracture in men. Ideally, the study should have enrolled participants who were at least 60 or older if it wished to detect an effect of diet on hip fractures in men.
    • Finally, because the study enrolled only white, non-Hispanic women into the study, it does not tell us the effect of a vegan diet on women of other ethnicities. Once again, if there is an effect, it would likely occur at an older age than for white, non-Hispanic women.

The authors concluded, “Without combined supplementation of both vitamin D and calcium, female vegans are at high risk of hip fracture. However, with supplementation the excessive risk associated with vegans disappeared.”

Simply put, vegan diets are very healthy. They reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers, and inflammatory diseases.

However, the bad news is:

  • Vegan women have a lower intake of both calcium and vitamin D than nonvegetarian women.
  • Vegan women have lower bone density than nonvegetarian women.
  • Vegan women have a higher risk of hip fracture than nonvegetarian women.

The good news is:

  • Supplement with calcium and vitamin D eliminates the increased risk of hip fracture for vegan women compared to nonvegetarian women.

When Is Supplementation Important?

Supplementation PerspectiveMuch of the controversy about supplementation comes from a “one size fits all” mentality. Supplement proponents are constantly proclaiming that everyone needs nutrient “X”. And scientists are constantly proving that everyone doesn’t need nutrient “X”. No wonder you are confused.

I believe in a more holistic approach for determining whether certain supplements are right for you. Dietary insufficiencies, increased need, genetic predisposition, and diseases all affect your need for supplementation, as illustrated in the diagram on your left. I have discussed this approach in more detail in a previous issue (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/do-you-need-supplements/) of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

But today I will just focus on dietary insufficiencies.

  • Most Americans consume too much highly processed fast and convenience foods. According to the USDA, we are often getting inadequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, D, E and C. Iron is also considered a nutrient of concern for young children and pregnant women.
  • According to a recent study, regular use of a multivitamin is sufficient to eliminate most these deficiencies except for calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. A well-designed calcium, magnesium and vitamin D supplement may be needed to eliminate those deficiencies.
  • In addition, intake of omega-3 fatty acids from foods appears to be inadequate in this country. Recent studies have found that American’s blood levels of omega-3s are among the lowest in the world and only half of the recommended level for reducing the risk of heart disease. Therefore, omega-3 supplementation is often a good idea.

Ironically, “healthy” diets are not much better when it comes to dietary insufficiencies. That is because many of these diets eliminate one or more food groups. And, as I have said previously, we have 5 food groups for a reason.

Take the vegan diet, for example:

  • There is excellent evidence that whole food, vegan diets reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and some cancers. It qualifies as an incredibly healthy diet.
  • However, vegan diets exclude dairy and meats. They are often low in protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and long chain omega-3 fatty acids. Supplementation with these nutrients is a good idea for people following a vegan diet.
  • The study described above goes one step further. It shows that supplementation with calcium and vitamin D may be essential for reducing the risk of hip fractures in vegan women.

There are other popular diets like Paleo and keto which claim to be healthy even though there are no long-term studies to back up that claim.

  • However, those diets are also incomplete. They exclude fruits, some vegetables, grains, and most plant protein sources.
  • A recent study reported that the Paleo diet increased the risk of calcium, magnesium, iodine, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, and vitamin D deficiency. The keto diet is even more restrictive and is likely to create additional deficiencies.
  • And it is not just nutrient deficiencies that are of concern when you eliminate plant food groups. Plants also provide a variety of phytonutrients that are important for optimal health and fiber that supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.

In short, the typical American diet has nutrient insufficiencies. “Healthy” diets that eliminate food groups also create nutrient insufficiencies. Supplementation can fill those gaps.

The Bottom Line

Vegan diets are incredibly healthy, but:

  • They eliminate two food groups – dairy, and meat protein.
  • They have lower calcium and vitamin D intake than nonvegetarians.
  • They also have lower bone density than nonvegetarians.

The study described in this article was designed to determine whether vegans also had a higher risk of bone fractures. It found:

  • Vegan women who don’t supplement have a 3-fold higher risk of hip fracture than nonvegetarian women.
  • The increased risk of hip fractures in vegan women did not appear to be due to other lifestyle differences between vegan women and nonvegetarian women.
  • Supplementation with calcium and vitamin D (660 mg/day of calcium and 13.5 mcg/day of vitamin D on average) eliminated the difference in risk of hip fracture between vegan women and nonvegetarian women.

In the article above I discuss the importance of supplementation in assuring diets are nutritionally complete.

  • In short, the typical American diet has nutrient insufficiencies. “Healthy” diets that eliminate food groups also create nutrient insufficiencies. Supplementation can fill those gaps.

For more details about the study and a discussion of which supplements may be needed to assure nutritionally adequate diets, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Is DNA Testing Valuable?

What Is The True Value Of DNA Tests? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Genetic TestingDNA testing is hot! DNA testing companies claim they can tell you your disease risk and personalize your diet and supplement program – all based on the sequence of your DNA.

On the other hand, most reputable medical sources say these DNA testing companies overpromise and underdeliver. They tell you that diet, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations based only on your DNA sequence are often inaccurate.

So, what should you believe? At this point you are probably wondering:

  • Is DNA testing valuable or is it a waste of money?
  • Is there a way to make DNA testing more accurate?
  • What is the true value of DNA testing to you, the consumer?

I will consider these 3 questions in my article below. But first let me share two stories about DNA testing, one true and the other fictional.

Perspectives on DNA Testing

When the human genome was first sequenced in 2003, it took 13 years and cost millions of dollars. That was an nutrigenomicsexciting time. Many of us in the scientific community thought we were on the verge of a revolution in human health and longevity. We would soon be able to tell individuals their risk of developing various diseases.

Even better, we would be able to tell them the kind of diet and supplementation they needed to avoid those diseases. We would be able to personalize our nutritional recommendation for every individual based on their genome – something we called nutrigenomics.

How naive we were! It has turned out to be much more complicated to design personalized nutrition recommendations based on someone’s genome than we ever imagined.

Today an analysis of your genome requires hours and costs less than $200. That represents a tremendous advance in technology. However, we are no closer to being able to make personal nutrition recommendations based on our DNA sequence today than we were 18 years ago.

Why is that? Let me share a fictional story because it provides a clue. In 1997, when I was still a relatively young scientist, I saw a film called GAATACA. [If you are looking for an entertaining film to watch, it is still available on some streaming services.]

This film envisioned a future society in which parents had their sperm and eggs sequenced so that their children would be genetically perfect. In that society the term “love child” had been redefined as a child who had been conceived without prior DNA sequencing.

The hero of this film was, of course, a love child. He was born with a genetic predisposition for heart disease. He was considered inferior, a second-class citizen of this future world.

Without giving away the plot of the film (I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment for you if you are thinking of watching it), he overcame his genetic inferiority. With a strict regimen of diet and physical fitness he became stronger and healthier than many of his genetically perfect peers.

This is when I first began to realize that our DNA does not have to be our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.

You might be wondering, “How can this be? Why doesn’t our DNA determine our destiny” I will answer that question in two parts.

  • First, I will share what experts say about the value of DNA testing.
  • Then I will put on my professor hat and discuss “Genetics 101 – What we didn’t know in 2003” (When the genome was first sequenced).

Is DNA Testing Valuable?

SkepticAs I said above, most scientists are skeptical about the ability of DNA testing to predict our ideal diet and supplementation regimens. For example, here are two recent reviews on the current status of DNA testing. [Note: These scientists are using “science speak”. Don’t worry if you don’t understand all the terms. I will explain their message in simpler terms in the next section.]

One review (C Murgia and MM Adamski, Nutrients, 366, 2017) published in 2017 concluded: “The potential applications to nutrition of this invaluable tool [DNA sequencing] were apparent since the genome was mapped…However, fifteen years and hundreds of publications later, the gap between genome mapping and health practice is not yet closed.”

“The discovery of other levels of control, including epigenetics [modifications of DNA that affect gene expression] and the intestinal microbiome complicate the interpretation of genetic data. While the science of nutritional genomics remains promising, the complex nature of gene, nutrition and health interactions provides a challenge for healthcare professionals to analyze, interpret and apply to patient recommendations.”

Another review (M Gaussch-Ferre et al, Advances in Nutrition, 9: 128-135, 2018) published in 2018 concluded: “Overall, the scientific evidence supporting the dissemination of genomic information for nutrigenomic purposes [predicting ideal diet and supplement regimens] remains sparse. Therefore, additional knowledge needs to be generated…”

In short, the experts are saying we still don’t know enough to predict the best diet or the best supplements based on genetic information alone.

Genetics 101 – What We Didn’t Know In 2003

GeneticistIn simple terms the experts who published those reviews are both saying that the linkage between our DNA sequence and either diet or supplementation is much more complex than we thought in 2003 when the genome was first sequenced.

That is because our understanding of genetics has been transformed by two new areas of research, epigenetics and our microbiome. Let me explain.

  1. Epigenetics has an important influence on gene expression. When I was a graduate student, we believed our genetic destiny was solely determined by our DNA sequence. That was still the prevailing viewpoint when the human genome project was initiated. As I said above, we thought that once we had our complete DNA sequence, we would know everything we needed to know about our genetic destiny.

It turns out that our DNA can be modified in multiple ways. These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but they can have major effects on gene expression. They can turn genes on or turn them off. More importantly, we have come to learn that these DNA modifications can be influenced by our diet and lifestyle.

This is the science we call epigenetics. We have gone from believing we have a genome (DNA sequence) that is invariant and controls our genetic destiny to understanding that we also have an “epigenome” (modifications to our DNA) that is strongly influenced by our diet and lifestyle and can change day-to-day.

2) Our microbiome also has an important influence on our health and nutritional status. microbiomeSimply put, the term microbiome refers to our intestinal microbes. Our intestinal bacteria are incredibly diverse. Each of us has about 1,000 distinct species of bacteria in our intestines. 

Current evidence suggests these intestinal bacteria influence our immune system, inflammation and auto-immune diseases, brain function and mood, and our predisposition to gain weight – and this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

More importantly, our microbiome is also influenced by our diet and lifestyle, and environment. For example, vegetarians and meat eaters have entirely different microbiomes.

Furthermore, the effect of diet and lifestyle on our microbiome also changes day to day. If you change your diet, the species of bacteria in your microbiome will completely change in a few days.

If you are wondering how that could be, let me [over]simplify it for you:

    • What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food.
    • Different gut bacteria thrive on different kinds of fiber.
    • Different plant foods provide different kinds of fiber.
    • Whenever we change the amount or type of fiber in our diet, some gut bacteria will thrive, and others will starve.
    • Bacteria grow and die very rapidly. Thus, the species of bacteria that thrive on a particular diet quickly become the predominant species in our gut.
    • And when we change our diet, those gut bacteria will die off and other species will predominate.

Finally, our microbiome also influences our nutritional requirements. For example, some species of intestinal bacteria are the major source of biotin and vitamin K2 for all of us and the major source of vitamin B12 for vegans. Other intestinal bacteria inactivate and/or remove some vitamins from the intestine for their own use. Thus, the species of bacteria that populate our intestines can influence our nutritional requirements.

Now that you know the complexity of gene interactions you understand why we are not ready to rely on DNA tests alone. That science is at least 10-20 years in the future. Companies that tell you otherwise are lying to you.

What Is The True Value Of DNA Tests? 

The TruthBy now you are probably thinking that my message is that DNA tests are worthless. Actually, my message is a bit different. What I, and most experts, are saying is that DNA tests are of little value by themselves.

To understand the true value of DNA tests, let me start with defining a couple of terms you may vaguely remember from high school biology – genotype and phenotype.

  • Genotype is your genes.
  • Phenotype is you – your health, your weight, and your nutritional needs. Your phenotype is determined by your genes plus your diet and your lifestyle.

With that in mind, let’s review the take-home messages from earlier sections of this article.

  • The take-home message from the two stories in “Perspectives on DNA Testing” is that our DNA does not have to be our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.
  • The take-home message from “Genetics 101” is that while the genes we inherit do not change, the expression of those genes is controlled in part by:
    • Epigenetic modifications to the DNA. And those epigenetic modifications are controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.
    • Our microbiome (gut bacteria). And our microbiome is controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.

Now we are ready to answer the question, “What is the true value of DNA testing?” There are actually two answers to this question. You have probably guessed the first answer by now, but you will be surprised by the second.

  1. DNA testing can only indicate the potential for obesity, the potential for nutritional deficiencies, and the potential for disease. But whether that potential is realized depends on our diet and lifestyle. Therefore, the true value of DNA testing comes from adding a comprehensive analysis of diet and lifestyle to the DNA test results. That includes:
    • Questionnaires that assess diet, lifestyle, health goals, and health concerns.

For example, your genetics may indicate an increased need for vitamin D. This is a concern if your vitamin D intake is marginal but may not be a concern if you are getting plenty of vitamin D from your diet, supplementation, and sun exposure.

    • Direct measurements of obesity such as height and weight (from which BMI can be calculated) and waist circumference (belly fat is more dangerous to our health than fat stored elsewhere in our body).

For example, most Americans have a genetic predisposition to obesity, but not everyone is obese. If you are overweight or obese, your nutrition and lifestyle recommendations should include approaches to reduce your weight. If not, these recommendations are not needed, even if you have a genetic predisposition to obesity.

    • Blood pressure and blood markers of disease risk (cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar).

For example, you may have genetic predisposition to high blood pressure or high cholesterol. If either of these are high, your recommendations should include nutrition and lifestyle approaches to lower them. However, if you are already keeping them under control through diet and lifestyle, no further changes may be necessary.

2) While the scientific community now knows the limitations of DNA testing, this information has not filtered down to the general public. This brings me to the second value of DNA testing. Several recent studies have shown that people are much more likely to follow recommendations based on DNA testing than recommendations based on dietary questionnaires, blood markers of disease, or even recommendations from their physician.

The Bottom Line

DNA testing is hot! DNA testing companies claim they can tell you your disease risk and personalize your diet and supplement program – all based on the sequence of your DNA.

On the other hand, most reputable medical sources say these DNA testing companies overpromise and underdeliver. They tell you that diet, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations based only on your DNA sequence are often inaccurate. They are of little value if they are only based on DNA testing.

So, what is the true value of DNA testing? To answer that question, we need to know two things:

1) Our DNA is not our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.

2) While the genes we inherit do not change, the expression of these genes is controlled in part by:

    • Epigenetic modifications to the DNA. And those epigenetic modifications are controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.
    • Our microbiome (gut bacteria). And our microbiome is controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.

With this information in mind, we are ready to answer the question, “What is the true value of DNA testing?” The true value of DNA testing is tw0-fold:

1) It comes from adding a comprehensive analysis of diet and lifestyle to the DNA test results. This includes:

    • Questionnaires that assess diet, lifestyle, health goals, and health concerns.
    • Direct measurements of obesity such as height and weight (from which BMI can be calculated) and waist circumference (belly fat is more dangerous to our health than fat stored elsewhere in our body).
    • Blood pressure and blood markers of disease risk (cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar).

2) In addition, several recent studies have shown that people are much more likely to follow recommendations based on DNA testing than recommendations based on dietary questionnaires, blood markers of disease, or even recommendations from their physician.

For more details and explanations of the statements in “The Bottom Line”, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

ArgumentI don’t need to tell you that omega-3s are controversial. Some experts confidently tell you that omega-3s significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and may reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases. Other experts confidently tell you that omega-3s have no effect on heart disease or any other disease. They claim that omega-3 supplements are no better than “snake oil”.

The problem is that each camp of experts can cite published clinical studies to support their claims. How can that be? How can clinical studies come to opposite conclusions on such an important topic? The problem is that it is really difficult to do high quality clinical studies on omega-3s. I will discuss that in the next section.

The question of whether omega-3s affect life span has also been controversial. Heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death in this country. So, if omega-3s actually reduced the risk of heart disease and cancer, you might expect that they would also help us live longer. Once again, there are studies on both sides of this issue, but they are poor quality studies.

We need more high-quality studies to clear up the controversies surrounding the health benefits of omega-3s. I will report on one such study in this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”. But first let me go into more depth about why it is so difficult to do high-quality studies with omega-3 fatty acids.

Clinical Studies 101: Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial?

professor owlI have covered this topic in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but here is a quick summary.

  1. Randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard for evidence-based medicine, but they ill-suited to measure the effect of omega-3s on health outcomes.
    • Heart disease and cancer take decades to develop. Most RCTs are too small and too short to show a meaningful effect of omega-3s on these diseases.
    • To make up for this shortcoming, some recent RCTs have started with older, sicker patients. This way enough patients die during the study that it can measure statistically significant outcomes. However, these patients are already on multiple medications that mimic many of the beneficial effects of omega-3s on heart disease.

These studies are no longer asking whether omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease. They are really asking if omega-3s have any additional benefits for patients who are already taking multiple medications – with all their side effects. I don’t know about you, but that is not the question I am interested in.

    • Until recently, most RCTs did not measure circulating omega-3 levels before and after supplementation, so the investigators had no idea whether omega-3 supplementation increased circulating omega-3 levels by a significant amount.

And for the few studies where omega-3 levels were measured before and after supplementation, it turns out that for many of the participants, their baseline omega-3 levels were too high for omega-3 supplementation to have a meaningful effect. Only participants with low omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study benefited from omega-3 supplementation.Supplementation Perspective

These studies are often quoted as showing omega-3 supplementation doesn’t work. However, they are actually showing the true value of supplementation. Omega-3 supplementation isn’t for everyone. It is for people with poor diet, increased need, genetic predisposition, and/or pre-existing disease not already treated with multiple medications.

2) Prospective cohort studies eliminate many of the shortcomings of RCTs. They can start with a large group of individuals (a cohort) and follow them for many years to see how many of them die or develop a disease during that time (this is the prospective part of a prospective cohort trial). This means they can start with a healthy population that is not on medications.

This also means that these studies can answer the question on most people’s minds, “Are omega-3s associated with reduced risk of dying or developing heart disease?” However, these studies have two limitations.

    • They are association studies. They cannot measure cause and effect.
    • Ideally, omega-3 levels would be measured at the beginning of the study and at several intervals during the study to see if the participant’s diet had changed during the study. Unfortunately, most prospective cohort studies only measure omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study.

3) Finally, a meta-analysis combines data from multiple clinical studies.

    • The strength of a meta-analysis is that the number of participants is quite large. This increases the statistical power and allows it to accurately assess small effects.
    • The greatest weakness of meta-analyses is that the design of the individual studies included in the meta-analysis is often quite different. This introduces variations that decrease the reliability of the meta-analysis. It becomes a situation of “Garbage in. Garbage out”

The study (WS Harris et al, Nature Communications, Volume 12, Article number: 2329, 2021) I am discussing today is a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. It was designed to determine the association between blood omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of:

  • Death from all causes.
  • Death from heart disease.
  • Death from cancer.
  • Death from causes other than heart disease or cancer.

More importantly, it eliminated the major weakness of previous meta-analyses by only including studies with a similar design.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was a meta-analysis of 17 prospective cohort studies with a total of 42,466 individuals looking at the association between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and premature death due to all causes, heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.

Participants in the 17 studies were followed for an average of 16 years, during which time 15,720 deaths occurred. This was a large enough number of deaths so that a very precise statistical analysis of the data could be performed.

The average age of participants at entry into the studies was 65, and 55% of the participants were women. Whites constituted 87% of the participants, so the results may not be applicable to other ethnic groups. None of the participants had heart disease or cancer when they entered the study.

Finally, the associations were corrected for a long list of variables that could have influenced the outcome (Read the publication for more details).

A strength of this meta-analysis is that all 17 studies were conducted as part of the FORCE (Fatty Acids & Outcomes Research Consortium) collaboration. The FORCE collaboration was established with the goal of understanding the relationships between fatty acids (as measured by blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids) on premature death and chronic disease outcomes (cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other conditions).

Each study was designed using a standardized protocol, so that the data could be easily pooled for a meta-analysis. In the words of the FORCE collaboration founders:

  1. The larger sample sizes of [meta-analyses] will substantially increase statistical power to investigate associations…enabling the [meta-analyses] to discover important relationships not discernible in any individual study.

2) Standardization of variable definitions and modeling of associations will reduce variation and potential bias in estimates across cohorts.

3) Results will be far less susceptible to publication bias.

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Omega-3sThe meta-analysis divided participants into quintiles based on blood omega-3 levels. When comparing participants with the highest omega-3 levels with participants with the lowest omega-3 levels:

  • Premature death from all causes was decreased by 16%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > EPA+DHA > DHA.
  • Premature death from heart disease was decreased by 19%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, DHA > EPA+DHA > EPA.
  • Premature death from cancer was decreased by 15%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > DHA > EPA+DHA.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer was decreased by 18%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > EPA+DHA > DHA.
  • The differences between the effects of EPA, DHA, and EPA+DHA were small.
  • ALA, a short chain omega-3 found in plant foods, had no effect on any of these parameters.

In the words of the authors: “These findings suggest that higher circulating levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of premature death. Similar relationships were seen for death from heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer. No associations were seen with the short chain omega-3, ALA [which is found in plant foods]”.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionIf you are thinking that 15-19% decreases in premature death from various causes don’t sound like much, let me do some simple calculations for you. The average lifespan in this country is 78 years.

  • A 16% decrease in death from all causes amounts to an extra 12.5 years. What would you do with an extra 12.5 years?
  • A 19% decrease in death from heart disease might not only allow you to live longer, but it has the potential to improve your quality of life by living an extra 15 years free of heart disease.
  • Similarly, a 15% decrease in death from cancer might help you live an extra 12 years cancer-free.
  • In other words, you may live longer, and you may also live healthier longer, sometimes referred to as “healthspan”.

Don’t misunderstand me. Omega-3s are not a magic wand. They aren’t the fictional “Fountain of Youth”.

  • There are many other factors that go into a healthy lifestyle. If you sit on your couch all day eating Big Macs and drinking beer, you may be adding the +12.5 years to a baseline of -30 years.
  • Clinical studies report average values and none of us are average. Omega-3s will help some people more than others.

I will understand if you are skeptical. It seems like every time one study comes along and tells you that omega-3s are beneficial, another study comes along and tells you they are worthless.

This was an extraordinarily well-designed study, but it is unlikely to be the final word in the omega-3 controversy. There are too many poor-quality studies published each year. Until everyone in the field agrees to some common standards like those in the FORCE collaboration, the omega-3 controversy will continue.

The Bottom Line 

A recent meta-analysis looked at the association between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and premature death due to all causes, heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.

The meta-analysis divided participants into quintiles based on blood omega-3 levels. When comparing participants with the highest omega-3 levels with participants with the lowest omega-3 levels:

  • Premature death from all causes was decreased by 16%.
  • Premature death from heart disease was decreased by 19%.
  • Premature death from cancer was decreased by 15%.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer was decreased by 18%.

In the words of the authors: “These findings suggest that higher circulating levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of premature death. Similar relationships were seen for death from heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.”

For more details about study and what this study means for you read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

 

Are Vegan Diets Bad For Your Bones?

The Secrets To A Healthy Vegan Diet

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Frail ElderlyOsteoporosis is a debilitating and potentially deadly disease associated with aging. It affects 54 million Americans. It can cause debilitating back pain and bone fractures. 50% of women and 25% of men over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Hip fractures in the elderly due to osteoporosis are often a death sentence.

As I discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, a “bone-healthy lifestyle requires 3 essentials – calcium, vitamin D, and weight bearing exercise. If any of these three essentials is presence in inadequate amounts, you can’t build healthy bones. In addition, other nutrients such as protein, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids may play supporting roles.

Vegan and other plant-based diets are thought to be very healthy. They decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. However, vegan diets tend to be low in calcium, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Could vegan diets be bad for your bones?

A meta-analysis of 9 studies published in 2009 (LT Ho-Pham et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90: 943-950, 2009) reported that vegans had 4% lower bone density than omnivores, but concluded this difference was “not likely to be clinically relevant”.

However, that study did not actually compare bone fracture rates in vegans and omnivores. So, investigators have followed up with a much larger meta-analysis (I Iguacel et al, Nutrition Reviews 77, 1-18, 2019) comparing both bone density and bone fracture rates in vegans and omnivores.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe investigators searched the literature for all human clinical studies through November 2017 that compared bone densities and frequency of bone fractures of people consuming vegan and/or vegetarian diets with people consuming an omnivore diet.

  • Vegan diets were defined as excluding all animal foods.
  • Vegetarian diets were defined as excluding meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and flesh from any animal but including dairy foods and/or eggs. [Note: The more common name for this kind of diet is lacto-ovo vegetarian, but I will use the author’s nomenclature in this review.]
  • Omnivore diets were defined as including both plant and animal foods from every food group.

The investigators ended up with 20 studies that had a total of 37,134 participants. Of the 20 studies, 9 were conducted in Asia (Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Korea, and Hong-Kong), 6 in North America (the United States and Canada), and 4 were conducted in Europe (Italy, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom).

Are Vegan Diets Bad For Your Bones?

Here is what the investigators found:

Unhealthy BoneBone density: The clinical studies included 3 different sites for bone density measurements – the lumbar spine, the femoral neck, and the total body. When they compared bone density of vegans and vegetarians with the bone density of omnivores, here is what they found:

Lumbar spine:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.2% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was stronger for vegans (7% decrease in bone density) than it was for vegetarians (2.3% decrease in bone density).

Femoral neck:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.7% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was stronger for vegans (5.5% decrease in bone density) than it was for vegetarians (2.5% decrease in bone density).

Whole body:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.2% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was statistically significant for vegans (5.9% decrease in bone density) but not for vegetarians (3.5% decrease in bone density). [Note: Statistical significance is not determined by how much bone density is decreased. It is determined by the size of the sample and the variations in bone density among individuals in the sample.]

Bone FractureBone Fractures: The decrease in bone density of vegans in this study was similar to that reported in the 2009 study I discussed above. However, rather than simply speculating about the clinical significance of this decrease in bone density, the authors of this study also measured the frequency of fractures in vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores. Here is what they found.

  • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 32% higher risk of bone fractures than omnivores.
  • The effect of diet on risk of bone fractures was statistically significant for vegans (44% higher risk of bone fracture) but not for vegetarians (25% higher risk of bone fractures).
  • These data suggest the decreased bone density in vegans is clinically significant.

The authors concluded, “The findings of this study suggest that both vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with lower bone density compared with omnivorous diets. The effect of vegan diets on bone density is more pronounced than the effect of vegetarian diets, and vegans have a higher fracture risk than omnivores. Both vegetarian and vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.”

The Secrets To A Healthy Vegan Diet

Emoticon-BadThe answer to this question lies in the last statement in the author’s conclusion, “Both vegetarian and vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.” 

The problem also lies in the difference between what a nutrition expert considers a vegan diet and what the average consumer considers a vegan diet. To the average consumer a vegan diet is simply a diet without any animal foods. What could go wrong with that definition? Let me count the ways.

  1. Sugar and white flour are vegan. A vegan expert thinks of a vegan diet as a whole food diet – primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. A vegan novice includes all their favorites – sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods. And that may not leave much room for healthier vegan foods.

2) Big Food, Inc is not your friend. Big Food tells you that you don’t need to give up the taste of animal foods just because you are going vegan. They will just combine sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to give you foods that taste just like your favorite meats and dairy foods. The problem is these are all highly processed foods. They are not healthy. Some people call them “fake meats” or “fake cheeses”. I call them “fake vegan”.

If you are going vegan, embrace your new diet. Bean burgers may not taste like Big Macs, but they are delicious. If need other delicious vegan recipe ideas, I recommend the website https://forksoverknives.com.

3) A bone healthy vegan diet is possible, but it’s not easy. Let’s go back to the author’s phrase “…vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.” A vegan expert will do the necessary planning. A vegan novice will assume all they need to do is give up animal foods. 

As I said earlier, vegan diets tend to be low in calcium, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s look at how a vegan expert might plan their diet to get enough of those bone-healthy nutrients.

    • Calcium. The top plant sources of calcium are leafy greens and soy foods at about 100-250 mg (10-25% of the DV) of calcium per serving. Some beans and seeds are moderately good sources of calcium. Soy foods are a particularly good choice because they are a good source of calcium and contain phytoestrogens that stimulate bone formation.

A vegan expert makes sure they get these foods every day and often adds a calcium supplement.

    • Protein. Soy foods, beans, and some whole grains are the best plant sources of protein.soy

It drives me crazy when a vegan novice tells me they were told they can get all the protein they need from broccoli and leafy greens. That is incredibly bad advice.

A vegan expert makes sure they get soy foods, beans, and protein-rich grains every day and often adds a protein supplement.

    • Zinc. There are several plant foods that supply around 20% the DV for zinc including lentils, oatmeal, wild rice, squash and pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and black beans.

A vegan expert makes sure they get these foods every day and often adds a multivitamin supplement containing zinc.

    • Vitamin D and vitamin B12. These are very difficult to get from a vegan diet. Even vegan experts usually rely on supplements to get enough of these important nutrients.

4) Certain vegan foods can even be bad for your bones. I divide these into healthy vegan foods and unhealthy “vegan” foods. 

    • Healthy vegan foods that can be bad for your bones include.
      • Pinto beans, navy beans, and peas because they contain phytates.
      • Raw spinach & swiss chard because they contain oxalates.
      • Both phytates and oxalates bind calcium and interfere with its absorption.
      • These foods can be part of a healthy vegan diet, but a vegan expert consumes them in moderation.
    • Unhealthy “vegan” foods that are bad for your bones include sodas, salt, sugar, and alcohol.
      • The mechanisms are complex, but these foods all tend to dissolve bone.
      • A vegan expert minimizes them in their diet.

5) You need more than diet for healthy bones. At the beginning of this article, I talked about the 3 Weight Trainingessentials for bone formation – calcium, vitamin D, and exercise. You can have the healthiest vegan diet in the world, but if you aren’t getting enough weight bearing exercise, you will have low bone density. Let me close with 3 quick thoughts:

    • None of the studies included in this meta-analysis measured how much exercise the study participants were getting.
    • The individual studies were generally carried out in industrialized countries where many people get insufficient exercise.
    • The DV for calcium in the United States is 1,000-1,200 mg/day for adults. In more agrarian societies dietary calcium intake is around 500 mg/day, and osteoporosis is almost nonexistent. What is the difference? These are people who are outside (vitamin D) doing heavy manual labor (exercise) in their farms and pastures every day.

In summary, a bone healthy vegan lifestyle isn’t easy, but it is possible if you work at it.

The Bottom Line 

A recent meta-analysis asked two important questions about vegan diets.

  1.     Do vegans have lower bone density than omnivores?

2) Is the difference in bone density clinically significant? Are vegans more likely to suffer from bone fractures?

The study found that:

  • Vegans had 5.5%–7% lower bone density than omnivores depending on where the bone density was measured.
  • Vegans were 44% more likely to suffer from bone fractures than omnivores.

The authors of the study concluded, ““The findings of this study suggest that…vegan diets are associated with lower bone density compared with omnivorous diets, and vegans have a higher fracture risk than omnivores…Vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.”

In evaluating the results of this study, I took a detailed look at the pros and cons of vegan diets and concluded, “A bone healthy vegan lifestyle isn’t easy, but it is possible if you work at it.”

For more details about study and my recommendations for a bone healthy vegan lifestyle read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Which Diets Are Best In 2021?

Which Diet Should You Choose?

Emoticon-BadMany of you started 2021 with goals of losing weight and/or improving your health. In many cases, that involved choosing a new diet. That was only 2 months ago, but it probably feels like an eternity.

For many of you the “bloom” has gone off the new diet you started so enthusiastically in January.

  • Perhaps the diet isn’t working as well as advertised…
  • Perhaps the diet is too restrictive. You are finding it hard to stick with…
  • Perhaps you are always hungry or constantly fighting food cravings…
  • Perhaps you are starting to wonder whether there is a better diet than the one you chose in January…
  • Perhaps you are wondering whether the diet you chose is the wrong one for you…

If you are rethinking your diet, you might want to know which diets the experts recommend. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The diet world has become just as divided as the political world.

Fortunately, you have an impartial resource. Each year US News & World Report invites a panel of experts with different points of view to evaluate popular diets. They then combine the input from all the experts into rankings of the diets in various categories.

If you are still searching for your ideal diet, I will summarize the US News & World Report’s “Best Diets In 2021”. For the full report, click on this link.

How Was This Report Created?

Expert PanelUS News & World Report recruited panel of 25 nationally recognized experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, food psychology, diabetes, and heart disease to review the 39 most popular diets.  They rated each diet in seven categories:

  • How easy it is to follow.
  • Its ability to produce short-term weight loss.
  • Its ability to produce long-term weight loss.
  • its nutritional completeness.
  • Its safety.
  • Its potential for preventing and managing diabetes.
  • Its potential for preventing and managing heart disease.

They converted the experts’ ratings to scores 5 (highest) to 1 (lowest). They then used these scores to construct nine sets of Best Diets rankings:

  • Best Diets Overall combines panelists’ ratings in all seven categories. However, all categories were not equally weighted. Short-term and long-term weight loss were combined, with long-term ratings getting twice the weight. Why? A diet’s true test is whether it can be sustained for years. And safety was double counted because no diet should be dangerous.
  • Best Commercial Diets uses the same approach to rank 15 structured diet programs that require a participation fee or promote the use of branded food or nutritional products.
  • Best Weight-Loss Diets was generated by combining short-term and long-term weight-loss ratings, weighting both equally. Some dieters want to drop pounds fast, while others, looking years ahead, are aiming for slow and steady. Equal weighting accepts both goals as worthy.
  • Best Diabetes Diets is based on averaged diabetes ratings.
  • Best Heart-Healthy Diets uses averaged heart-health ratings.
  • Best Diets for Healthy Eating combines nutritional completeness and safety ratings, giving twice the weight to safety. A healthy diet should provide sufficient calories and not fall seriously short on important nutrients or entire food groups.
  • Easiest Diets to Follow represents panelists’ averaged judgments about each diet’s taste appeal, ease of initial adjustment, ability to keep dieters from feeling hungry and imposition of special requirements.
  • Best Plant-Based Diets uses the same approach as Best Diets Overall to rank 12 plans that emphasize minimally processed foods from plants.
  • Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets is based on short-term weight-loss ratings.

Which Diets Are Best In 2021?

The word WInner in white letters surrounded by a burst of colorful stars in 3d

Are you ready? If this were an awards program I would be saying “Envelop please” and would open the envelop slowly to build suspense.

However, I am not going to do that. Here are the top 5 and bottom 5 diets in each category (If you would like to see where your favorite diet ranked, click on this link). [Note: I excluded commercial diets from this review.]

Best Diets Overall 

The Top 5: 

#1: Mediterranean Diet

#2: DASH Diet (This diet was designed to keep blood pressure under control, but you can also think of it as an Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet.)

#3: Flexitarian Diet (A flexible semi-vegetarian diet).

#4: Mayo Clinic Diet

#5: MIND Diet (This diet is a combination of Mediterranean and DASH but is specifically designed to reduce cognitive decline as we age.)

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Modified Keto Diet

#36: Whole 30 Diet

#37: GAPS Diet (A diet designed to improve gut health).

#38: Keto Diet

#39: Dukan Diet

Best Weight-Loss DietsWeight Loss

The Top 5: 

#1: Flexitarian Diet

#2: Vegan Diet

#3: Volumetrics Diet (A diet based on the caloric density of foods).

#4: Mayo Clinic Diet

#5: Ornish Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Fertility Diet

#36: Whole 30 Diet

#37: Alkaline Diet

#38: AIP Diet (A diet designed for people with autoimmune diseases)

#39: GAPS Diet

Best Diabetes Diets

The Top 5: 

#1: Flexitarian Diet

#2: Mediterranean Diet

#3: DASH Diet

#4: Mayo Clinic Diet

#5: Vegan Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: The Fast Diet

#36: AIP Diet

#37: GAPS Diet

#38: Whole 30 Diet (A diet designed for people with autoimmune diseases)

#39: Dukan Diet

strong heartBest Heart-Healthy Diets 

The Top 5: 

#1: DASH Diet

#2: Mediterranean Diet

#3: Ornish Diet (A diet based on the caloric density of foods).

#4: Flexitarian Diet

#5: Vegan Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Keto Diet

#36: AIP Diet

#37: Whole 30 Diet

#38: Modified Keto Diet

#39: GAPS Diet

Best Diets for Healthy Eating

The Top 5: 

#1: DASH Diet

#2: Mediterranean Diet

#3: Flexitarian Diet

#4: TLC Diet (A diet designed to promote heart health)

#5: MIND Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Atkins Diet

#36: Raw Food Diet

#37: Modified Keto Diet

#38: Dukan Diet

#39: Keto Diet 

Easiest Diets to FollowEasy

The Top 5: 

#1: Mediterranean Diet

#2: Flexitarian Diet

#3: MIND Diet

#4: DASH Diet

#5: Fertility Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Keto Diet and Modified Keto Diet (tie)

#36: Whole 30 Diet

#37: Dukan Diet

#38: GAPS Diet

#39: Raw Foods Diet 

Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets

The Top 5 (Excluding Commercial Diets): 

#1: Atkins Diet

#2: Biggest Loser Diet

#3: Keto Diet

#4: Raw Food Diet

#5: Volumetrics Diet

Which Diets Are Best For Rapid Weight Loss?

Happy woman on scaleLet me start with some general principles:

#1: If you are looking for rapid weight loss, any whole food restrictive diet will do.

  • The Atkins and keto diets are meat heavy, low carb diets. They restrict fruits, some vegetables, grains, and most legumes.
  • The Biggest Loser diet relies on restrictive meal plan and exercise programs.
  • The restrictions of the raw food diet are obvious.
  • The volumetrics diet restricts foods with high caloric density.
  • The vegan diet, which ranks #7 on this list, is a very low fat diet that eliminates meat, dairy, eggs, and animal fats.
  • I did not include commercial diets that rated high on this list, but they are all restrictive in one way or another.

#2: Restrictive diets ultimately fail.

  • The truth is 90-95% of people who lose weight quickly on a restrictive diet regain most of that weight in the next two years. The pounds come back and often bring their friends along as well. Many people regain more weight than they lost. This is the famous “Yo-Yo Effect”.
  • If dieters paid for one of the commercial diets, they may as well have burned their money.
  • When I talk with people about weight loss, many of them tell me the Atkins diet is the only one they can lose weight on. That would be impressive if they were at a healthy weight, but most are not. They are overweight. I am starting to see the same thing from overweight people who have used the keto diet to lose weight and have regained their weight.

#3: We should ask what happens when we get tired of restrictive diets and add back some of your favorite foods.

  • If you lose weight on a vegan diet and add back some of your favorite foods, you might end up with a semi-vegetarian diet. This is a healthy diet that can help you maintain your weight loss.
  • If you lose weight on the Atkins or keto diets and add back some of your favorite foods, you end up with the typical American diet – one that is high in both fat and carbs. This is not a recipe for long-term success.
  • Long term weight loss is possible if you transition to a healthy diet after you have lost the weight. In a recent article in “Health Tips From The Professor” I wrote about an organization called the National Weight Control Registry. These are people who have been successful at keeping the weight off. For purposes of this discussion, two points are important.
  • They lost weight on every possible diet.
  • They kept the weight off by following a healthy reduced calorie, low fat diet. (For what else they did, click here).

Which Diet Should You Choose?

Which Diet Is BestWith rapid weight loss out of the way, let’s get back to the question, “Which Diet Should You Choose?” My recommendations are:

  • Choose a diet that fits your needs. That is one of the things I like best about the US News & World Report ratings. The diets are categorized. If your main concern is diabetes, choose one of the top diets in that category. If your main concern is heart health… You get the point.
  • Choose diets that are healthy and associated with long term weight loss. If that is your goal, you will notice that primarily plant-based diets top these lists. Meat-based, low carb diets like Atkins and keto are near the bottom of the lists.
  • Choose diets that are easy to follow. The less-restrictive primarily plant-based diets top this list – diets like Mediterranean, DASH, MIND, and flexitarian.
  • Choose diets that fit your lifestyle and dietary preferences. For example, if you don’t like fish and olive oil, you will probably do much better with the DASH or flexitarian diet than with the Mediterranean diet.
  • Finally, focus on what you have to gain, rather than on foods you have to give up.
    • On the minus side, none of the diets include sodas, junk foods, and highly processed foods. Teose foods should go on your “No-No” list. Sweets should be occasional treats and only as part of a healthy meal. Meat, especially red meat, should become a garnish rather than a main course.
    • On the plus side, primarily plant-based diets offer a cornucopia of delicious plant foods you probably didn’t even know existed. Plus, for any of the top-rated plant-based diets, there are websites and books full of mouth-watering recipes. Be adventurous.

The Bottom Line 

For many of you the “bloom” has gone off the new diet you started so enthusiastically in January. If you are rethinking your diet, you might want to know which diets the experts recommend. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The diet world has become just as divided as the political world.

Fortunately, you have an impartial resource. Each year US News & World Report invites a panel of experts with different points of view to evaluate popular diets. They then combine the input from all the experts into rankings of the diets in various categories. In the article above I summarize the US News & World Report’s “Best Diets In 2021”.

There are probably two questions at the top of your list.

#1: Which diets are best for rapid weight loss? Here are some general principles:

  • If you are looking for rapid weight loss, any whole food restrictive diet will do.
  • Restrictive diets ultimately fail.
  • We should ask what happens when we get tired of restrictive diets and add back some of our favorite foods.
  • Long term weight loss is possible if you transition to a healthy diet after you have lost the weight.

#2: Which diet should you choose? Here the principles are:

  • Choose a diet that fits your needs.
  • Choose diets that are healthy and associated with long term weight loss.
  • Choose diets that are easy to follow.
  • Choose diets that fit your lifestyle and dietary preferences.
  • Finally, focus on what you have to gain, rather than on foods you have to give up.

For more details on the diet that is best for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Update On The “Truth About Vaccines”

The Four Biggest Unanswered Questions

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

newspaper heallinesAs someone who is not normally a proponent of vaccinations, I have done my best to provide a scientifically accurate evaluation of the vaccines for COVID-19. My purpose has not been to change people’s minds.

  • If you have already decided to get vaccinated, I applaud you.
  • If you have decided not to get vaccinated, I respect your opinion.

I have written my articles for those of you who recognize the dangers of COVID-19, want to get vaccinated, but are hesitant because of all the negative chatter about the vaccines you have seen on the internet.

I believe every vaccine should be evaluated on the basis of its risks and benefits.

The benefits are clear. COVID-19 is a deadly disease. It is hard to believe that anyone could look at what has happened in the United States and around the world and not realize COVID-19 is not the common flu. It is the most infectious and deadly disease we have seen in our lifetime. Anything that can help us conquer this deadly disease is tremendously beneficial.

However, every vaccine has risks. The risks are extremely low, but they are not zero. And some past vaccines have had unexpected risks. For that reason, I have evaluated potential risks, including those “risks” you have heard about on the internet, against actual data. I have asked, “Are the risks real?”, “Are they serious?”, and “Do they occur often enough to be of concern?”

The yardstick I use for “Do they occur often enough…?” is the 1 in a million to 1 in 10 million range. The chance of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 10 million. Yet that doesn’t stop us from getting on planes to fly where we want to go.

I think that is an apt analogy. Serious risks from the COVID-19 vaccines are in the 1 in 10 million range. I am willing to take that risk because it will take us to where we want to go – the other side of this pandemic.

I summarized the risks and benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines in a recent “Health Tips From The Professor” article (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/the-truth-about-vaccination/). However, science marches on. That article was written just one month ago, but it is time to update the data and also acknowledge what we still don’t know.

Update On The “Truth About Vaccines”

 

Last week I recorded a talk on the “The Truth About Vaccines”. Part of my motivation was to provide people with audio and video files that would be easier to share. However, I also used that opportunity to update the information on vaccines. Here are the files. Consider them a gift you can use to spread the word about the vaccines. 

 

Video Link: 

https://zoom.us/rec/share/WkDiDdygAnsY4-8YO9HvT55jPOOH73xZ2cTy-cIMDBWSEhOOxgrxliUoH7iAtD5l.hVMILee_-bJg0Xvd

Passcode: FUfZ$3F$ 

Audio Link:

https://zoom.us/rec/play/vIXHPtXHzg-WV8KQb7JjZws49J0z_LY2yOKA5fWIN93GKvLUw08ViOpOa9QcLlvzEphIKibSvcwhgmoV.07AjXCj2j8Ac1cQy

Passcode: FUfZ$3F$

Note: If you want to share these audio and video files or the “Health Tips From The Professor” article I wrote a month ago, share the link rather than forwarding this email to them.

Similarly, if you would like to share this article with someone, share the link given at the beginning and end of this article rather than forwarding this email to them.

This is because if you forward this email to someone who unsubscribes because they aren’t in favor of vaccinations, it will unsubscribe you from receiving future issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

The Four Biggest Unanswered Questions

questionsIf you feel like the experts have been “flying by the seat of their pants”, that is because we are. When COVID-19 burst on the scene and spread like wildfire, it was a completely unknown entity. We had no idea what to expect or how effective measures to control it would be.

In fact, much of what we thought we knew was plain wrong. That is why:

  • We went from “masks are only important for health care workers” to “masks only protect others” to “masks protect us” to “maybe we need double masks”.
  • That is why a state like California, which has remained mostly locked-down and a state like Florida, which has remained mostly open, have ended up with about the same per capita cases and deaths from COVID-19.

Clearly some mitigation efforts are needed to “flatten the curve” and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We cannot just let the virus run rampant. But there is no clear agreement among experts as to which mitigation efforts are essential.

So, with perhaps a little humility, let me address the four greatest unanswered questions about COVID-19 and the vaccines. In each case, I will:

  • Give you the facts as we know them.
  • Give you my opinion.
  • Tell you what to watch for and what to do about it.

Here are the questions:

#1: How Long Will Immunity Last? Most headlines you have seen recently are asking this question with strong immune systemregards to the vaccines. But this question is equally important for those of you who have recovered from COVID-19. You also want to know if and how long you are protected from getting infected again.

Studies on this important question have mostly relied on measuring antibodies to COVID-19 in the bloodstream. And the answer appears to be similar for people who have been infected with COVID-19 and people who have been vaccinated, namely:

  • There are significant individual differences.
    • In some people, antibody levels decrease after a few months.
    • In other people, antibody levels appear to remain high for at least 6-8 months.

This is why the CDC is considering recommending a booster shot of the vaccine 6-12 months after you have completed your first round of vaccinations. It is also why some are recommending you get vaccinated even if you have recovered from COVID-19. The theory is that you will need to boost your antibody levels again to maintain full immunity from COVID-19.

But is a booster shot really necessary? As I have written previously:

  • Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines create memory cells as well as circulating antibodies.
    • Memory cells reside in the bone marrow and retain the blueprint for making more antibody-producing cells if the virus ever reappears. They are responsible for long-term immunity.
    • For example, many of you may remember a few years ago, a new variant of the flu virus appeared that hit young people much harder than people over 50. The explanation we were given at the time was that the new variant of the virus was similar to a flu virus that had widely circulated 30 years earlier. We had retained significant immunity to the previous virus, and it protected us from the new virus as well.
  • Because of memory cells, I am optimistic that we will retain significant immunity to COVID-19 even after circulating antibody levels have disappeared. But we won’t know for sure until we have accumulated enough data to know how well the vaccines protect us from COVID-19 a year or two down the road.
  • However, the data on patients who have recovered from COVID-19 is encouraging. So far, the reinfection rate seems to be around 1-2% and most of the recurring cases are mild.

So, should you get a booster shot? The risk of the vaccines will not change, so we need to look at the benefit side of the ledger.

  • If I am right and COVID cases are low 6-12 months from now, the benefit of getting a booster shot would be small. I’d give it a pass.
  • If I am wrong and COVID comes back with a vengeance, getting a booster shot might be prudent.

#2: Do We Need To Fear The Variants? You have seen the hype, “The new variants are highly contagious, Fearand vaccines may not work against them.” The first claim is correct, but existing evidence suggests that the second claim is overblown.

  • Tests with antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and from patients who have been vaccinated find that these antibodies are 70-90% effective at neutralizing the new variants. To put that into context, 70-90% effectiveness is significantly higher than the average flu vaccine.
  • New data coming out of England, where one of the variants originated, reports that the reinfection rate for people who have recovered from COVID-19 is around 0.7%, and this has not changed since the British variant strain appeared. [If the antibodies produced from the original COVID infection were not effective against the new variant, we would have expected reinfection rates to increase as the new variant became the predominant version of COVID circulating in the country.]

Of course, these data have not deterred the fearmongers. They are telling you that it is only a matter of time until a variant comes along that is unaffected by vaccines. I consider this unlikely, and here is why.

  • Vaccines are directed against the spike protein of the virus. That is the same protein the virus uses to bind to our cells. Any mutations severe enough to eliminate antibody binding to the spike protein are also likely to prevent the spike protein from binding to our cells. If the spike protein can’t bind to our cells, the virus can’t enter our cells. Such mutant viruses would be non-infectious. They would die out spontaneously.
  • Because of that, I am optimistic that the current vaccines will retain significant effectiveness against new variants as they arise.

Once again, the CDC may recommend a booster shot to help protect against the variants. The pharmaceutical companies are also working on vaccines that are specific to the new variants.

Should you get one of these shots? Once again, we won’t know for sure until we see how well the vaccines protect us from the new variants.

  • If I am right and COVID cases are low 6-12 months from now, the benefit of getting a shot would be small. I’d give it a pass.
  • If I am wrong and a new variant causes a massive surge in COVID cases and deaths in people who have been vaccinated, getting another shot might be prudent.

#3: Can I Get My Life Back After Vaccination? You have probably heard the CDC recommendations that we can still get COVID-19 and pass it on to others after we have been vaccinated. We should, therefore, continue to wear masks and socially distance ourselves.

I have had many people say to me, “If that’s true, why should I even bother to get vaccinated?” Let me start by covering what we know and don’t know about this question. Then I will put it into perspective for you.

  • The immune cells in the upper respiratory tract are not in perfect sync with the rest of the immune system. That means that after vaccination we may not get quite the level of protection in our upper respiratory track that we do in the rest of our body.
  • In the initial studies with rhesus monkeys, the animals were vaccinated and subsequently a high titer of live virus was sprayed directly into their noses. Virus was detected in their nasal passages for about 3 days before it disappeared.
    • The animals did not have detectable levels of virus in their bloodstreams. Nor did they develop any disease symptoms.
    • However, the brief presence of live virus in their nasal passages led to the suggestion that one might still be able to pass the virus on to others after vaccination.
  • Small, preliminary studies with a subset of patients enrolled in the vaccine clinical trials suggested that the vaccines might only be around 60% effective at preventing upper respiratory tract infections.
    • That means if you are exposed to COVID-19, you might have a 40% chance of developing an upper respiratory tract infection. In most cases you will be asymptomatic, but you could pass the virus on to others.
    • The good news is that you are still 95% protected against severe disease, hospitalization, chronic long-term symptoms, and death. This is the answer to the “Why bother?” question.
  • However, new data out of Israel gives a more optimistic assessment. The latest study reported that the Pfizer vaccine is 89% effective at preventing even asymptomatic disease.

The bottom line is that the data are still coming in. It may be another 6-12 months before we have an accurate estimate of your risk of developing asymptomatic disease and passing the virus on to someone else if you are exposed to COVID-19 after being vaccinated.

So, what do I recommend? I can’t tell you what you should do, but I will tell you what I plan to do.

  • I still plan to wear a mask and social distance when I am out and about.
  • I am comfortable meeting with small groups of close friends and family without a mask, especially if they have also been vaccinated.
  • I am comfortable going back to church because our church follows an excellent social distancing protocol.
  • I am comfortable traveling to visit our family in California.
  • Once the number of COVID-19 cases has reached a low level, I will be comfortable resuming all my previous activities, subject, of course, to any state mandates.

News Flash: Yesterday the CDC updated their guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated. They now say that fully vaccinated people can:

  • Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physically distancing.
  • Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physically distancing.
  • Refrain from quarantining and testing following a known exposure to someone with COVID-19 unless you develop symptoms.

The other CDC guidelines remain in place for now but are likely to change once a larger percentage of the population has been vaccinated.

#4: Why Not Rely On Diet And Supplementation? I have friends who tell me they are not going to get Vaccination Perspectivevaccinated. They will rely on diet and supplementation to keep their immune systems strong and protect them from COVID. I respect their choice.

In fact, I have a great deal of sympathy for that choice. When I think of protecting myself from colds and flu, my preference has always been to keep my immune system strong with diet, supplementation, and exercise rather than relying on vaccinations.

However, COVID is different story. It is a far deadlier disease. And even if it doesn’t kill you, it may impact your life for years to come. The long-term health consequences of COVID are perhaps even scarier than the 1% death rate.

Let’s take a realistic look at each of our options to defeat COVID:

  • In a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared some preliminary clinical studies showing that people with adequate vitamin D status were 60-70% less likely to be infected with COVID, hospitalized with COVID, in the ICU from COVID, and dying from COVID. That is impressive, but it is not 100% protection. And if your vitamin D levels are already adequate, you get no additional benefit from adding extra vitamin D to your diet.
  • In another issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a review written by a group of experts on respiratory diseases. They concluded that, in addition to a good diet, supplementation with a multivitamin and extra vitamin C, vitamin D, and omega-3s reduced the risk of dying from respiratory diseases. But they didn’t say it eliminated the risk. It did not guarantee 100% protection.
  • As for CDC guidelines, wearing a mask gives you somewhere between 30 and 70% protection. Social distancing and handwashing also help, but they don’t offer 100% protection.
  • Vaccination with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines gives you at least 60% protection against upper respiratory infections from COVID-19 and 95% protection against severe disease, hospitalization, long term health consequences, and death. It is the single most effective tool we have at our disposal, but it does not give 100% protection. As one of my pessimist friends put it, “95% protection means I have a 1 in 20 chance of getting it.”

COVID-19 is throwing everything it has at us. When faced with a deadly disease and several things I can do that offer partial protection, I choose a holistic approach. I choose to use every tool at my disposal. I choose diet, supplementation, CDC guidelines, and vaccination. Everyone should make their own decision about how best to protect themselves from COVID-19, but my choice is clear. I want to do everything in my power to avoid this disease.

The Bottom Line 

In the article above, I have updated my information on vaccines with data from the latest studies, provided you with resources about the vaccines you can share, and have given you updates and perspective on the four biggest unanswered questions about COVID-19 and the vaccines, namely:

  • How long does immunity last?
  • Do we need to fear the new variants?
  • Can I get my life back after vaccination?
  • Why not rely on diet and supplementation?

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Supplementation?

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Your Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

US Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025Science is always changing, and nutritional science is no different. As we learn more, our concept of the “ideal diet” is constantly evolving. Because of that, the USDA and the US Department of Health & Human Services produce a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans every 5 years.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have just been released. As usual, the process started with a panel of 20 internationally recognized scientists who produced a comprehensive report on the current state of nutritional science and made recommendations for updated dietary guidelines. After a period of public comment, the dietary guidelines were published.

There were two new features of the 2020-2025 Guidelines:

  • They provided dietary guidelines for every life stage from 6 months of life to adults over 60.
  • The guidelines also addressed personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary concerns in so that each of us can develop a healthy diet that fits our lifestyle.

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Your Diet?

Here are the 2020-2025 Guidelines in a nutshell:healthy foods

  • Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  • Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  • Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits. They went on to say, “A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups [emphasis mine], in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits.”

They said, “the core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:”

    • Vegetables of all types – dark green, red, and orange vegetables; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy vegetables; and other vegetables.
    • Fruits – especially whole fruits.
    • Grains – at least half of which are whole.
    • Dairy – including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese; lactose-free versions; and fortified soy beverages and soy yogurt as alternatives. [Other plant-based milk and yogurt foods were not recommended because they do not provide as much protein as dairy. So, they were not considered equivalent foods.]
    • Protein foods – including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
    • Oils – including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts.
  • Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium; and limit No Fast Foodalcoholic beverages. Their specific recommendations are:
    • Added sugars – less than 10% of calories/day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than 2.
    • Saturated fat – Less than 10% of calories starting at age 2.
    • Sodium – Less than 2,300 mg per day – even less for children younger than 14.
    • Alcoholic beverages – Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more. There are some adults who should not drink alcohol, such as women who are pregnant.

For more details, read the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Dark Side Of The US Dietary Guidelines

Darth VaderThe US Dietary Guidelines point Americans in the right direction, but they are never as strong as most nutrition experts would like. The 2025 Dietary Guidelines are no exception. They have two major limitations:

#1: The food industry has watered down the guidelines. This happens every time a new set of guidelines are released. The food and beverage lobbies provide their input during the public comment period. And because they fund a significant portion of USDA research, their input carries a lot of weight. Here are the 3 places where they altered the recommendations of the scientific panel:

  • The scientific panel recommended that Americans decrease the intake of added sugar from 13% of daily calories to 6%. The final dietary guidelines recommended reducing sugar to 10% of daily calories.
  • The scientific panel recommended that both men and women limit alcoholic drinks to one a day. The final dietary guidelines recommended men limit alcoholic drinks to two a day.
  • The scientific panel included these statements in their report:
    • “Dietary patterns characterized by higher intake of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains are…associated with detrimental health outcomes.”
    • “Replacing processed or high fat-meats…with seafood could help lower intake of saturated fat and sodium, nutrients that are often consumed in excess of recommended limits.”
    • “Replacing processed or high-fat meats with beans, peas, and lentils would have similar benefits.”

These statements are included in the final report, but they are buried in portions of the report that most people are unlikely to read. The summary that most people will read recommends shifts in protein consumption to “add variety” to the diet.

#2: The guidelines do not address sustainability and do not explicitly promote a shift to more Planetary Dietplant-based diets. Again, this was based on input from food lobby groups who argued that sustainability has nothing to do with nutrition.

If you are concerned about climate change and the degradation of our environment caused by our current farming practices, this is a significant omission.

I have covered this topic in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is a brief summary:

  • In 2019 a panel of international scientists was asked to conduct a comprehensive study on our diet and its effect on both our health and our environment.
  • The scientific panel carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:
    • Are they good for us?
    • Are they good for the planet?
    • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.
  • They developed dietary recommendations popularly known as the “Planetary Diet”. Here are the characteristics of the planetary diet.
    • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
    • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day.
    • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
    • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

Unless you are a vegan, this diet is much more restrictive than you are used to. However, if you, like so many Americans believe that climate change is an existential threat, I would draw your attention to one of the concluding statements from the panel’s report.

  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”

In other words, we can do everything else right, but if we fail to change our diet, we cannot avoid catastrophic global warming.

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Supplementation?

MultivitaminsThe authors of the 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines have relatively little to say about supplementation. However:

  • They list nutrients that are of “public health concern” for each age group. Nutrients of public health concern are nutrients that:
    • Are underconsumed in the American diet.
    • Are associated with health concerns when their intake is low.
  • They state that “dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise might be consumed in less than recommended amounts.”
  • They recommend specific supplements for several age groups.

Here are their nutrients of public health concern and recommended supplements for each age group:

#1: General population.

  • Nutrients of public health concern are calcium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D. They state that supplementation may be useful for meeting these needs.

#2: Breast Fed Infants.

  • Supplementation with 400 IU/day of vitamin D is recommended shortly after birth.

#3: Vegetarian Toddlers.

  • Iron and vitamin B12 are nutrients of concern.

#4: Children & Adolescents.

  • Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients of concern. Dairy and/or fortified soy alternatives are recommended to help meet these needs.
  • Iron, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and magnesium are also nutrients of concern for adolescent females.

#5: Adults (Ages 19-59).

  • 30% of men and 60% of women do not consume enough calcium and 90% of both men and women do not get enough vitamin D.

#6: Pregnant & Lactating Women:

  • Calcium, vitamin D, and fiber are nutrients of concern for all women in this age group.
  • In addition, women who are pregnant have special needs for folate/folic acid, iron, iodine, and vitamin D.
  • Women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should take a daily prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement to meet folate/folic acid, iron, iodine, and vitamin D needs during pregnancy. They go on to say that many prenatal supplements do not contain iodine, so it is important to read the label.
  • All women who are planning or capable of pregnancy should take a daily supplement containing 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid.

#7: Older Adults (≥ 60).

  • Nutrients of concern for this age group include calcium, vitamin D, fiber, protein, and vitamin B12.
  • About 50% of women and 30% of men in this age group do not get enough protein in their diet.

My Perspective:

The US Dietary Guidelines use foods of public health concern as the only basis for recommending Supplementation Perspectivesupplementation. I prefer a more holistic approach that includes increased needs, genetic predisposition, and preexisting diseases as part of the equation (see the diagram on the right). I have discussed this concept in depth in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

I have also taken this concept and made supplement recommendations for various health goals in a free eBook called “Your Design For Healthy Living”.

Some people may feel I should have included more supplements in my recommendations. Others may feel I should have included fewer supplements in my recommendations. No list pf recommend supplements is perfect, but I have tried to include those supplements supported by good scientific evidence in my recommendations.

The Bottom Line 

The USDA and Department of Health & Human Services have just released the 2020-2025 US Dietary Guideline. In the article above I have summarized:

  • Their recommendations for a healthy diet.
  • Their recommendations for supplementation.
  • The dark side of the US Dietary Guidelines.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Do Supplements Interfere With Chemotherapy?

Should You Avoid Supplement Use During Chemotherapy?

cancerSince much of my research career was devoted to cancer research, specifically developing new chemotherapeutic drugs for treating cancer, many of you have asked me the question: “Do food supplements interfere with chemotherapy?”

My answer has always been that it is theoretically possible, but that we don’t really know the answer because the necessary studies have not been done.

However, I do know that most cancer drugs are retained in the body for a short period of time. So, my pragmatic advice has always been to avoid supplementation for a day or two before to a day or two after each round of chemotherapy. That is a strategy designed to minimize the possibility that supplementation would interfere with chemotherapy and maximize the possibility that supplementation might aid in recovery between rounds of chemotherapy.

That is why I was interested when I saw the recent headlines claiming certain supplements may interfere with chemotherapy for breast cancer. I wanted to find out if someone had finally done a definitive study on the effect of supplementation on chemotherapy.

So, I have reviewed the study (CB Ambrosone et al, Journal of Clinical Oncology, 38, 804-815, 2020) behind the headlines and will share what I discovered.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was an offshoot of a much larger Phase III clinical trial designed to determine the best schedule for administering three drugs (doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, and paclitaxel) to patients with high-risk early-stage breast cancer.

The 1,134 patients enrolled in this study were given questionnaires on their use of supplements when they registered for the study to determine supplement use prior to the study. They were also given questionnaires when they completed chemotherapy to determine supplement use during chemotherapy.

The questionnaires documented use of:

  • Multivitamins
  • The antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, carotenoids, and coenzyme Q10.
  • Vitamin D.
  • The B vitamins vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
  • The minerals iron and calcium.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Glucosamine, melatonin, and acidophilus.

Recurrence of the breast cancer and death from breast cancer were measured 6 months after chemotherapy ended.

Do Supplements Interfere With Chemotherapy?

Questioning WomanThe study reported:

  • The number of patients using individual antioxidant supplements was too low to determine whether individual antioxidants had any effect on treatment outcomes.
  • When the patients using any antioxidant supplement were pooled into a single group, there was a nonsignificant association between antioxidant supplement use during chemotherapy and an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer.
  • Iron use during chemotherapy was significant associated with an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence.
  • Vitamin B12 use during chemotherapy was significantly associated with increased risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer.
  • Multivitamin use was not associated with either recurrence or death from breast cancer.
  • The number of patients using the other supplements was too low to determine whether those supplements had any effect on treatment outcomes.

The authors concluded: “Associations between survival outcomes and use of antioxidant and other dietary supplements are consistent with recommendations for caution among patients when considering the use of supplements, other than a multivitamin, during chemotherapy.”

This is the conclusion that generated the headlines you may have seen.

However, in their discussion the authors conceded that a previous review concluded that, “…insufficient evidence existed with regard to the safety of dietary supplements [during chemotherapy] to make recommendations, and that still may be the case.”

I will discuss the reasons for their disclaimer below. However, I will point out that disclaimers like this never seem to make it into the headlines you read.

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of This Study?

strengths and weaknessesThe only strength of this study is that it was performed in the context of an ongoing clinical trial, with surveys conducted before chemotherapy and during chemotherapy to assess supplement use.

However, the study had multiple weaknesses that limit the ability to draw any firm conclusions from the study.

#1: The number of people using supplements in this study was very small. For example:

  • Only 200 people took any antioxidants during chemotherapy.
  • Only 137 people took a vitamin B12 supplement during chemotherapy.
  • Only 109 people took an iron supplement during chemotherapy.

To put this into perspective, if a drug company were submitting a new drug for approval to the FDA, they would be required to submit data from ~50-100-fold more cancer patients to prove that the drug was effective.

With this small number of supplement users, even “statistically significant” observations are questionable.

In contrast, the number of people taking a multivitamin during chemotherapy was 497. Thus, those data were a little stronger than the data for individual supplements.

#2: They did not ask why people were taking supplements. It turns out that the patients who used supplements were older and sicker. They were more likely to be overweight and to have type 2 diabetes.

These are patients who are also more likely to have poor outcomes from chemotherapy. The authors tried to correct for that, but it is virtually impossible to make these corrections when the number of patients taking supplements is so low.

#3: They did not ask about the dose of supplements people were taking.

  • Multivitamins typically contain RDA levels of antioxidants and vitamin B12, so it would be safe to assume that RDA levels of antioxidants and vitamin B12 are safe during chemotherapy.
  • Approximately 50% of the women in the study were premenopausal, so it is likely that they were taking a multivitamin with iron. That suggests that RDA levels of iron are safe during chemotherapy for premenopausal women.

In short, the association between supplement use and poorer outcomes from chemotherapy is tenuous. If there is any association, it is likely with high dose individual supplements rather the lower levels of the same nutrients found in a multivitamin.

Is An Effect Of Supplement Use On Chemotherapy Plausible?

As a biochemist, the next question I ask is whether there is a plausible mechanism for an effect of any of these Look forsupplements on chemotherapy outcomes.

  • For two of the drugs in the regimen (paclitaxel and cyclophosphamide), free radical formation may contribute to their effectiveness, but it is not their main mechanism of action. Thus, it is plausible that high dose antioxidant supplements could make these drugs less effective, but the effect should be relatively small.
  • Tumors require high amounts of iron for proliferation, so it is plausible that excess iron could make tumors more resistant to chemotherapy. However, for premenopausal women, multivitamins with iron did not interfere with the drugs used in this study. Thus, it appears likely that RDA levels of iron, where appropriate, do not interfere with chemotherapy.
  • The authors said that the reason for the observed effects of vitamin B12 on chemotherapy in their study “remains to be understood”. However, the answer might be found in the dosage of vitamin B12. A previous study reported that doses of vitamin B12 that were greater than 20 times the RDA increased the risk of lung cancer.

If people in this study were taking doses of vitamin B12 in excess of 20 times the RDA, it would provide a plausible explanation for B12 interfering with chemotherapy. If not, there is no known explanation. In any case, I do not recommend taking such high doses of any supplement.

Should You Avoid Supplement Use During Chemotherapy?

AvoidNow, let’s get back to the original question: “Should you avoid supplement use during chemotherapy?” If you read the headlines saying, “Supplement Use During Chemotherapy May Be Risky”, you might think that the answer is an unqualified yes. That is also what your doctor is likely to think.

However, when you analyze the study behind the headlines you realize that the evidence supporting the headlines is very weak.

So, that puts us back to where we were before the study was published. Simply put:

  • It is theoretically possible that supplements interfere with chemotherapy, but we don’t know for sure.
  • A pragmatic approach is to avoid supplementation for a day or two before to a day or two after each round of chemotherapy. This is a strategy designed to minimize the possibility that supplementation would interfere with chemotherapy and maximize the possibility that supplementation might aid in recovery between rounds of chemotherapy.

Note: This is generic advice. I am not a medical doctor, so it would be unethical for me to provide individualized advice on how to minimize interactions between supplements and chemotherapy. What I recommend is that you ask your doctor whether my generic recommendations make sense for your cancer and your drug regimen.

If this study advanced our knowledge at all, it would be that:

  • The supplements most likely to interfere with chemotherapy appear to be high dose antioxidants, vitamin B12, and iron supplements.
  • Multivitamins, even multivitamins with iron when appropriate, are unlikely to interfere with chemotherapy.

The Bottom Line 

Recent headlines have warned, “Supplement Use During Chemotherapy May Be Risky”. Is that true?

However, when you analyze the study behind the headlines you realize that the evidence supporting the headlines is very weak.

So, that puts us back to where we were before the study was published. Simply put:

  • It is theoretically possible that supplements interfere with chemotherapy, but we don’t know for sure.
  • A pragmatic approach is to avoid supplementation for a day or two before to a day or two after each round of chemotherapy. This is a strategy designed to minimize the possibility that supplementation would interfere with chemotherapy and maximize the possibility that supplementation might aid in recovery between rounds of chemotherapy.

Note: This is generic advice. I am not a medical doctor, so it would be unethical for me to provide individualized advice on how to minimize interactions between supplements and the chemotherapy drugs you are on. What I recommend is that you ask your doctor whether my generic recommendations make sense for your cancer and your drug regimen.

If this study advanced our knowledge at all, it would be that:

  • The supplements most likely to interfere with chemotherapy appear to be high dose antioxidants, vitamin B12, and iron supplements.
  • Multivitamins, even multivitamins with iron when appropriate, are unlikely to interfere with chemotherapy.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

Health Tips From The Professor