The Truth About Vitamin D And Respiratory Diseases

How Should You Prepare For This Winter?

deadSome health experts are making dire predictions for this fall when COVID-19 overlaps with our annual flu season. People are worried.

When people are worried, hucksters smell a quick buck and start coming out of the woodworks. They are touting all sorts of miracle pills and potions that will keep us safe this winter. The FDA is doing its best to shut them down, but it’s like the “Whack A Mole” game you may remember from the county fair. As soon as the FDA shuts one down, another pops up.

In the meantime, you are left trying to sort through the claims. I could write a whole book on the truth (and lies) about the claims you are seeing on the internet. But this week I will focus on vitamin D. I will give you unbiased answers to three questions.

1) What is the truth about vitamin D and respiratory disease?

2) Will vitamin D help protect you against COVID-19?

3) How should you prepare for this winter?

I am basing today’s “Health Tip” on a recently published study (H Brenner et al, Nutrients 2020, 12, 2488) looking at the effect of vitamin D status on deaths from respiratory disease in older German adults.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data from this study were taken from an ongoing study in Germany looking at the effect of diet and lifestyle on health outcomes in older adults. In this case, 9548 adults, ages 50-75, from the region of Saarland in Germany were enrolled in the study between 2000 and 2002 and followed for an average of 15 years.

Blood samples were drawn at the time of enrollment and 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were determined as a measure of vitamin D status. Deaths and cause of deaths over the 15 year period were obtain from German health records.

The basic characteristics of the study population were:

  • The gender breakdown was 43.8% men, 52.6% female.
  • The average age was 62.1 years.
  • Almost all participants were Caucasians of German or French descent.
  • 8% were vitamin D insufficient (25-hydroxyvitamin D of 30-<50 nmol/L)
  • 1% were vitamin D deficient (25-hydroxyvitamin D of <30 nmol/L)

Note: Almost 60% of this study group had an inadequate vitamin D status. The comparable figures for the US population are 42% with inadequate vitamin D status (34% vitamin D insufficient and 8% vitamin D deficient).

The reasons for this are likely two-fold:

  • Saarland is at the latitude of Newfoundland, Canada, so sun exposure is less than for most Americans.
  • Germans are less likely to consume supplements than Americans.

However, the fact that 60% of this study group has inadequate vitamin D status makes it a particularly good group to look at the effect of vitamin D status on health outcomes.

The Truth About Vitamin D And Respiratory Diseases

the truth signThis study found:

  • Vitamin D insufficiency (25-hydroxyvitamin D of 30-<50 nmol/L) increased the risk of dying from respiratory disease by 1.9-fold for men and 2.1-fold for women.
  • Vitamin D deficiency (25-hydroxyvitamin D of <30 nmol/L) increased the risk of dying from respiratory disease by 2.3-fold for men and 3.0-fold for women.

The authors pointed out that this was consistent with a recent meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials showing that supplementation with RDA levels of vitamin D reduced the risk of acute respiratory tract infections by 70% in people who were vitamin D deficient.

The authors concluded:

“Vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency are common and account for a large proportion of respiratory disease mortality in older adults…Our results, along with evidence from meta-analyses from RCTs [Randomized Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trials] regarding results of vitamin D3 supplementation on various outcomes, suggest that vitamin D3 supplementation could contribute to lowering mortality from respiratory and other diseases during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among women.”

How Should You Prepare For This Winter?

Winter WindNow it is time to answer the three questions I posed at the beginning of this article:

1) What is the truth about vitamin D and respiratory disease?

There have been many studies suggesting that inadequate vitamin D status increases the risk of “catching” respiratory diseases such as the seasonal flu. Some of those studies showed that supplementation with vitamin D3 reduced the risk of catching respiratory diseases. However, most of those were small studies.

This study and the meta-analysis the authors referred to were much larger, better designed studies. Other large, well designed studies are needed. But, taken together, these two studies strongly support the hypothesis that inadequate vitamin D status significantly increases the risk of developing and dying from respiratory diseases.

However, we do need to put this into perspective.

  • Supplementation with vitamin D primarily protects individuals with inadequate vitamin D status. It doesn’t appear to offer significant benefit for individuals with adequate vitamin D status (>50 nmol/L 25-hydroxyvitamin D).
  • Supplementation with vitamin D at doses of 2,000 IU or less appears to be sufficient for most people. There is little evidence that megadoses are beneficial unless you are severely vitamin D deficient (more about that below).

2) Will vitamin D help protect you against COVID-19?

vitamin dThe answer to this question is less clear. As we learn more about COVID-19 we have learned that it is much more than just a respiratory disease. On the other hand, cellular studies suggest that vitamin D may interfere with the mechanism by which COVID-19 attacks cells.

What do clinical studies say? We are just learning. Four small clinical trials and one large study have recently been published or posted online as preprints prior to being accepted for publication.

  • The second study (HW Kaufman et al, PLOS One, September 17, 2020) used data from a major national testing center (Quest Diagnostics) and linked COVID-19 test results with 25-hydroxyvitamin D test results for 191,779 patients. This study reported that vitamin D deficiency was associated with a 30% increased risk of testing positive for COVID-19.
  • The third study found that vitamin D deficiency was associated with hospital admissions for COVID-19.
  • The fourth study found that vitamin D deficiency was associated ICU admissions for COVID-19.

Taken together these 5 studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of being infected by COVID-19 and on the severity of the disease if you are infected.

I should point out that these studies are preliminary. Normally we would say that they need to be confirmed by larger studies before becoming incorporated into the standard of care for COVID-19.

You might be saying to yourself, , “Why is the medical community paying so much attention to preliminary studies?” The answer is simple:

  • The need is urgent. We need all the tools at our disposal to fight this deadly disease, and we need them now.
  • Vitamin D3 supplementation at 2,000 IU or less is inexpensive and safe. Plus, even if further studies find that our vitamin D status has no effect on COVID-19 risk, we know that adequate vitamin D has many other potential health benefits.

To summarize:

  • Preliminary studies suggest that adequate vitamin D status may offer some protection for COVID-19. These studies are not definitive. No reputable scientist is ready to tell you that vitamin D will ward off COVID-19. However, supplementation with 2000 IU/day or less of vitamin D3 is safe and may have multiple health benefits.
  • Vitamin D should not be considered a “magic bullet”. It is just one aspect of a holistic approach to creating a healthy body that is less susceptible to respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

3) How Should You Prepare For This Winter?

Winter WindAs we approach the winter months, the days are getting shorter and sun exposure is decreasing. This is the time of year when your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels will be at their lowest.

At the same time, we are likely to see a convergence of the seasonal flu, flu-like illnesses, and COVID-19 this winter. You will need a healthy body, a healthy immune system, and adequate vitamin D status more than ever.

When asked about vitamin D and COVID-19 in a recent interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “If you’re deficient in vitamin D, that does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection. I would not mind recommending, and I do it myself, taking vitamin D supplements.”

I recommend supplementation with vitamin D3 to make sure your vitamin D status is adequate. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU for adults and 800 IU for seniors over the age of 70. However, because the efficiency with which we convert vitamin D3 to 25-hydroxyvitamin D varies from person to person, many experts recommend supplementing with 1,500-2,000 IU of vitamin D3.

I also recommend that you ask your health provider for a 25-hydroxyvitamin D test. If you are in the vitamin D deficient range, your health provider may recommend more than 2,000 IU/day of vitamin D3.

Finally, we should not rely on vitamin D alone. As I discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, I recommend a holistic approach for strengthening our immune systems, and I recommend the CDC guidelines for reducing the risk of catching both the flu and COVID-19.

I would note that social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing are just as effective at reducing the risk of getting the flu as they are for getting COVID-19. In fact, some Asian countries practice mask wearing in public every flu season.

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study found that inadequate vitamin D status caused a 2-3-fold increased risk of dying from respiratory illnesses for seniors (ages 50-74).
  • A previous meta-analysis reported that supplementation with RDA levels of vitamin D reduced the risk of acute respiratory tract infections by 70% in people who were vitamin D deficient.
  • Taken together, these two studies strongly support the hypothesis that inadequate vitamin D status significantly increases the risk of developing and dying from respiratory diseases.
  • Preliminary studies suggest that adequate vitamin D status may offer some protection for COVID-19. These studies are not definitive. No reputable scientist is ready to tell you that vitamin D will ward off COVID-19. However, supplementation with 2000 IU/day or less of vitamin D3 is safe and may have multiple health benefits.
  • Vitamin D should not be considered a “magic bullet”. It just one aspect of a holistic approach to creating a healthy body that is less susceptible to respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

So, how should we prepare for this winter?

  • As we approach the winter months, the days are getting shorter and sun exposure is decreasing. This is the time of year when your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels will be at their lowest.
  • At the same time, we are likely to see a convergence of the seasonal flu, flu-like illnesses, and COVID-19 this winter. You will need a healthy body, a healthy immune system, and adequate vitamin D status more than ever.
  • I recommend supplementation with vitamin D3 to make sure your vitamin D status is adequate. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU for adults and 800 IU for seniors over the age of 70. However, because the efficiency with which we convert vitamin D3 to 25-hydroxyvitamin D varies from person to person, many experts recommend supplementing with 1,500-2,000 IU of vitamin D3.
  • Finally, we should not rely on vitamin D alone. As I discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, I recommend a holistic approach for strengthening our immune systems, and I recommend the CDC guidelines for reducing the risk of catching both the flu and COVID-19.

I would note that social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing are just as effective at reducing the risk of getting the flu as they are for getting COVID-19. In fact, some Asian countries practice mask wearing in public every flu season.

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.

Preparing For The New Normal

Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System?

COVID-19The United States and the rest of the world are facing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes. COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people and decimated economies around the world.

As of the publication date of this article we have no vaccine and only one treatment option that appears to be about 30% effective in a preliminary clinical trial. People are scared.

The question I get asked most often is: “Can supplements protect me from COVID-19”. That’s not a question I can answer with confidence. The few studies we have are small and preliminary. Plus, there is too much we still do not know about COVID-19.

However, there are studies about how diet and supplements affect the immune system. I can answer the question, “Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System”, with confidence. That will be the focus of this article.

However, before covering that, let me take an objective look at what our “New Normal” will be like and how we can prepare for it.

Preparing For The New Normal

ProfessorAs a scientist I am appalled by the divisive and hyper-partisan arguments about how we should be handling the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a time when our country should be united against a common enemy. Instead I see myths and lies propagated on both sides of this important issue.

The press only magnifies the problem by repeating the myths without fact checking. Whether they are on the left or the right, the media only repeats myths that fit their narrative. As a result, people like you are confused and scared.

Let me try to give you a more objective and scientific view of what the “New Normal” will look like, and how we can prepare for it.

Let’s start with one of the biggest arguments over the past few weeks – when should we reopen our country. This argument is based on the myth that if we wait long enough, the virus will be gone, and life can return to normal.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality viruses don’t work that way. They continue to circulate through the population at low levels. Whenever we emerge from our homes and resume our daily lives, the virus will be lurking. There will be flare-ups. There will be hot spots. There will be deaths. And the press will report every one.

So, the question should not be when we emerge. It should be how we emerge. We should emerge cautiously. We should continue to take appropriate precautions. These precautions will become our “New Normal” until we have an effective vaccine. By now, you probably have the CDC precautions memorized, but let me repeat them here:

  • If you are sick, stay home until you recover. If your symptoms worsen, contact your doctor right away.
  • If you are exposed, get tested right away and self-quarantine for 14 days if you test positive.
  • When you go out, wear a face mask and practice social distancing. When you get home, wash your hands in soap and water for 20”.
  • For now, we will need to avoid the customary handshake (and if you are from the South like me, the customary hug).
  • If you are very old or very sick, you should stay home as much as possible. If you have a loved one in this category, you should do everything in your power to protect them from exposure.
  • The guideline that is hardest to project into the future is the one on crowd size. It is hard to predict what the CDC will recommend about crowd size as part of our “New Normal” a few months from now. However, because this virus is extremely contagious, it may be risky to attend any gatherings where there are large, tightly packed crowds for the foreseeable future. This could include some of our favorite things – like movies, live theater, night clubs, and sporting events.Myth Versus Facts

Finally, there is another big myth, namely that the virus will simply disappear once we have a vaccine. Vaccines reduce your risk of exposure because fewer people are carriers of the virus. However, coronaviruses never disappear. They continue to circulate in the population for decades.

Even after we have a vaccine, people will still get sick from COVID-19. People will still die from COVID-19. The difference is that we will no longer hear about COVID-19 cases and deaths on the nightly news. Those cases and deaths will just become part of the statistics that the CDC collects on flu-like illnesses each year – and everyone ignores.

Now that I have discussed what the “New Normal” will look like and summarized the CDC guidelines for reducing your exposure to COVID-19 as the lockdown eases, let me add another guideline of my own:

  • Keep your immune system as strong as possible.

Why Is Keeping Your Immune System Strong Important?

strong immune systemIt is no secret that the media likes to focus on bad news. It is the bad news that draws people in and keeps them coming back for more.

Pandemics are no different. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Spanish flu, SARS, MERS, or COVID-19. We focus on cases and deaths – the bad news. We ignore the good news – there are millions of people who were infected and had no symptoms.

However, if you have been listening closely to what the experts have been saying rather than relying on the media for your information, the good news is obvious.

  • 80-85% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms. Their symptoms are no worse than they experience with the seasonal flu.
  • Preliminary antibody tests suggest that the number of people infected with COVID-19 who experience no symptoms may be 10 to 40 times higher than reported cases.
  • The experts say that the difference is a strong immune system. They tell us that it is people with weakened immune systems that suffer and die from COVID-19.

So, how do you keep your immune system strong? Let’s start by looking at the role of supplementation.

Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System?

MultivitaminsThose of you who follow me know that I consider supplementation as just one aspect of a holistic approach to health. However, I am starting with supplements because the question I am often asked these days is: “Can supplements protect me from COVID-19”.

As I said at the beginning of this article, that is not a question I can answer with confidence. Instead, the question you should be asking is, “Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System?”

As I mentioned above, the experts are telling us that it is people with weakened immune systems who suffer and die from COVID-19. That means it is important to keep our immune system as strong as possible.

How do we do that? Here is what an international group of experts said in a recent review (PC Calder et al, Nutrients, 12, 1181-1200, 2020).

1) “A wealth of mechanistic and clinical data show that vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate; trace elements zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper; and omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA play important and complementary roles in supporting the immune system.”

2) “Inadequate intake and status of these nutrients are widespread, leading to a decrease in resistance to infections, and an increase in disease burden.”

They then made the following recommendations:

1) Supplementation with the above micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids is a safe, effective, and low-cost strategy to help support optimal immune function.

    • They recommended 100% of the RDA for vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate and minerals zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper in addition to the consumption of a well-balanced diet.
    • They recommended 250 mg/day of EPA + DHA.

2) Supplementation above the RDA for vitamins C and D is warranted.

    • They recommend 200 mg/day of vitamin C for healthy individuals and 1-2 g/day for individuals who are sick.
    • They recommend 2000 IU/day (50 ug/day) for vitamin D.

3) Public health officials are encouraged to include nutritional strategies in their recommendations to improve public health.

Their recommendations could be met by a multivitamin that provides all the micronutrients they recommend, an omega-3 supplement, and extra vitamins C and D.

What Else Should I Do To Strengthen My Immune System?

healthy foodsAs I said above, supplementation is only one part of a holistic approach to a strong immune system. Here are the other components of a holistic approach:

1) It starts with a healthy diet.

    • Eat foods from all 5 food groups.
    • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. They provide antioxidants and phytonutrients that are important for our immune system.
    • Eat plenty of high fiber foods. Include whole grains and beans in addition to fruits and vegetables. That’s because the friendly gut bacteria that strengthen our immune system need a variety of fibers from different food sources to feed on.
    • Eat oily fish on a regular basis.
    • Avoid sodas, sugary foods, and highly processed foods.
    • Avoid high fat diets

2) Get adequate sleep. For most of us, that means 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

3) Maintain a healthy weight.

4) Get adequate exercise. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week.

5) Manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways. Yes, that means if you let the news about COVID-19 cause anxiety, you are weakening your immune system. You may want to turn off the news and try prayer, meditation, yoga, or whatever relieves stress for you.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I summarized the “New Normal” we face as we emerge from lockdown and how to navigate the new normal as safely as possible. If I were to summarize this article in a few short sentences, this is what I would say:

Until we have an effective vaccine the “New Normal” is a world in which a dangerous virus is lurking in the community, waiting to strike the unprepared.

Forget all the angry rhetoric about when we should emerge from lockdown. The important question is not when we emerge. It is how we emerge.

We don’t need to stay huddled in our homes, fearful to leave, unless we are very old or very sick.

We do need to take appropriate precautions when we leave home based on the recommendations of the CDC. None of us are invincible as far as this virus is concerned. More importantly, if we bring the virus home, we may kill the very people we love the most. We need to follow the guidelines.

We should also make sure that our immune system is as strong as possible through a holistic combination of diet, supplementation, adequate sleep, exercise, weight management, and stress reduction.

For more information on CDC COVID-19 Guidelines, click here.

For more details about preparing for the new normal and diet & supplementation recommendations, 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.

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