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.

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.

Does Vitamin D Prevent Type 1 Diabetes?

Does Genetics Influence Supplementation Benefits?

diabetesThe cause of type 1 diabetes is a mystery. If you go to an authoritarian source like the Mayo Clinic, you will discover that:

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that selectively attacks the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas.
  • Certain genetic variants predispose individuals to type 1 diabetes.
  • The autoimmune response may be triggered by a viral infection or other unknown environmental factors in genetically susceptible individuals.
  • The incidence of type 1 diabetes increases as you travel away from the equator, which suggests that vitamin D may be involved.

The idea that vitamin D may be involved is an important concept because it suggests that vitamin D supplementation might reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. This idea was reinforced by a Finnish study (E Hyponnen et al, Lancet, 358: 1500-1503, 2001) published in 2001 showing the vitamin D supplementation of newborn infants reduced the incidence of type 1 diabetes at age 1.

However, subsequent studies in other parts of the world have had mixed results. Some have confirmed the results of the Finnish study. Others have come up empty.

Similarly, some studies have shown a correlation between low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in the blood and the development of type 1 diabetes in children, while other studies have found no correlation.

Why the discrepancy between studies? Some of the differences can be explained by differences in the populations studied or differences in study design. But what if there were another variable that none of the previous studies has considered?

The study (JM Norris et al, Diabetes, 67: 146-154, 2018) I review this week describes just such a variable. The authors of the study hypothesized that the association between 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and the risk of developing type 1 diabetes is influenced by mutations that affect the way vitamin D works in the body. Previous studies have not taken these mutations into account. If the author’s hypothesis is true, it might explain why these studies have produced conflicting results.

In this article, I will answer 3 questions:

  • Does vitamin D prevent type 1 diabetes?
  • If so, is supplementation with vitamin D important?
  • Who will benefit most from vitamin D supplementation?

But, before I answer those questions, I should begin by providing some background. I will start by reviewing the how diet, increased need, disease, and genetics influence the likelihood that we will benefit from supplementation. Then I will review vitamin D metabolism.

Does Genetics Influence Supplementation Benefits?

need for supplementsThe reason so many studies find no benefit from supplementation is that they are asking the wrong question. They are asking “Does supplementation benefit everyone?” That is an unrealistic expectation.

I have proposed a much more realistic model (shown on the left) for when we should expect supplementation to be beneficial. Simply put, we should ask:

  • Is the diet inadequate with respect to the nutrient that is being studied?
  • Is there an increased need for that nutrient because of age, gender, activity level, or environment?
  • Is there a genetic mutation that affects the metabolism or need for that nutrient?
  • Is there an underlying disease state that affects the need for that nutrient?

When clinical studies are designed without taking this paradigm into account, they are doomed to fail. Let me give you some specific examples.

  • The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation study concluded supplementation with folate and other B vitamins did not reduce heart disease risk. The problem was that 70% of the people in the study were getting adequate amounts of folate from their diet at the beginning of the study. For those individuals not getting enough folate in their diet, B vitamin supplementation decreased their risk of heart disease by 15%. This is an example of poor diet influencing the need for supplementation.

The other three examples come from studies on the effect of vitamin E supplementation on heart disease that I summarized in an article in “Health Tips From The Professor” a few years ago. Here is a brief synopsis.

  • The Women’s Health Study concluded that vitamin E did not decrease heart disease risk in the general population. However, the study also found that in women over 65 (who are at high risk of heart disease), vitamin E supplementation decreased major cardiovascular events and cardiovascular deaths by 25%. This is an example of increased need because of age and gender influencing the need for supplementation.
  • The Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study” concluded that vitamin E did not decrease heart disease risk in the general population. However, when they looked at women who already had cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study, vitamin E supplementation decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular death by 23%. This is an example of an underlying disease affecting the need for supplementation.
  • The HOPE study concluded that vitamin E did not decrease heart disease risk in the general population. However, when they looked at individuals with a mutation that increases the risk of heart disease, vitamin E supplementation significantly decreased their risk of developing heart disease. This is an example of genetics affecting the need for supplementation.

These are just a few of many examples. When you ask whether supplementation benefits everyone, the answer is often no. However, when you look at people with inadequate diet, increased need, underlying disease, and/or genetic predisposition, the answer is often yes.

This background sets the stage for the current study. Of course, to understand the author’s hypothesis that mutations in genes involved in vitamin D metabolism might influence the effect of vitamin D on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes, you need to know a little about vitamin D metabolism.

Biochemistry 101: Vitamin D Metabolism

Vitamin D MetabolismWhen sunlight strikes a metabolite of cholesterol in our skin, it is converted to a precursor that spontaneously isomerizes to form vitamin D3. Because this series of reactions is usually not sufficient to provide all the vitamin D3 our bodies require, we also need to get vitamin D3 from diet and supplementation.

However, vitamin D3 is not active by itself. It first needs to be converted to 25-hydroxyvitamin D by our liver and then to the active 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D. 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D is an important hormone that regulates many cells in our body.

Some of the 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D is synthesized by our kidneys and released into the bloodstream. This 1,25-dihyroxyvitamin D binds to vitamin D receptors on the surface of many cells and initiates regulatory pathways that affect metabolism inside the cell.

Other cells take up 25-hydroxyvitamin D and convert it to 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D themselves. In these cells both the synthesis and regulatory effects of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D occur entirely inside the cell.

In both cases, it is 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D that regulates cellular metabolism. The only difference is the way this regulation is accomplished.

There are two additional points that are relevant to this study.

  • The efficiency of conversion of vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D varies from person to person.
    • Thus, blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D are considered a more reliable measure of vitamin D status than dietary intake of vitamin D or sun exposure.
    • Blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels ≥50 nmol/L are considered optimal, while levels of 30 to <50 nmol/L are considered suboptimal, and levels <30 nmol/L are considered deficient.
  • 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D binds to the vitamin D receptor on immune cells. This initiates a series of reactions that decrease the risk of autoimmune responses by our immune system.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was called TEDDY (The Environmental Determinants Of Type 1 Diabetes in the Young). Between September 2004 and February 2010, 424,788 newborn infants from 6 medical centers in Colorado, Georgia, Washington, Finland, Germany, and Sweden were screened for genes that predispose to type 1 diabetes.

The investigators identified 21,589 high-risk infants, and 8,676 of them were enrolled in this study before age 4 months. Clinic visits for the children occurred every 3 months between 3 and 48 months of age and every 6 months thereafter.

  • A DNA sample was taken at the time they entered the study and analyzed for mutations in genes involved in vitamin D metabolism.
  • 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels were obtained at each office visit. Because some studies have suggested the vitamin D status during the first year of life is important, the data were analyzed in two ways.
    1. An average of all 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (referred to as “childhood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels”).
    1. An average of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels during the first 12 months (referred to as “early infancy 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels”).
  • Serum autoantibodies to pancreatic islet cells were measured at each office visit as a measure of an autoimmune attack on those cells. Persistent autoimmune response was defined as positive autoantibodies on two consecutive office visits.

While this study did not directly measure type 1 diabetes, children with an autoimmune response to their pancreatic islet cells are highly likely to develop type 1 diabetes. Thus, for purposes of simplicity I will refer to “risk of developing type 1 diabetes” rather than “persistent autoimmune response” in describing these results.

    1. 418 children developed persistent autoantibodies to their pancreatic islet cells during the study. The onset of this autoimmune response ranged from 2 months to 72 months with an average of 21 months.
    1. These children were compared to 3 matched controls from their medical center who did not develop an autoimmune response.

This study was remarkable for two reasons:

1) It was much larger than previous studies. This gave it greater power to detect an effect of vitamin D status on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

2) This was the first study to ask whether mutations in genes controlling the metabolism of vitamin D influenced the effect of vitamin D on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Does Vitamin D Prevent Type 1 Diabetes?

Vitamin DThe study compared the risk of developing type 1 diabetes in children whose 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were optimal (≥50 nmol/L) to children whose 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were suboptimal (30 to <50 nmol/L). The results were:

  • Optimal vitamin D status during childhood was associated with a 31% decrease in the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  • Optimal vitamin D status during early infancy (first 12 months) was associated with a 40% decrease in the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

In other words, having optimal vitamin D status significantly reduces the likelihood of developing of type 1 diabetes in childhood.

  • 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels >75 nmol/L provided no additional benefit.

In other words, you need sufficient vitamin D, but higher levels provide no additional benefit.

  • They tested 5 genes involved in vitamin D metabolism to see if they influenced the effect of vitamin D on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Only the VDR (vitamin D receptor) gene had any influence.
    • When the VDR gene was fully functional, optimal vitamin D status had no effect on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. This means that even suboptimal (30 to <50 nmol/L) levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D were sufficient to prevent type 1 diabetes when the vitamin D receptor was fully functional.
    • Only 9% of the children in this study were vitamin D deficient (<30 nmol/L 25-hydroxyvitamin D). Presumably, these children would be at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes even with a fully functional VDR gene. However, there were not enough children in that category to test this hypothesis.
  • When they looked at children with mutations in the VDR gene:
    • Optimal vitamin D status during childhood was associated with a 59% decrease in the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
    • Optimal vitamin D status during early infancy (first 12 months) was associated with a 67% decrease in the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

In short, the need for optimal vitamin D levels to reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes is only seen in children with a mutation in the VDR (vitamin D receptor) gene.

  • This is a clear example of genetics affecting the need for a nutrient.
    • For children with a fully functional VDR gene, even 30-50 nmol/L 25-hydroxyvitamin D was sufficient to reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
    • However, children with mutations in the VDR gene required ≥50 nmol/L 25-hydroxyvitamin D to reduce their risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  • This is also an example of genetics affecting the need for supplementation with vitamin D.
    • 42% of the children in this study had suboptimal levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Those who also have a mutation in the VDR gene would require supplementation to bring their 25-hydroxyvitamin D up to the optimal level to reduce their risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
    • Other studies have estimated that up to 61% of children in the US may have suboptimal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanLet’s start with the three questions I proposed at the beginning of this article.

1) Does vitamin D prevent type 1 diabetes? Based on this study, the answer appears to be a clear yes. However, this is the first study of this kind. We need more studies that into account the effect of mutations in the VDR gene.

2) If so, is supplementation with vitamin D important? If we think in terms of supplementation with RDA levels of vitamin D or sufficient vitamin D to bring 25-hydroxyvitamin D into the optimal range, the answer is also a clear yes. However, there is no evidence from this study that higher doses of vitamin D provide additional benefits.

3) Who will benefit most from vitamin D supplementation? Based on this study, the children who will benefit the most from vitamin D supplementation are those who have a suboptimal vitamin D status and have a mutation in the VDR (vitamin D receptor) gene. To put this into perspective:

    • Up to 60% of children and adults in this country have suboptimal vitamin D levels.
    • The percentage of suboptimal vitamin D levels is highest for people who are obese, have pigmented skin, are institutionalized (eg, elderly in nursing homes), and/or live far from the equator.
    • Supplementation with a multivitamin containing the RDA for vitamin D reduces the risk of having suboptimal vitamin D status by 2.5 to 5-fold depending on the person’s ethnicity.
    • This study may be just the tip of the iceberg. The vitamin D receptor is also found on many other cells that control important biological functions.

Finally, if you are a parent or parent-to-be, you probably have several questions. Here are the ones I have New Parentsanticipated:

#1: Is my child at risk for developing type 1 diabetes? If you or a close family member has type 1 diabetes, you can assume your child is genetically predisposed to developing type 1 diabetes. Other factors that increase your child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes are obesity, non-White ethnicity, and geographical location far from the equator.

#2: Should I have my baby tested for genetic predisposition to type 1 diabetes? That is not currently recommended. Just be aware of the risk factors listed above.

#3: Should I have my baby tested for VDR mutations? That is unnecessary. If your child has a VDR mutation, they just need sufficient vitamin D, not mega doses of vitamin D. And there are lots of other reasons for making sure your child gets sufficient vitamin D.

#4: How much vitamin D should my child be getting? The recommendation is 400 IU up to age 1 and 600 IU over age 1.

#5: Should I give my child vitamin D supplements? It is a good idea. For children over age 1, I recommend a multivitamin supplying 600 IU of vitamin D.

For infants, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends 400 IU vitamin D drops, regardless of whether the infants are breast or formula fed. That is because studies during the first year of life show that less than one-fifth of all infants get the recommended 400 IU/d from any source, and fewer than one out of 10 breast-fed infants meet the requirement – even if the mother is getting adequate vitamin D in their diet.

One Caution: I do not recommend exceeding 400 IU for infants or 600 IU for children unless directed by your health care provider. In terms of the risk of developing type 1 diabetes, your child needs sufficient vitamin D, and more is not better.

#6: Should I have my child tested for 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels? That is not done routinely at the present time. However, if your child has one or more of the risk factors listed above, it is a conversation you should have with your health care provider.

The Bottom Line

While it is widely accepted that vitamin D helps reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes in childhood, that has been difficult to prove. Clinical studies have provided conflicting results. The authors of a recent study postulated that the discrepancies between studies may have arisen because the studies neglected the effect of mutations in genes controlling vitamin D metabolism which may affect the ability of vitamin D to reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

This study found that:

1) Infants and children with optimal vitamin D status (25-hydroxyvitamin D levels ≥50 nmol/L) were 31-40% less likely to develop type 1 diabetes than children with suboptimal vitamin D status (25-hydroxyvitamin D = 30 to <50 nmol/L).

2) However, the effect of vitamin D on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes was only seen in children with one or more mutations in the VDR (vitamin D receptor) gene. To interpret this observation, you need to know that:

    • Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune attack on the pancreatic islet cells that release insulin.
    • 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D promotes immune tolerance and decreases the risk of autoimmune responses.
    • 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D exerts this effect by binding to the vitamin D receptor on the surface of immune cells.

3) Thus, mutations in the VDR gene modify the effect of vitamin D on the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Specifically:

    • When the VDR gene is fully active, even suboptimal levels of vitamin D appear to be sufficient to prevent the development of type 1 diabetes in childhood.
    • However, when the VDR gene has mutations that reduce its activity, suboptimal levels of vitamin D no longer prevent type 1 diabetes. Optimal levels of vitamin D are required to reduce the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

This is an example of genetics increasing the need for a nutrient (vitamin D) and increasing the need for supplementation to make sure that optimal levels of that nutrient are achieved.

While this study focused on the effect of vitamin D on the development of type 1 diabetes, this may just be the tip of the iceberg. The vitamin D receptor is also found on many other cells that control important biological functions.

For more details, read the article above. You will probably want to read the section “What Does This Mean For You?”, including my recommendations for parents of young children

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.

The Two Biggest Misconceptions About Supplementation

Secrets You Need To Know

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Nutrition MythsIn last week’s “Health Tips From The Professor” I told you the truth behind the headlines that vitamins are a waste of money. This week I’m going to be talking about the two biggest misconceptions that people have about supplementation. These are two secrets you need to know.

The Two Biggest Misconceptions About Supplementation

I won’t keep you in suspense. The answer is pretty simple. The two biggest misconceptions about supplementation that I hear over and over are:

1)     Supplementation can cure disease

2)     It doesn’t matter what you eat (or what supplements you take)

Of course, those statements don’t tell you much by themselves, so let’s delve into the subject more deeply.

Misconception #1: Supplementation can cure disease.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked “I have “disease X”. What supplements should I take? – as if supplements were drugs that can be taken to cure a disease.

We shouldn’t think of supplements as drugs that cure diseases. We should think of them as providing the nutrients that are the building blocks of health – or perhaps the ammunition that the body uses to fight diseases. Diseases, after all, are an abnormal state of being, and our bodies have an amazing capacity to fight those diseases.

When we have infections or cancer our body activates its immune system to fight it. When we have inflammation our body tries to put out the fire. When we have damage to our DNA – our genetic information – our body tries to repair it. The list is almost endless. Our bodies are wondrously designed!

Our immune systems require nutrients like protein, B vitamins, antioxidants, zinc and iron. The omega-3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants and polyphenols like resveratrol are anti-inflammatory. Nutrients like antioxidants and polyphenols support DNA repair.

So proper diet and supplementation are not “magic bullets” that cure diseases. They are simply the building blocks that allow the body to do what it does best.

And because no two of us are alike the nutrients that we need the most to allow our bodies to do their job efficiently may be different for each one of us.

So while there is no magic food or supplement that will cure a specific disease, a healthy diet and a holistic approach to supplementation can often work wonders.

Misconception #2: It doesn’t matter what you eat.

This is the flip side of the coin. I often come across people who have been told by the “experts” that the cause of their disease was not related to diet so they shouldn’t worry about what they eat. They are also usually told that supplementation will not do any good.

Let’s take the most extreme example – genetically caused diseases or serious degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s for which the causes are still not fully understood.

It is generally true that these diseases were not caused by poor diet (MS may be the exception because there is some evidence that it can be caused by inadequate vitamin D during childhood). And I know many people who take the “expert’s” advice to heart and eat whatever they like and consider supplementation a waste of money.

Is that a sound approach? Let’s consider.

Any nutritionist will tell you that an inadequate diet can lead to malaise, low energy, inflammation, weakened immune system and impaired wound healing – just to name a few maladies. Even if you don’t end up with the symptoms of a nutritional deficiency, a poor diet can rob you of energy and vitality.

If you layer the consequences of a poor diet on top of the underlying disease, your chances of being able to cope with the disease and function optimally are greatly diminished.

I have come across many people with very serious diseases who are able to function at a very high level through proper diet and a holistic approach to supplementation.

Diet and supplementation did not cure their disease as they quickly discover if they stop supplementing and go back to the way they used to eat, but in many cases you would consider them to be perfectly healthy as long as they keep doing what they have been doing.

The Bottom Line

1) There is no perfect food or supplement that is capable of curing disease, but if you give your body the nutrients that it needs it often has the ability to heal itself.

2) Proper diet and supplementation can make a difference even if the disease was not caused by poor nutrition.

3) Each of us have unique nutritional needs so a holistic approach to diet and supplementation is best.

I didn’t specifically talk about weight control and exercise, but you should know from my previous “Health Tips From The Professor” that I consider them to be an essential part of any holistic health program.

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