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.

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

fish and fish oilI understand your confusion. One month the headlines say that omega 3 supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease. The next month headlines claim that omega 3 supplements are worthless. What is the truth about omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk?

Let me start by sharing the two of the most recent studies on the topic. They are both very large, well designed studies. However, the reason I selected these two studies is that they approached the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk in very different ways but came to the same conclusion.

The first study (Y Hu et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, Volume 8, Issue 19, 1 October 2019) was a meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled clinical studies looking at the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk.

The second study (Z-H Li et al, British Medical Journal, BMJ2020;368:m456) looked at the association between habitual omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk.

Each of these studies had strengths and weaknesses, but they complemented each other. The weaknesses of one study were the strengths of the other study.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyStudy #1: The 13 studies included in the meta-analysis had a total of 127,477 participants (mean age 64, 60% male, mostly overweight) who were given either an omega-3 supplement or a placebo.

  • 40% of the participants had diabetes.
  • 72% of the participants were on cholesterol lowering drugs and a variety of other medications.
  • Participants were followed for between 3 and 7.4 years (average follow-up period was 5 years).
  • The dose of omega 3s ranged between 376 and 4,000 mg/day.

The major strengths of this study were:

  • All 13 studies included in the meta-analysis were randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials.
  • The meta-analysis had a very large number of participants (nearly 130,000), so it was possible to accurately measure even small effects of omega 3 supplementation on heart disease risk.

The major weaknesses of this study were:

  • Most of the participants were already on multiple drugs that provided many of the same benefits as omega 3s, so it was impossible to assess the full effect of omega 3 supplementation on heart disease risk.
  • The duration of the clinical trials included in this meta-analysis was short compared to the decades required for heart disease to develop.
  • Most of the participants already had heart disease or were at high risk of developing heart disease. The people in these studies were not representative of the general population.

Study #2: The data for this study were obtained from the UK Biobank study which enrolled 427,678 participants (mean age 56, 45% male) from 22 medical centers across England, Scotland, and Wales. None of the participants had been diagnosed with heart disease or cancer at the time of enrollment.

At enrollment the participants filled out a detailed online questionnaire concerning their lifestyle, diet, diseases, medications, and supplement use. Among the questions was whether they habitually used fish oil supplements (Yes or No).

  • The participants were enrolled between 2006 and 2010 and followed for an average of 9 years.
  • 31% of the participants were already taking omega 3 supplements on a regular basis at the time they enrolled in the study. This was the omega 3 supplementation group. The remaining 69% was the control group.
  • Only 10% of the participants were taking statin drugs or aspirin, probably because none of them had been diagnosed with heart disease.
  • Around 10% of the participants had high blood pressure and were taking blood pressure medications.
  • Most of the participants were slightly overweight but only 4% had diabetes.

The main strengths of this study were:

  • Very few of the participants were on medications. That means that medications did not interfere with the effect of omega 3 supplementation.
  • The participants were already using omega 3 supplements at the time of enrollment and were followed for an additional 9 years. That means that the duration of omega 3 supplement use was much longer than in the first study.
  • The participants were healthy and free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. That means that the results of this study focused more on prevention than on treatment. It also means the results are more applicable to the general population.

The main weakness of this study was:

  • It was an association study, which cannot prove cause and effect. In contrast, the first study was based on randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials, which can prove cause and effect.

In short, the weaknesses of the first study were strengths of the second study and vice-versa.

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

strong heartStudy #1: The results from the meta-analysis of randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials were that omega 3 supplementation:

  • Reduced heart attacks by 12%.
  • Reduced overall heart disease risk by 7%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart disease by 8%.
  • Because of the large number of participants included in the meta-analysis, all these reductions were highly significant.
  • The risk reduction was linearly related to the dose of omega-3s, but the study did not allow estimation of an optimal omega-3 dose.

The authors concluded: “Marine [fish oil] omega-3 supplementation lowers risk for heart attack, overall heart disease risk, and heart disease death…Risk reductions appear to be linearly related to marine omega-3 dose.”

Study #2: This study showed that regular use of omega-3 supplements:

  • Reduced deaths from all causes by 13%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart attacks by 20%.
  • Reduced deaths from all types of heart disease by 16%.
  • Because of the large number of participants, all these reductions were highly significant.
  • This study did not collect data on omega-3 dose, so the study did not allow estimation of an optimal omega-3 dose.

The authors concluded: “Habitual use of fish oil seems to be associated with a lower risk of all cause mortality and heart disease mortality…,supporting their use for the prevention of mortality from all causes and heart disease. Future studies are needed to examine the extent to which the dose of fish oil supplements influences the ability to achieve a clinically meaningful effect.”

While these studies did not provide information on the optimal omega 3 dose, a previous study concluded that an omega-3 intake of 835 mg/day or higher is needed to achieve clinically meaningful reductions in heart disease risk.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

Heart Healthy DietThese two studies support the value of omega 3 supplementation for reducing heart disease risk. However, while risk reductions were highly significant, the magnitude of risk reduction was relatively small. That means we should think of omega-3 supplementation as part of a holistic approach to reducing our health disease risk. It is just one piece of the puzzle.

With that in mind, here is what the American Heart Association recommends for reducing your risk of heart disease:

  • If you smoke, stop.
  • Choose good nutrition.
    • Choose a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts.
    • Choose a diet that limits sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.
  • Reduce high blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
    • Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol and get moving.
    • If diet and physical activity don’t get those numbers under control, then medication may be the next step.
  • Lower High Blood Pressure.
  • Be physically active every day.Heart Healthy Exercise
    • Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Manage diabetes.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Limit alcohol.

Add in omega-3 supplementation to these recommendations and you have a winning combination.

The Bottom Line

Two major studies have recently been published on the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease. I felt it was important to evaluate these studies together because:

  • They are both very large, well designed studies.
  • They approached the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk in very different ways but came to the same conclusion.
  • They complemented each other. The weaknesses of one study were the strengths of the other study.

These studies showed that omega 3 supplementation:

  • Reduced heart attacks by 12-20%.
  • Reduced overall heart disease risk by 7%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart disease by 8-16%.
  • Reduced deaths from all causes by 13%

While these studies did not provide information on the optimal omega 3 dose, a previous study concluded that an omega-3 intake of 835 mg/day or higher is needed to achieve clinically meaningful reductions in heart disease risk.

For more details and the American Heart Association recommendations on what else you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease, read the article above.

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

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

adhd symptoms childrenThe prevalence of ADHD has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades. One study reported that the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased by 42% between 2003 and 2011. Another study reported an increase of 67% between 1997 and 2015. Currently, 10-12% of American schoolchildren are diagnosed with ADHD. That amounts to around 6 million children with ADHD, at a cost to taxpayers of over $45 billion.

An estimated 65% of children with ADHD are taking medications to control their symptoms. Unfortunately, those medications don’t work for 20-40% of patients with ADHD. Even worse, ADHD medications come with serious side effects like loss of appetite and delayed growth, sleep disorders, nausea & stomach pains, headaches, moodiness and irritability.

Even more worrisome is that many children say they “just don’t feel right” while they are on the drugs. Finally, there is the unintended message we are sending our children that drugs are the solution to their problems.

It is no wonder that millions of parents are looking for more natural solutions for their child’s ADHD. One of the most popular natural approaches is supplementation with omega-3s. But do omega-3 supplements work, or is this just another myth created by supplement companies to lighten your wallet?

The scientific evidence is conflicting. Some clinical studies support the efficacy of omega-3 supplements for reducing ADHD symptoms. Other studies claim they have no benefit.

In today’s issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, I review a recent meta-analysis (JP-C Chang et al, Neuropsychopharmacology, 43: 534-545, 2018) that attempts to provide a definitive answer to this question.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was designed to answer three questions:

1)    Does omega-3 supplementation reduce ADHD symptoms?

2)    Does omega-3 supplementation improve cognitive skills in children with ADHD?

3)    Is there an association between omega-3 status and ADHD?

Previous meta-analyses on these topics had design flaws such as:

·       Including both children and adult subjects.

·       Including subjects with diagnosis other than ADHD.

·       Including trials that supplemented with vitamins and other nutrients in addition to omega-3s.

The authors of this study tried to avoid these limitations by using the following criteria for the studies that were included in their meta-analysis.

1)    The studies were randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of omega-3 supplementation with DHA and EPA alone or in combination.

2)    The participants were school-aged children (4-12 years) and adolescents (13-17 years) who had a diagnosis of ADHD.

3)    The study measured the effect of omega-3 supplementation on clinical symptoms of ADHD or measures of cognitive performance (omission errors, commission errors, forward memory, backward memory, and information processing).

4)    The studies were large enough to measure statistically significant differences.

5)    The studies were published in peer-reviewed journals.

With these criteria there were:

·       Seven studies with 534 children looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

·       Three studies with 214 children looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognitive performance.

·       Twenty studies with 1276 children looking at the association between omega-3 status and ADHD.

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

adhd symptoms omega-3sThe results of this meta-analysis were as follows:

1)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced ADHD symptoms reported by parents.

2)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly improved cognitive measures associated with attention span (omission and commission errors). [Note: Omission errors consist of leaving important information out of an answer. Commission errors consist of including incorrect information in an answer.]

·       Omega-3 supplementation did not improve cognitive measures associated with memory and information processing. This has also been reported in most previous studies.

·       The best way to think of this is that children with ADHD are fully capable of learning their schoolwork. However, they may have trouble demonstrating what they have learned on exams because of omission and commission errors.

·       In this context, omega-3 supplementation may help them perform better on exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

3)    For hyperactivity, only studies with EPA dosages of 500 mg per day or greater showed a significant reduction in symptoms.

4)    Children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of DHA, EPA, and total omega-3s.

The authors concluded: “In summary, there is evidence that omega-3 supplementation … improves clinical symptoms and cognitive performances in children and adolescents with ADHD, and that these youth have a deficiency in omega-3 levels. Our findings provide further support to the rationale for using omega-3s as a treatment option for ADHD.”

They also said: “Our paper shows that EPA supplementation dosage >500 mg should be considered when treating youth with ADHD, especially those with predominantly hyperactivity/impulsivity presentation.”

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

ArgumentThis is an excellent study, but it is unlikely to be the final word on this subject. That is because there is a fundamental flaw in all previous studies on this important subject, including the ones included in this meta-analysis.

In the words of the authors: “In terms of ‘personalized medicine’, it is tempting to speculate that a subpopulation of youth with ADHD and low levels of omega-3s may respond better to omega-3 supplementation, but there are no studies to date attempting this approach.”

Until studies of omega-3 supplementation and ADHD symptoms include measures of omega-3 status before and after supplementation, those studies are likely to continue giving conflicting results. That is because:

·       If most of the children in the study have low omega-3 status, we are likely to see a positive effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

·       If most of the children in the study have high omega-3 status, we are likely to see a negative effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionWhile this study is unlikely to end the omega-3 controversy, it is a very well-designed study that combines the results of multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. In short, it is a very strong study.

Omega-3s have no side effects and multiple health benefits. If your child suffers from ADHD, omega-3 supplementation is worth a try.

However, we need to keep omega-3 supplementation in perspective:

·       Not every child with ADHD will respond to omega-3 supplementation.

·       Omega-3s alone are likely to reduce, but not eliminate, the symptoms.

·       There are other natural approaches that should be considered.

You will find details on omega-3s and other natural approaches for reducing ADHD symptoms in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis looked at the effect of omega-3 supplementatation on ADHD symptoms. Here is a brief summary of the data:

1)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced ADHD symptoms reported by parents.

2)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly improved cognitive measures associated with attention span (omission and commission errors). [Note: Omission errors consist of leaving important information out of an answer. Commission errors consist of including incorrect information in an answer.]

·       Omega-3 supplementation did not improve cognitive measures associated with memory and information processing. This has also been reported in most previous studies.

·       The best way to think of this is that children with ADHD are fully capable of learning their schoolwork. However, they may have trouble demonstrating what they have learned on exams because of omission and commission errors.

·       In this context, omega-3 supplementation may help them perform better on exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

3)    For hyperactivity, only studies with EPA dosages of 500 mg per day or greater showed a significant reduction in symptoms.

4)    Children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of DHA, EPA, and total omega-3s.

The authors concluded: “In summary, there is evidence that omega-3 supplementation … improves clinical symptoms and cognitive performances in children and adolescents with ADHD, and that these youth have a deficiency in omega-3 levels. Our findings provide further support to the rationale for using omega-3s as a treatment option for ADHD.”

They also said: “Our paper shows that EPA supplementation dosage >500 mg should be considered when treating youth with ADHD, especially those with predominantly hyperactivity/impulsivity presentation.”

For more details on the study and a perspective on omega-3 supplementation compared to other natural approaches for reducing ADHD symptoms, read the article above.

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

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