Shoring your immunity: the roles of Vitamin D, Omega 3s, probiotics, elderberry, and turmeric

Enhancing Immunity Vitamin D Omega 3 Turmeric elderberry

Many people scoff at the idea of actually strengthening your immunity – it seems in the realm of quacks. In this post, using my background in Immunology, I’ll talk about how a Vitamin D deficiency or an Omega 3 paucity in your diet could potentially affect how well your immune system does its job. We’ll discuss probiotics for adults and kids, and last, we’ll talk about whether certain commonly used supplements (turmeric and elderberry) have any potential value in fighting an infection.

First, a backstory…..

For the first 30 years of my life, I thought my immune system was pretty awesome. I would fall sick 1-2 times a year, and the infection with fever and malaise would last maybe 3-4 days. Not too shabby, right?

Then, I discovered I had a Vitamin D deficiency, and had probably had it all my life – my levels were around 16 ng/mL. On continuous supplementation to correct for this,  my blood levels have held steady at 40-50 ng/mL. Many things changed subtly. My skin improved,  I gained some badly needed weight, and interestingly,  over the next 4 years, I never got really sick. Nasty infections would come around, but at the worst, I would be under the weather for a day – there was never a three-day bout.

Then, I had a baby. Soon after her birth, I caught my first 15-day cold, the first I could ever remember having in years. With a baby at home and the sleep deprivation of the first year, I quickly realized I needed more.

Now, thanks to Linus Pauling, when people fall sick, they dive for Vitamin C, and think they have done enough. While it appears to have some usefulness (anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even anti-microbial properties), its effectiveness in reducing infection severity and length may be limited by itself. You need more than one thing to make a difference!

A multi-pronged approach to strengthing your immunity

  1. Vitamin D: Vitamin D’s role in infection defense is, in part, through its requirement for making the anti-microbial peptides cathelicidin and beta-defensin-1, which form an important part of the first line of defense against infections. Overall, vitamin D is vital for optimal immune function, and children who fall ill repeatedly routinely turn out to have a Vitamin D deficiency. Ideally, one should maintain repleteness (blood levels between 30-45 ng/mL) via continuous supplementation or sunblock-free sun exposure. If looking for supplements, this is a good adult formulation, and this is a good infant/child formulation. Taking too much Vitamin D is not good either, so starting with a blood test if you suspect deficiency is the right thing to do.
  2. Probiotics: Are there actually good probiotics for adults? Generally, probiotics help you if taken during a stomach infection, or when taking antibiotics. There is little cause to take most probiotics regularly, and doing so is often a waste of money. The only one I may consider taking regularly is a unique probiotic first isolated from human breast milk, BioGaia. Its novelty stems from the fact that it is one of few bacterial species that produces a broad-spectrum antibiotic, reuterin: this allows this one single bacterial species to influence the microbiome, which is a very rare thing. To put it simply, Biogaia tends to keep bad bacteria away, and may have anti-inflammatory effects as well. Secondly, of many Lactobacillus species examined, this was the only one to be found conserved across several species, suggesting it has a role in health. Overall, there is a wealth of research done on this probiotic, with some evidence suggesting that it may protect against colic in breast-milk-fed infants, may protect against dental carries, protects against H. pylori colonization, and GI tract infections. There is even some data on Biogaia and cancer. What information is available has compelled me to keep giving it regularly to my daughter since infancy, and I take it myself. Given the minimal expenditure ($28 for a 2 month supply, we spend more on Netflix), it seems a good choice, if one were attempting to use probiotics to improve overall health.
    When suffering from infection caused by a stomach bug, alternating BioGaia with a very different probiotic, Florastor (Saccharomyces boulardii, available as Econorm in India) will be more effective. Florastor is very effective for reducing length/severity of stomach infections, and maybe a valuable adjunct to antibiotic treatment – see more on what Florastor can do here (please talk to a doctor about this, if prescribed antibiotics). 
  3. Vitamin C: While getting this from food is best, supplementation on occasion, when ill, will not hurt. I’ve tried many options, and the one I like best is Emergen-C.
  4. Omega 3 fatty acids: While these are mainly associated with roles in brain-building and protecting from stroke/heart attacks and reducing pain, new evidence shows that they also have a role in immune functioning; specifically, they appear to affect B cell immunity. While the understanding of Omega 3s is still fledgling, making sure your diet includes some Omega 3 intake (either through diet or supplementation) seems sensible. I really like the Nordic Naturals line of Omega 3 supplements.
  5. Turmeric with black pepper:  Turmeric, which has used as folk medicine for centuries, has an eye-popping array of useful properties,  including anti-inflammatoryanti-viralanti-microbial, and anti-cancer effects. But despite all of these benefits, turmeric, even taken in vast quantities orally, shows almost no effect because of the low solubility and very poor bioavailability of its component curcuminoids. There has been a lot of research aimed at addressing these issues. But sitting at home, what can you do? While this is by no means optimized, piperine, a component of black pepper, increases the blood levels of curcumin considerably by inhibiting its removal through the liver. There are two ways to get a good quantity of turmeric in your system:
    1. Turmeric home-brew: Add 1 tsp of turmeric + 0.25-0.5 tsp of fresh ground black peppercorns to a sufficient quantity of fat (I recommend coconut oil for lauric acid) to mix. Then add honey (Manuka is a good choice) and eat the resulting paste, or mix with milk with or without adding honey.
    2. Bioavailable turmeric supplement containing liposome-encapsulated turmeric root extract + piperine (from black pepper): I now prefer the bioavailable supplement to the turmeric home-brew as it is far more convenient, especially when ill or traveling – one should ideally take turmeric multiple times per day when trying to ward off infection.
  6. Elderberry Extracts: These, like turmeric, have been medicinally used for centuries. Their anti-viral effects have been shown in the case of influenza in mice, in birds,  in vitro, and even in one very small human study. Plenty of elderberry supplements available, and there is largely no reason to recommend one over the other.

Notes


Of these, Vitamin D (if needed to avoid deficiency), the BioGaia probiotic, vitamin C via food or supplementation,  and Omega 3 fatty acids via food or supplementation *can* be taken regularly: most of these have functions that go beyond optimization of immune responses.

In contrast, elderberry and turmeric extracts should not be taken daily, ideally. There is also little reason to take a probiotic such as Florastor regularly. 

A great many people have expressed interest in taking elderberry regularly, and I would have to advise against this stratagem: elderberry is certainly not required for normal functioning, unlike Vitamin D, vitamin C, omega 3 fatty acids, and even probiotics (which may play a role in shaping the gut microbiome, which in turn has a tremendous effect on health).  Elderberry extracts actually exert their anti-viral effects in part by inhibiting ribsome functioning, which means they affect protein production, and hence in theory could affect any rapidly dividing cell in a dose-dependent manner, making them a very questionable choice for say, a pregnant woman. They may exacerbate autoimmune diseases thanks to their ability to induce inflammatory cytokine production, and their long-term safety has not been studied.

Small (non-medicinal quantities) of turmeric in combination with black pepper can be taken daily by older people: this may be a particularly good idea for individuals with or at risk for metabolic syndrome. There is a wealth of literature on this, but I will highlight this analysis, which suggests that it may be helpful in diabetics. If anybody wishes to take medicinal quantities of turmeric in a bio-available form for any number of conditions (cancer, osteoarthritis, other chronic pain conditions, metabolic syndrome, and so on), I would suggest that they do so in consultation with their doctor, as turmeric can interfere with certain medications. Medicinal amounts of turmeric in pregnancy also do not seem wise.

For anyone looking for more information, Memorial Sloan Kettering has an excellent resource page on turmeric. I should emphasize that turmeric is a potentially useful supplement for cancer patients. Its anti-viral, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory effects may really help protect those with immune systems weakened by chemotherapy and radiation. It could also combat some of the mechanisms by which drug resistance develops, and it also is anti-angiogeneic and can induce apoptosis of cancer cells, so it could help in the fight against cancer itself. However, for previously noted reasons, please consult your doctor before taking medicinal quantities.

I do not advise that children be given turmeric + pepper or elderberry daily, though they can be given turmeric and elderberry if okayed by their doctor, if they are showing signs of infection.

Over the many years since I have written this post, I have had multiple threatened infections, most of which were (coincidence or not) staved off within a day by taking all of these in combination. If in case there has ever been a fever, it is gone within a 24-36 hour period. I have also tried these (absolutely safe) experiments on all my family members, and they claim all of these (especially the probiotic and the turmeric-in-milk-with-pepper homebrew) have helped. All of this is done for my toddler daughter as well, and again, it really seems to help, especially the Florastor + BioGaia combination for GI infections. As she has gotten older, the bioavailable turmeric and elderberry have seemingly helped her get over her very rare infections astonishingly quickly.

More than reducing the incidence and severity of minor infections, these easy, safe, and relatively inexpensive strategies, if in play from an early point, may have a far more important role: to reduce the severity of illness following infection with the very nasty bugs, maybe reducing the risk for hospitalization, a requirement for intensive care, or worse.  

Cautionaries

None of this should be taken as a replacement for vaccination. The protection vaccines provide (including the flu vaccine, which reduces the risk for severe infection, hospitalization, or death from the flu) is tangible and very real. I vaccinate my child in addition to do all these things – we get yearly flu shots. 

Elderberry and Turmeric can be taken while keeping your doctor in the loop. Everything covered here should never continue to be the sole form of care in a severe infection that is not improving. If you do not recover quickly, see your doctor and follow their advice, although you could continue to take turmeric and elderberry with whatever they prescribe, if okayed by them.

This blog pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion and serves as a forum for dis­cus­sing about med­i­cine and health in the context of the latest studies. The words and other con­tent pro­vided in this blog, and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended and should not be con­strued as med­ical advice. If the reader or any other per­son has a med­ical con­cern, he or she should con­sult with an appropriately-licensed physi­cian or other health care worker. Never dis­r­gard pro­fes­sional med­ical advice or delay in seek­ing it because of some­thing you have read on this blog or in any linked materials. If you think you may have a med­ical emer­gency, call your doc­tor or an emergency number immediately.

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Comments Found

  1. Hema December 14, 2020

    Much needed piece of info. It’s good to know what to take when, and not forgetting, it needs to be okay’ed by your doctor. I think we must also incorporate these in our regular diet too, like consuming those vitamn rich foods on a regular basis. Thanks a ton for putting this up!!

    reply
  2. Avanthi July 20, 2021

    Very good information 👍🏻

    reply
  3. Shweta July 20, 2021

    Great info! We have benefited from using elderberry for my daughter. We give yogurt everyday to ensure probiotics are consumed, but alternatives listed here work very well as well, we have used them when daughter fell sick due to stomach bug or when she was prescribed harsh antibiotics to fight any infection.

    reply
  4. Keerti Goel July 20, 2021

    I had problem of recurring cold in past , due to slight weather change had this cold issues. But just by adding turmeric in my dialy food intake and with hot milk it was better. This writeup is very informative, will get my Vitamin D levels checked soon. Thanks for all info.

    reply
  5. Smeeta July 20, 2021

    Good info!!Whenever my son complains about tummy upset I give either yogurt or probiotics. This helps.

    reply
  6. Meenakshi July 20, 2021

    Very good informative blog. I do take Vitamin D and thinking to start on probiotic supplements as well. Thank you for this blog.

    reply
  7. Jayanthi Nagarajan July 20, 2021

    Useful and accurate piece of information. We use Vitamin D and Omega 3 in the family. I have always been a fan of SSU suggested brands. Will look out for these in the next refill 👍

    reply
  8. Ramya Mathrubootham July 20, 2021

    Yes i have checked my vitamin d levels recently and came to know its very low and on vitamin d tablets.this blog is very useful.thanks

    reply
  9. Usha Harish July 20, 2021

    Very informative article . Written up so well about immunity . Thanks

    reply
  10. Srilatha July 20, 2021

    Nice information about strengthening immunity.

    reply
  11. Kiranmai appam July 20, 2021

    Nice information.
    When I have cold due to weather change conditions first thing I do is having hot milk with turmeric powder along with some black pepper powder.
    Recently done with vitamins check up had a deficiency of vitamin D and Omega3. Tried natural ways to get it correct.
    For vitamin D I used to stay in sunlight early morning(sunrises), for omega3 Started eating Alaskan salmon, Tilapia,flounder fishes.., which has more omega3 in it. Need to go for check up…

    reply
  12. Nagabala July 20, 2021

    Before i had vitamin D deficiency for that i used to sit in morning sunlight for 30 mins and also used to take vitamin D supplements..now I should go for check up…
    When i suffer from cold due to weather changes i used to have hot/warm milk with some turmeric powder in it and also used to keep some turmeric powder in hot boiling water and inhale it by covering with blanket…

    reply
  13. Aparna July 21, 2021

    Very useful info. Started the elderberry gummies forms kids through this group and they love it. Found it effective the 1st winter when I tried it ever since it’s become a routine to have these. Have tried the adult syrup as well. Thanks for sharing these useful tips for immune building.

    reply
  14. Khushi July 21, 2021

    Hi SSU,
    This is a great article. We tend to ignore a lot of essential vitamin and mineral requirements which adds up in long term and results in fatigue and other issues. One other vitamin apart from all the wonderful resources you have mentioned above is vitamin B12. Keep these kinds of articles coming.

    reply
  15. Anika July 22, 2021

    Yes i get my Vit D and my spouse’s Vit D checked every year. We both have a deficiency so we have to take it orally. I also take multivitamin everyday. This article is very helpful. Thanks

    reply

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