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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.
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!
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.
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.