Immune Health: Take This, Not That

In a previous rant, I stated that COVID has made me come to grips with a fact I've been avoiding: my uphill battle of getting good information out into the world that will result in changed behavior is more uphill than I had imagined.

Even at 40 I still have that optimistic, idealistic shine! How charming, right?

I'm not discouraged. I've helped thousands of people Kill the Wellness Chaos, reducing their supplements down to a few core, proven products called the Vital Five and implementing a smart, simple strategy for their other supplements.

But—no matter what I say - people are more inclined to buy certain products, whether they are effective or not, just in case.

On our Glutathione Podcast, I went on and on and on and on about why you shouldn't bother with the newest COVID non-cure. At the end of it all my co-host, Daena, asked the simple question: "If this stuff won't hurt me, can't I just take it, in the off chance it could help?"

My answer is simple: there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to improve your odds using a supplement. Autonomy and control are important.

The second part of that answer is the important part: the industry thrives off creating fears and pains out of thin air, then positioning supplements as the best answer.

The narrative is strong with "Pharma," right? "The cure isn't as profitable as the treatment.  Similarly, the wellness industry WANTS you to feel like supplements will increase your odds.

I want you to use quality products backed by real science, and as long as the product is a best-in-class supplement - a steak and not a moldy cheeseburger - as a part of an overall strategy, you won't find a bigger cheerleader than me.

This is all to say: it's the immune health season in the middle of a global pandemic for a mean a$$ bug.

Lots of folks will be beefing up their immune systems with whatever they can get their hands on. I'm not going to fight anymore. Instead, I'm going to offer my suggested alternatives for better forms and higher quality ingredients of options being promoted for immune health right now.

What I offer today is my "eat this, not this" list for immune health supplements.

Vitamins & Minerals

Vitamin A

The thought process

Vitamin A has a critical role in enhancing immune function, functioning as a regulator of immune response and processes. If you were deficient in Vitamin A, you’d get sick WAY more.

The problem

Most Vitamin A products are high dose synthetic forms (retinyl palmitate at 7x the RDA!). People who currently OR HAVE smoked, vaped, or hit the peace pipe are at increased risk for lung cancer.

The alternative

Take a Vitamin A rich powder like Vital Greens and Reds, which will have ample beta carotene to support your immune health without any of the liabilities. Plus, it will have a decent offering of the next guy on the list...Vitamin C!

Vitamin C

The thought process

Vitamin C is a VERY important nutrient for our immune system, no question. It has important roles in practically all immune cells, and if you were deficient in Vitamin C, you’d get sick WAY more.

The problem

Practically none of us have Vitamin C levels even close to problematic. Studies have shown additional Vitamin C helps a very small subset of people get sick less (specifically, uber athletes and people who work outside).

We worship Vitamin C, and I think that’s a bad idea. My big question for the charlatans promoting their “natural” remedy Vitamin C: what’s natural about a synthetic compound, derived from corn, sourced typically from China, at 8-16 times our required daily amount?

Vitamin C has a minimal actual impact on colds and flu. Especially compared to the supplement options that are part of our normal recommendations.

The alternative

A true, whole food Vitamin C product will provide all the Vitamin C you need without the harsh chemical compounds. You won’t hit those super high numbers (500-1000mg or more!), but you don’t have to.

For those looking for the best more “traditional” Vitamin C, I will often recommend one of my bioflavonoid-rich products like Ultimate Bio-C or Bio-C Caps.

Vitamin D

The thought process

We now know conclusively that people with lower-than-normal Vitamin D levels will be at higher risk for catching respiratory bugs AND that those infections will be more severe. 

This is also the case with COVID; normal levels of Vitamin D are an indicator of good outcomes.

The problem

Charlatans are promoting mega-dosing regimens that MUST STOP! 

To improve your Vitamin D levels, take no more than 6000 IU daily for 12 weeks; any more will be asking for trouble. After that, 1000-2000 IU daily is what’s recommended most by the Endocrine Society.

Also, I hear many folks who change their regimens up based on the sun or seasons. In other articles, I made the point that it's best to just keep the dose strong and consistent, and any sun exposure is just butter on the bread.

Using Vitamin D, unlike almost all of the options people use for immune health, actually results in less sickness. Despite that, many people do NOT have optimal Vitamin D.

The alternative

The alternative is a more scientifically valid regimen of Vitamin D as above.

Hopefully, none of you out there have to add Vitamin D, as it is a Vital Five nutrient and should already be a part of your regimen anyway.

Zinc Lozenges

The thought process

We have evidence that zinc lozenges, when taken for a short burst at the first signs of a cold, will help reduce the duration or severity of a cold. This comes from a simple chemical reaction where the zinc molecules cause the virus to be less sticky and slides down the throat.

Zinc inside of our bodies (vs topically applied to the back of the throat) does have numerous functions in the immune system.

So, everyone goes zinc crazy.

The problem

The problem is two-fold. First, COVID zinc lozenge-hoarding started due to a researcher telling his family to grab a bottle in the event this coronavirus (COVID-19) responds to topical zinc like others (common cold) do. Well, they don’t. 

Plus, that’s dangerous. Extended use can kill your taste buds, along with causing zinc overdose. High amounts of zinc can change your sex hormone levels (via aromatase and 5-alpha-reductase modulation for you nerds out there!).

Second, there’s always confusion around taking internal zinc and zinc lozenges for immune health. Internal zinc doesn’t move the needle on making you less sick or less likely to get sick.

The Alternative

You should have Zinc lozenges in your medicine cabinet as part of your Cough and Cold First Aid Kit, but you shouldn’t use them constantly. Just follow the cold recommendations that I give my Woodstock patients.

If you ARE choosing to use zinc internally, look to a proper chelate, like Easy Zinc, and stick to doses of 30mg or less.

Botanicals

Milk Thistle, NAC, and Glutathione

The thought process

We recently spoke extensively on COVID and glutathione. In summary, glutathione is a powerful antioxidant found in our body that has a number of roles in inflammatory and immune health. 

Glutathione production is limited by the amount of cysteine—an amino acid found in poultry, sunflower seeds, and beans that we ingest. It is believed that using NAC (n-acetyl-cysteine), will increase glutathione levels.

Milk thistle is a botanical product that may boost glutathione levels as well.

The argument goes: there are a number of reasons we may have low glutathione, so you should make sure your glutathione level is optimized.

The problem

Most glutathione products are poorly absorbed. Liposomal products (similar to our Glutathione Absorb) are better, but expensive.

Milk thistle is an herb, and many herbs are poorly made. From improper extraction techniques to the presence of adulterants or contaminants like heavy metals, you REALLY don’t know if you are getting enough of the compound to do anything good to your glutathione levels.

The alternative

Skip the glutathione regimens and milk thistle products and eat the food. Improve the amount of cysteine-rich foods naturally. If you need to supplement, our Myocep formula is extremely rich in cysteine.

If a pill is what you seek, I believe NAC 600mg is your best bet to improve your glutathione levels. Cysteine has more functions in the body beyond glutathione, so elevating this from foods or from NAC will pay dividends.

Mushrooms

The thought process

Mushrooms contain a boatload of natural immune-supporting compounds. Though different from what you’d get in a store, extracts from mushrooms are used as parts of cancer-fighting, science-based regimens all over the world.

Mushrooms improve immune function to a point that actually becomes relevant to us. Some mushroom compounds have direct antiviral effects, as shown in a number of smaller trials.

The problem

A majority of mushroom supplements have absolutely no mushrooms in them. At all.

A weird concept, right? Well, head on over to our podcast with Skye Chilton and my subsequent blogs on the subject of mushroom supplements.

Most mushroom supplements are only mycelium, which is the root system, not the fruiting body where the high concentrates of healthy stuff lives.

What’s worse, the mycelium is grown on rice (not sawdust, like most mushrooms) and is inseparable from the rice. Therefore, when you buy almost any mushroom supplements found in stores, even that big-name/famous guy brand, you’re getting dehydrated rice and mushroom roots.  In other words, a sugar pill.

The alternative

The alternative is to use Real Mushrooms—in more ways than one.

The brand Real Mushrooms has probably the highest quality extracts of… ready for this?…. REAL MUSHROOMS on the market. 

In particular, I recommend 2 caps of their 5 Defenders blend, taken once daily. It contains the five medicinal mushrooms with the highest yield of immune-supporting compounds. 

Elderberry

The thought process

Elderberry is a potent murderous little bitter fruit that has, in some smaller trials, assisted in reducing flu symptoms and severity. I wasn’t joking about the murderous part; check out my 15 fun facts about elderberry for more on that...

The problem

When you buy any botanical you run the risk of getting either the plain, or a moldy McDonald’s cheeseburger we highlighted in our 3 Types of Dietary Supplements article.

Most elderberry products are not proper concentrates and therefore won’t contain enough of the active compounds to actually be beneficial.

To make the bitey taste more palatable, some brands load more sugar than Pepsi into the bottle.

The alternative

Elderberry COULD be used as a daily supplement if you’d like, but it really shines at first signs of flu-like illness.

If you choose one, our Sambucus Elderberry Syrup is a sugar-free concentrate guaranteed to deliver your elderberry-money’s worth. Take 1/2 to a full teaspoonful daily for immune-supporting benefits and the powerful antioxidants found in these special berries.

Echinacea

The thought process

Echinacea’s immune benefits are the point of discussion as often as I change my underwear… Twice a year at least!

Using echinacea for immune health is such a part of our culture that it tends to be people’s first choice when looking for immune health products.

The problem

Echinacea doesn’t work.  Well, at least that’s what some study will show every. single. year.

And it’s true. If you have a study that uses the products available to us as consumers at the doses we typically use them, you will find that echinacea does NOTHING for immune health. We still get as sick, as frequently.

BUT, as we’ve pointed out, a high dose of alkylamides (around 50mg daily for 2 days), does seem to be enough to change the course of a cold for people.

The alternative

Instead of taking an echinacea supplement every day, look to Quick Defense from Gaia Herbs as a part of your Cough and Cold First Aid Kit.

As we’ve said previously, a well-made mushroom is doing the real work that the myth of echinacea claims to do.

Oregano Oil

The thought process

Oregano oil has a number of antimicrobial traits and is therefore recommended by “natural” practitioners for treating or preventing infections.

The problem

Oregano oil may have those traits, but only in test tube studies. It doesn’t translate well to actual human infection rates or courses of disease.

On top of that, oregano oil is often adulterated.

The alternative

If you choose to use Oregano Oil, we like the branded product Carvacrol 70, which is found in our Oregano Oil Caps.

It could be a daily driver for you, but I’d hold on oregano and use any of the other options I’ve given here to support your daily immune health.

Your Winter 2020 Immune Health Regimen

How do we go into Winter 2020—potentially one of the worst in recent memory—the most confident in our immune health?

First, we do the things we should be doing to boost our immune systems:

  1. Clean up the types of foods we eat, making an effort to get more cysteine-rich protein and colorful fruits and veggies (for natural Vitamin A and C)
  2. Get rest
  3. Manage our stress better
  4. Get those immunizations to upgrade our Immune System Operating System
  5. Look to the Vital Five for core products almost everyone would benefit from

The Vital Five include immune-supporting probiotics and optimal Vitamin D, so I’m hoping you already have those as part of your regimen. If not, maybe it’s time for a free consult!

Second, we build our cough and cold first aid kit, stocking it with the remedies I recommend for my patients in Woodstock. That way, if a scratchy, sore throat shows up looking to stay, you can kick them out faster than...

Finally, we should look to these better options for daily immune support:

Just trying to keep it real,

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

neal@woodstockvitamins.com

About Dr. Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller is a holistic pharmacist, supplement expert, and founder of Woodstock Vitamins. Dr. Neal’s mission is to challenge the natural products industry, redefining holistic care and setting the standard for supplement quality. His methods and products are backed by real science, and with them, he builds and supports his customers’ lifelong wellness strategies.

Previous article Immune Health Product Buying Guide
Next article The Supplement Quality Standard