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Your immune system consists of a complex collection of cells, processes, and chemicals that constantly defends your body against invading pathogens, including viruses, toxins, and bacteria.
1. Vitamin D<p>Vitamin D is a fat soluble nutrient essential to the health and functioning of your immune system.</p><p>Vitamin D enhances the pathogen fighting effects of monocytes and macrophages — white blood cells that are important parts of your immune defense — and decreases inflammation, which helps promote immune response.</p><p>Many people are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-d-deficiency-symptoms" target="_blank">deficient in this important vitamin</a>, which may negatively affect immune function. In fact, low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections, including influenza and allergic asthma.</p><p>Some studies show that supplementing with vitamin D may improve immune response. In fact, recent research suggests that taking this vitamin may protect against respiratory tract infections.</p><p>In a 2019 review of randomized control studies in 11,321 people, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-vitamin-d" target="_blank">supplementing with vitamin D</a> significantly decreased the risk of respiratory infections in people deficient in this vitamin and lowered infection risk in those with adequate vitamin D levels.</p><p>This suggests an overall protective effect.</p><p>Other studies note that vitamin D supplements may improve response to antiviral treatments in people with certain infections, including hepatitis C and HIV.</p><p>Depending on blood levels, anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D per day is sufficient for most people, though those with more serious deficiencies often require much higher doses.</p><h4>Summary</h4><p>Vitamin D is essential for immune function. Healthy levels of this vitamin may help lower your risk of respiratory infections.</p>
2. Zinc<p>Zinc is a mineral that's commonly added to supplements and other healthcare products like lozenges that are meant to boost your immune system. This is because zinc is essential for immune system function.</p><p><a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/zinc" target="_blank">Zinc</a> is needed for immune cell development and communication and plays an important role in inflammatory response.</p><p>A deficiency in this nutrient significantly affects your immune system's ability to function properly, resulting in an increased risk of infection and disease, including pneumonia.</p><p>Zinc deficiency affects around 2 billion people worldwide and is very common in older adults. In fact, up to 30% of older adults are considered deficient in this nutrient.</p><p>Numerous studies reveal that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/zinc-supplements" target="_blank">zinc supplements</a> may protect against respiratory tract infections like the common cold.</p><p>What's more, supplementing with zinc may be beneficial for those who are already sick.</p><p>In a 2019 study in 64 hospitalized children with acute lower respiratory tract infections (ALRIs), taking 30 mg of zinc per day decreased the total duration of infection and the duration of the hospital stay by an average of 2 days, compared with a placebo group.</p><p>Supplemental zinc may also help reduce the duration of the common cold.</p><p>Taking zinc long term is typically safe for healthy adults, as long as the daily dose is under the set upper limit of 40 mg of elemental zinc.</p><p>Excessive doses may interfere with copper absorption, which could increase your infection risk.</p><h4>Summary</h4><p>Supplementing with zinc may help protect against respiratory tract infections and reduce the duration of these infections.</p>
3. Vitamin C<p><a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-benefits" target="_blank">Vitamin C</a> is perhaps the most popular supplement taken to protect against infection due to its important role in immune health.</p><p>This vitamin supports the function of various immune cells and enhances their ability to protect against infection. It's also necessary for cellular death, which helps keep your immune system healthy by clearing out old cells and replacing them with new ones.</p><p>Vitamin C also functions as a powerful antioxidant, protecting against damage induced by oxidative stress, which occurs with the accumulation of reactive molecules known as free radicals.</p><p>Oxidative stress can negatively affect immune health and is linked to numerous diseases.</p><p>Supplementing with vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections, including the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/does-vitamin-c-help-with-colds" target="_blank">common cold</a>.</p><p>A large review of 29 studies in 11,306 people demonstrated that regularly supplementing with vitamin C at an average dose of 1–2 grams per day reduced the duration of colds by 8% in adults and 14% in children.</p><p>Interestingly, the review also demonstrated that regularly taking vitamin C supplements reduced common cold occurrence in individuals under high physical stress, including marathon runners and soldiers, by up to 50%.</p><p>Additionally, high dose intravenous vitamin C treatment has been shown to significantly improve symptoms in people with severe infections, including sepsis and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) resulting from viral infections.</p><p>These results confirm that vitamin C supplements may significantly affect immune health, especially in those who don't get enough of the vitamin through their diet.</p><p>The upper limit for vitamin C is 2,000 mg. Supplemental daily doses typically range between 250 and 1,000 mg.</p><h4>Summary</h4><p><strong></strong>Vitamin C is vital for immune health. Supplementing with this nutrient may reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections, including the common cold.</p>
4. Elderberry<p>Black elderberry (<em>Sambucus nigra</em>), which has long been used to treat infections, is being researched for its effects on immune health.</p><p>In test-tube studies, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/elderberry" target="_blank">elderberry</a> extract demonstrates potent antibacterial and antiviral potential against bacterial pathogens responsible for upper respiratory tract infections and strains of influenza virus,</p><p>What's more, it has been shown to enhance immune system response and may help shorten the duration and severity of colds, as well as reduce symptoms related to viral infections.</p><p>A review of 4 randomized control studies in 180 people found that elderberry supplements significantly reduced <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/acute-upper-respiratory-infection" target="_blank">upper respiratory symptoms</a> caused by viral infections.</p><p>An older, 5-day study from 2004 demonstrated that people with the flu who supplemented with 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of elderberry syrup 4 times a day experienced symptom relief 4 days earlier than those who didn't take the syrup — and were also less reliant on medication.</p><p>However, this study is outdated and was sponsored by the elderberry syrup manufacturer, which may have skewed results.</p><p>Elderberry supplements are most often sold in liquid or capsule form.</p><h4>Summary</h4><p><strong></strong>Taking elderberry supplements may reduce upper respiratory symptoms caused by viral infections and help alleviate flu symptoms. However, more research is needed.</p>
5. Medicinal Mushrooms<p>Medicinal mushrooms have been used since ancient times to prevent and treat infection and disease. Many types of medicinal mushrooms have been studied for their immune-boosting potential.</p><p>Over 270 recognized species of medicinal mushrooms are known to have immune-enhancing properties.</p><p>Cordyceps, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lions-mane-mushroom" target="_blank">lion's mane</a>, maitake, shitake, reishi, and turkey tail are all types that have been shown to benefit immune health.</p><p>Some research demonstrates that supplementing with specific types of medicinal mushrooms may enhance immune health in several ways and reduce symptoms of certain conditions, including asthma and lung infections.</p><p>For example, a study in mice with tuberculosis, a serious bacterial disease, found that treatment with <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cordyceps-benefits" target="_blank">cordyceps</a> significantly reduced bacterial load in the lungs, enhanced immune response, and reduced inflammation, compared with a placebo group.</p><p>In a randomized, 8-week study in 79 adults, supplementing with 1.68 grams of cordyceps mycelium culture extract led to a significant 38% increase in the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that protects against infection.</p><p><a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/turkey-tail-mushroom" target="_blank">Turkey tail</a> is another medicinal mushroom that has powerful effects on immune health. Research in humans indicates that turkey tail may enhance immune response, especially in people with certain types of cancer.</p><p>Many other medicinal mushrooms have been studied for their beneficial effects on immune health as well. Medicinal mushroom products can be found in the form of tinctures, teas, and supplements.</p><h4>Summary</h4><p><strong></strong>Many types of medicinal mushrooms, including cordyceps and turkey tail, may offer immune-enhancing and antibacterial effects.<br></p>
6–15. Other Supplements With Immune-Boosting Potential<p>Aside from the items listed above, there are many supplements that may help improve immune response:</p><ol><li><strong>Astragalus.</strong> <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/astragalus" target="_blank">Astragalus</a> is an herb commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Animal research suggests that its extract may significantly improve immune-related responses.</li><li><strong>Selenium.</strong> Selenium is a mineral that's essential for immune health. Animal research demonstrates that selenium supplements may enhance antiviral defense against influenza strains, including H1N.</li><li><strong>Garlic.</strong> <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/garlic-fights-colds-and-flu" target="_blank">Garlic</a> has powerful anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. It has been shown to enhance immune health by stimulating protective white blood cells like NK cells and macrophages. However, human research is limited.</li><li><strong>Andrographis.</strong> This herb contains andrographolide, a terpenoid compound found to have antiviral effects against respiratory disease-causing viruses, including enterovirus D68 and influenza A.</li><li><strong>Licorice. </strong>Licorice contains many substances, including glycyrrhizin, that may help protect against viral infections. According to test-tube research, glycyrrhizin exhibits antiviral activity against severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV).</li><li><strong><em>Pelargonium sidoides</em>.</strong> Some human research supports the use of this plant's extract for alleviating symptoms of acute viral respiratory infections, including the common cold and bronchitis. Still, results are mixed and more research is needed.</li><li><strong>B complex vitamins.</strong> B vitamins, including B12 and B6, are important for healthy immune response. Yet, many adults are deficient in them, which may negatively affect immune health.</li><li><strong>Curcumin. </strong>Curcumin is the main active compound in turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and animal studies indicate that it may help improve immune function.</li><li><strong>Echinacea.</strong> <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/echinacea-for-colds" target="_blank">Echinacea</a> is a genus of plants in the daisy family. Certain species have been shown to improve immune health and may have antiviral effects against several respiratory viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus and rhinoviruses.</li><li><strong>Propolis.</strong> Propolis is a resin-like material produced by honeybees for use as a sealant in hives. Though it has impressive immune-enhancing effects and may have antiviral properties as well, more human research is needed.</li></ol><p>According to results from scientific research, the supplements listed above may offer immune-boosting properties.</p><p>However, keep in mind that many of these supplements' potential effects on immune health have not been thoroughly tested in humans, highlighting the need for future studies.</p><h4>Summary</h4><p>Astragalus, garlic, curcumin, and echinacea are just some of the supplements that may offer immune-boosting properties. Still, they have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and more research is needed.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Many supplements on the market may help <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/foods-that-boost-the-immune-system" target="_blank">improve immune health</a>. Zinc, elderberry, and vitamins C and D are just some of the substances that have been researched for their immune-enhancing potential.</p><p>However, although these supplements may offer a small benefit for immune health, they should not and cannot be used as a replacement for a healthy lifestyle.</p><p>Maintaining a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, engaging in regular physical activity, and not smoking are some of the most important ways to help keep your immune system healthy and reduce your chances of infection and disease.</p><p>Moreover, remember that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that any of them can protect against <a href="https://www.healthline.com/coronavirus" target="_blank">COVID-19</a> — even though some of them may have antiviral properties.</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By C. Michael White
More than two-thirds of Americans take dietary supplements. The vast majority of consumers — 84 percent — are confident the products are safe and effective.
What Are the Risks?<p>Heavy metals, which are known to cause <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4427717/" target="_blank">cancer, dementia and brittle bones</a>, contaminate many diet supplements. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0049676" target="_blank">One study of 121 products</a> revealed 5 percent of them surpassed the safe daily consumption limit for arsenic. Two percent had excess lead, cadmium and aluminum; and 1 percent had too much mercury. <a href="https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplement-products-ingredients/fda-advises-consumers-stop-using-certain-life-rising-dietary-supplements" target="_blank">In June 2019</a>, the Food and Drug Administration seized 300,000 dietary supplement bottles because their pills contained excessive lead levels.</p><p>Bacterial and fungal contamination in dietary supplements <a href="https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/08/dietary-supplements-recalled-for-possible-salmonella-contamination/" target="_blank">is not uncommon</a>. <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1745-4565.2009.00167.x" target="_blank">In one assessment</a>, researchers found bacteria in all 138 products they investigated. Toxic fungi were also in many of the supplements, and counts for numerous products exceeded the acceptable limits set by the <a href="https://www.usp.org/" target="_blank">United States Pharmacopeia</a>. Fungal contamination of diet supplements <a href="https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/fpd.2015.2108" target="_blank">has been linked</a> to serious liver, intestinal and appendix damage.</p><p><span></span>From 2017-18, <a href="https://www.fda.gov/food/outbreaks-foodborne-illness/fda-investigated-multistate-outbreak-salmonella-infections-linked-products-reported-contain-kratom" target="_blank">dozens were hospitalized</a> with salmonella poisoning after ingesting kratom, a highly addictive natural opioid. Thirty-seven of the kratom products studied were contaminated.</p><p>Some dietary supplements contain drugs, yet the manufacturers <a href="https://theconversation.com/beware-of-natural-supplements-for-sex-gain-and-weight-loss-106484" target="_blank">don't disclose that information</a> to consumers. Frequently, the concealed drugs are experimental and, in some cases, removed from the market because they're dangerous. Hundreds of weight-loss, sexual-dysfunction and muscle-building products are adulterated with inferior or harmful substances.</p><p>Sometimes, the herb you think you're buying contains little to no active ingredient. Occasionally, another herb is substituted.</p><p>The consequences for consumers are considerable. When manufacturers replaced the herb <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200006083422301" target="_blank">Stephania tetrandra with the herb Aristolochia fangchi</a> in 2000, more than 100 patients developed severe kidney damage; 18 more got kidney or bladder cancer. Although the herb is now banned by the U.S., <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19440049.2014.892215?src=recsys" target="_blank">a 2014 investigation</a> found Aristolochia fangchi in 20 percent of the Chinese herbal products sold on the internet.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/jcph.1387" target="_blank">In an assessment</a> of CBD products, only 12.5 percent of vaporization liquids, 25 percent of tinctures and 45 percent of oils contained the promised amount of CBD. In most cases they held far less. A few CBD products had enough THC to put the user in legal jeopardy of marijuana possession.</p><p><span></span>Embarrassed by a New York Attorney General's Office <a href="http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1532311-supplements.html#document/p1" target="_blank">investigation</a> suggesting widespread and fraudulent under-dosing of active ingredients in dietary supplements, <a href="https://cvshealth.com/newsroom/press-releases/cvs-pharmacy-launches-tested-be-trusted-program-vitamins-and-supplements" target="_blank">CVS pharmacies analyzed</a> 1,400 products that it previously sold in its stores. <a href="https://cvshealth.com/newsroom/press-releases/cvs-pharmacy-launches-tested-be-trusted-program-vitamins-and-supplements" target="_blank">Seven percent,</a> or about 100 products, failed, resulting in updates to the supplement facts panel or removal of the product from shelves.</p>
What Should Consumers Do?<p>The <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/About/DSHEA_Wording.aspx" target="_blank">Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act</a> of 1994 allows manufacturers to sell dietary supplements without providing proof of their quality to the FDA. Instead, it's up to the FDA to prove a product is unsafe and take it off the market. That's an incredibly tall order, and woefully inadequate. But it's unlikely to change.</p><p>In the meantime, I recommend that consumers should not purchase supplements without verification from one of three highly regarded independent laboratories: the aforementioned United States Pharmacopeia, the National Science Foundation and ConsumerLabs.com. The United States Pharmacopeia is an organization that <a href="https://www.usp.org/dietary-supplements-herbal-medicines" target="_blank">sets reference and quality standards</a> for prescription medication and food in the U.S.; the National Science Foundation is a governmental scientific body that sponsors basic science research; and ConsumerLabs.com is a company started to verify product quality for consumers that are paying members. These laboratories conduct an <a href="https://www.consumerreports.org/supplements/how-to-choose-supplements-wisely/" target="_blank">initial analysis</a> and then perform periodic unannounced assessments of the products; those with the appropriate amount of active ingredient, and without contamination or adulteration, can put the United States Pharmacopeia, National Science Foundation and <a href="https://www.consumerlab.com/seal.asp" target="_blank">ConsumerLabs.com seals</a> on their bottles. CVS announced that all products sold at its stores going forward will need to provide the company proof of quality. Other major retailers should follow suit.</p><p>In the meantime, I recommend that consumers should not purchase supplements without verification from one of three highly regarded independent laboratories: the aforementioned United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International and ConsumerLabs.com. The United States Pharmacopeia is an organization that <a href="https://www.usp.org/dietary-supplements-herbal-medicines" rel="noopener noreferrer">sets reference and quality standards</a> for prescription medication and food in the U.S.; the NSF International is an independent group that assesses safety and risk for food, water and consumer products; and ConsumerLabs.com is a company started to verify product quality for consumers that are paying members. These laboratories conduct an <a href="https://www.consumerreports.org/supplements/how-to-choose-supplements-wisely/" rel="noopener noreferrer">initial analysis</a> and then perform periodic unannounced assessments of the products; those with the appropriate amount of active ingredient, and without contamination or adulteration, can put the United States Pharmacopeia, NSF and <a href="https://www.consumerlab.com/seal.asp" target="_blank">ConsumerLabs.com</a> seals on their bottles. CVS announced that all products sold at its stores going forward will need to provide the company proof of quality. Other major retailers should follow suit.</p><p>Some manufacturers conduct quality testing and post certificates of analysis on their websites. But the autonomy of the laboratory, and its standards, <a href="https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/can-i-trust-supplement-manufacturer-lab-reports-and-certificates-of-analysis/certificates-of-analysis/" target="_blank">are often not known</a>. Sometimes, labs may select an inappropriate testing method, intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes they perform the test incorrectly, or simply make up results.</p><p>Because the FDA can't fully protect you from quality issues in dietary supplements — at least not right now — you must protect yourself. Even if a celebrity or "health guru" recommends a product, that doesn't mean it's high-quality. Before you put any supplement into your body, demand proof.</p><p><em>Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the organization that tests consumer products for safety is the National Science Foundation. It has been corrected to clarify that NSF International is the organization who conducts the testing. </em></p>
Winter is upon us and so is the risk of vitamin D deficiency and infections. Vitamin D, which is made in our skin following sunlight exposure and also found in oily fish (mackerel, tuna and sardines), mushrooms and fortified dairy and nondairy substitutes, is essential for good health. Humans need vitamin D to keep healthy and to fight infections. The irony is that in winter, when people need vitamin D the most, most of us are not getting enough. So how much should we take? Should we take supplements? How do we get more? And, who needs it most?
Where to Get Your Vitamin D<p>Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin since it is made in the skin after exposure to sun. The same UVB rays that cause a sunburn also make vitamin D. Sunscreen, darker skin pigmentation, clothing and reduced daylight in winter diminish the skin's ability to make vitamin D. The people who experience the biggest seasonal swings in vitamin D levels are fair-skinned individuals <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040457" target="_blank">living in the northern regions</a> of the U.S. and at <a href="https://doi.org/10.3945/an.117.015578" target="_blank">higher latitudes around the globe</a> where there is very little daylight in winter.</p><p>But those most at risk for low vitamin D levels are people of color and people living at higher latitudes. Dark-skinned individuals are more likely than fair-skinned individuals to be low for vitamin D year-round because the darker skin blocks the UVB rays from producing vitamin D. However, even in dark skinned individuals, vitamin D is lowest in the winter.</p><p>In the winter, in addition to high vitamin D food, adults should take additional vitamin D from foods and/or supplements to <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#en1" target="_blank">get at least 600 IU per day of vitamin D.</a> People who have dark skin or avoid sunshine should eat more vitamin D year-round.</p>
Vitamin D's Importance for Bones and Microbes<p>Originally, doctors thought that vitamin D was only important for bone health. This was because the vitamin D deficiency caused bone diseases like <a href="http://doi.org/10.1172/JCI29449" target="_blank">rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults</a>. However, in the 1980s scientists discovered that <a href="https://www.jci.org/articles/view/111557" target="_blank">immune cells</a> <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/224/4656/1438" target="_blank">had receptors for vitamin D</a>.</p><p>My group's research has shown that vitamin D plays an important role in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/10409238.2019.1611734" target="_blank">maintaining health in the gastrointestinal tract</a>. <a href="https://iai.asm.org/content/84/11/3094" target="_blank">Higher levels of vitamin D</a> reduce <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tem.2019.04.005" target="_blank">susceptibility to inflammatory bowel disease</a> and <a href="http://doi.org/10.1038/ajg.2016.53" target="_blank">Crohn's disease</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2019.00001" target="_blank">gut</a> and <a href="http://doi.org/10.1128/IAI.00679-16" target="_blank">lung infections</a> in animals and people.</p><p>My colleagues and I have discovered that one of the ways vitamin D functions is by keeping the microbes in the gut healthy and happy. Vitamin D <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1535370214523890" target="_blank">increases the number and diversity of microbes</a> living in the gut, which together reduce inflammation throughout the body.</p><p>Low vitamin D levels are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nrgastro.2015.34" target="_blank">associated with inflammatory bowel disease</a> in humans. Researchers have found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007%2Fs00535-017-1313-6" target="_blank">inflammatory bowel disease patients in Japan</a> have more symptoms in winter than during other seasons.</p>
Why is vitamin D more important in winter?<p>In the winter, humans are exposed to more infections and spend less time outside. Exactly how much vitamin D healthy adults should have is debated. Some authorities recommend from <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nrendo.2017.31" target="_blank">200 IU per day to 2,000 IU per day</a>. In the U.S., the <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/" target="_blank">Institutes of Medicine</a> recommends 600-800 IU per day for adults, while the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1210/jcem.96.12.zeg3908" target="_blank">Endocrine Society states that optimal vitamin D status</a> may require 1500-2,000 IU per day. In the winter, people have a reduced ability to make vitamin D when they go outside, so amounts of at least 600 IU per day of vitamin D from food or supplements would help maintain vitamin D status at summer levels.</p><p>But, just like many things, <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/" target="_blank">too much vitamin D can be harmful</a>. Vitamin D toxicity does not result from too much sun or food. Because of the risk of skin cancer, dermatologists and other health professionals do not recommend unprotected sun exposure to boost your vitamin D. Instead they suggest supplements. But vitamin D toxicity can occur if an individual takes too many.</p><p>The experts that set the national intakes of vitamin D for the U.S. recommend that adult individuals take <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/" target="_blank">no more than 4,000 IU per day of vitamin D</a> to avoid toxic side effects. Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium from your diet, but when vitamin D is too high, calcium levels in the blood go up and that can lead to kidney disease.</p><p>By consuming more vitamin D during the winter your gut microbes will be healthier and you'll be more resistant to infection and inflammation year-round.</p>
By Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD
While everyone has specific life stressors, factors related to job pressure, money, health, and relationships tend to be the most common.
Stress can be acute or chronic and lead to fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, nervousness, and irritability or anger.
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By Hrefna Palsdottir
Biotin is a water-soluble B-vitamin that helps your body convert food into energy.
It is especially important during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Biotin is one of the B-vitamins, also known as vitamin B7.Shutterstock
This article explains everything you need to know about biotin, including its seven main health benefits.
What Is Biotin?
Biotin is one of the B-vitamins, also known as vitamin B7.
It was once called coenzyme R and vitamin H. The H stands for Haar und Haut, which is German for hair and skin.
Biotin is water-soluble, which means the body doesn't store it. It has many important functions in the body.
It's necessary for the function of several enzymes known as carboxylases. These biotin-containing enzymes participate in important metabolic pathways, such as the production of glucose and fatty acids (1).
A commonly recommended intake is 5 mcg (micrograms) per day in infants and 30 mcg in adults. This goes up to 35 mcg per day in breastfeeding women.
Biotin deficiency is fairly rare. However, some groups—such as pregnant women—may experience it in mild forms (2).
Eating raw eggs may also cause a deficiency, but you would need to eat a lot of eggs for a very long time. Raw egg whites contain a protein called avidin, which binds to biotin and prevents its absorption. Avidin is inactivated during cooking.
Summary: Biotin is a water-soluble B-vitamin that's important for energy metabolism. Deficiency is quite rare, although it has been associated with the long-term consumption of raw eggs.
1. Plays a Key Role in Macronutrient Metabolism
Biotin is important for energy production. For example, several enzymes need it to function properly (1).
These enzymes are involved in carb, fat and protein metabolism. They initiate critical steps in the metabolic processes of these nutrients.
Biotin plays a role in:
- Gluconeogenesis: This metabolic pathway enables glucose production from sources other than carbs, such as amino acids. Biotin-containing enzymes help initiate this process (3).
- Fatty acid synthesis: Biotin assists enzymes that activate reactions important for the production of fatty acids (4).
- The breakdown of amino acids: Biotin-containing enzymes are involved in the metabolism of several important amino acids, including leucine (5).
Summary: Biotin assists in energy production. It supports a number of enzymes involved in the metabolism of carbs, fats and protein.
2. May Help Brittle Nails
Brittle nails are weak and easily become chipped, split or cracked.
It's a common condition, estimated to affect around 20 percent of the world's population (6).
Biotin may benefit brittle nails (7).
In one study, 8 people with brittle nails were given 2.5 mg of biotin per day for 6 to 15 months. Nail thickness improved by 25 percent in all 8 participants. Nail splitting was also reduced (8).
Another study of 35 people with brittle nails found 2.5 mg of biotin per day for 1.5 to 7 months improved symptoms in 67 percent of participants (9).
However, these studies were small and more research is needed.
Summary: Brittle nails are fragile and easily become split or cracked. Biotin supplements may help strengthen the nails.
3. Good for Your Hair
Biotin is often associated with increased hair growth and healthier, stronger hair.
Surprisingly, there is very little evidence to support this.
While it is often marketed as an alternative treatment for hair loss, only people with an actual biotin deficiency get significant benefit from supplementing (11).
Whether it improves hair growth in healthy people has yet to be determined.
Summary: Biotin is claimed to promote hair growth and healthy hair, but the evidence is weak. However, deficiency has been linked to hair loss and those who are actually deficient may benefit from supplementing.
4. Plays a Role During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
In fact, it has been estimated that up to 50 percent of pregnant women may develop a mild biotin deficiency. This means that it may start to affect their well-being slightly, but isn't severe enough to cause noticeable symptoms (14, 15, 16).
Deficiencies are thought to occur due to the faster biotin breakdown within the body during pregnancy (17).
Nevertheless, remember to always consult your doctor or dietitian/nutritionist before taking supplements during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Summary: If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, your biotin requirements may go up. Up to 50 percent of women may get less of this vitamin than they need during pregnancy.
5. May Lower Blood Sugar Levels in Diabetics
Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disease. It's characterized by high blood sugar levels and impaired insulin function.
Researchers have studied how biotin supplements affect blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetics.
Some evidence shows biotin concentrations in blood may be lower in people with diabetes, compared to healthy individuals (21).
Summary: When combined with chromium, biotin may help lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
6. May Benefit the Skin
Biotin's role in skin health may be related to its effect on fat metabolism, which is important for the skin and may be impaired when biotin is lacking (27).
There is no evidence showing that biotin improves skin health in people who aren't deficient in the vitamin.
Summary: People with a biotin deficiency may experience skin problems. However, there is no evidence that the vitamin has benefits for skin in people who aren't deficient.
7. Affects Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease. In MS, the protective covering of nerve fibers in the brain, spinal cord and eyes is damaged or destroyed (31).
This protective sheath is called myelin and biotin is thought to be an important factor in producing it (32).
A pilot study in 23 people with progressive MS tested the use of high doses of biotin. More than 90 percent of participants had some degree of clinical improvement (33).
While this finding needs much more study, at least two randomized controlled trials have been carried out in people with progressive MS. The final results have not been published, but the preliminary results are promising (34, 35, 36).
Summary: High biotin doses hold promise for treating multiple sclerosis, a serious disease that affects the central nervous system.
Which Foods Contain Biotin?
Biotin is found in a wide variety of foods, so an actual deficiency is rare.
Foods that are particularly good sources include:
- Organ meats, such as liver and kidney
- Egg yolks
- Legumes, such as soybeans and peanuts
- Leafy greens
- Nuts and nut butters
In addition, your gut bacteria produce some amount of biotin. It's also available as a supplement, either on its own or as a component of mixed vitamin supplements.
Summary: Many foods contain significant amounts of biotin and it is also available as a supplement. Your gut bacteria can also produce it.
Safety and Side Effects
Biotin is considered very safe. Even mega doses of up to 300 milligrams daily to treat multiple sclerosis have not led to adverse side effects (33).
To put this in perspective, 300 milligrams is 10,000 times the commonly recommended 30 microgram dose for adults.
Because it's a water-soluble vitamin, excess amounts are excreted in urine.
However, there have been some reports of high-dose biotin causing strange results on thyroid tests, so check with a doctor before using if you are currently taking thyroid medication (37).
Summary: Biotin appears very safe, even at extremely high doses. There are no known side effects of supplementing with biotin.
The Bottom Line
Biotin is a B-vitamin that plays a crucial role in carb, fat and protein metabolism.
Many of its potential health benefits are based on weak evidence. Nonetheless, it may be important for your skin, hair and nails.
Additionally, pregnant or breastfeeding women may require more biotin. High doses are also being investigated as a potential treatment for multiple sclerosis.
You can find biotin in a wide variety of foods, so actual deficiency is very rare.
For this reason, supplements probably have no significant benefits for healthy people who eat a balanced diet based on real food.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
Researchers from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University (OSU) and three other institutions have taken issue with recent claims that “the case is closed” on whether or not a multivitamin/mineral supplement should be taken by most people to help obtain needed micronutrients.
In a correspondence to be published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers reasoned that this type of dietary supplement helps fill nutritional gaps, improves general health, might help prevent chronic disease, will cause no harm and is easily worth the few cents a day that it costs.
To “call the case closed” is wrong and “misinforms the public and the medical community,” the researchers wrote. Their statements were a response to an editorial in the same publication last year that argued that such supplements are unnecessary and received widespread publicity.
While most nutrition experts agree that a balanced and nutritious diet is the best way to obtain needed nutrients, the researchers in this commentary point out that many Americans have a less-than-perfect diet—long on calories and short on nutrients—and the vast majority are not getting enough of several important vitamins and minerals.
“It’s naïve to ignore the fact that most people have micronutrient inadequacies, and wrong to condemn a daily supplement that could cover these nutritional gaps safely and at low cost,” said Balz Frei, professor and director of the Linus Pauling Institute, and a biochemist in the OSU College of Science.
“There’s strong evidence that a multivitamin/mineral supplement supports normal functioning of the body and helps improve overall health, and may even help lower chronic disease risk,” Frei said. “It’s irresponsible to ignore decades of nutrition research and tell the people of the United States they have no need for a supplement that could be so helpful, and costs as little as $1 a month.
“And if they have a poor diet, people should try to improve that as well,” he said. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”
Among the points the researchers made in their commentary:
The vast majority of people in the U.S. do not meet all of the guidelines for dietary intake of vitamins and minerals.
More than 93 percent of adults in the U.S. do not get the estimated average requirement of vitamins D and E from their diet; 61 percent not enough magnesium; and 50 percent not enough vitamin A and calcium.
Many subpopulations have even more critical needs for micronutrients, including older adults, African Americans, obese persons and some people who are ill or injured.
Concerns about “increased mortality” from supplements of vitamins A and E have been based on extremely high use through supplements far beyond the amount available in a multivitamin, and in the case of vitamin E largely refuted by comprehensive meta-analyses.
The value of proper nutrition, on the other hand, is wide-ranging and positive. Micronutrients maintain normal cell and tissue function, metabolism, growth and development. A supplement that helps a person “cover all the bases” can help protect daily, routine health.
Overt deficiency diseases such as scurvy or rickets are increasingly rare in the U.S. due to improved diet and fortified foods. However, certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies are still a major issue in the developing world, especially vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc. According to the World Health Organization, more than 650,000 children under the age of five die around the world every year from deficiency in vitamin A.
And the potential for vitamins and other micronutrients to help reduce or prevent chronic disease continues to show promise. One of the longest, largest controlled studies ever done, the Physicians’ Health Study II, found a significant eight percent reduction in total cancer incidence in male physicians—people who, through their education, income and lifestyle, probably had diets much closer to optimal than the average American.
“There are many issues that have helped to mislead people when it comes to the study of micronutrients,” Frei said. “For instance, most research is done without first checking to see if a person is inadequate in a nutrient, and you won’t find much effect from a supplement if it isn’t needed.
“In similar fashion, too much research has been done with groups such as doctors and nurses who are probably not representative of the general population,” he said. “Whatever has been shown to be useful in such research probably would be even more effective in people who have poor diets or clear nutritional inadequacies.”
The researchers wrote in their conclusion that to “label multivitamin and mineral supplements useless, harmful and a waste of money is wrong.”
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