By Laura Beil
Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
It also helps to have celebrity enthusiasts. When President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, his pill arsenal included Vitamin D and zinc. And in an Instagram chat with actress Jennifer Garner in September, infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci touted vitamins C and D as ways that might generally boost the immune system. "If you're deficient in vitamin D," he noted, "that does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection. I would not mind recommending, and I do it myself, taking vitamin D supplements."
But whether over-the-counter supplements can actually prevent, or even treat, COVID-19, is not clear. Since the disease is so new, researchers haven't had much time for the kind of large experiments that provide the best answers. Instead, scientists have mostly relied on fresh takes on old data. Some studies have looked at outcomes of patients who routinely take certain supplements — and found some promising hints. But so far there's little data from the kinds of scientifically rigorous experiments that give doctors confidence when recommending supplements.
Here's what we know today about three supplements getting plenty of attention around COVID-19.
What it is: Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied supplements (SN: 1/27/19). Certain foods, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.
Why it might help: Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.
How it works for other infections: In 2017, the British Medical Journal published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement might help prevent respiratory infections, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.
But one key word here is deficient. That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).
"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.
And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.
What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19: Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.
In May, in the BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, Lanham-New and her colleagues published a summary of existing evidence and concluded that there's only enough to recommend vitamin D to help with COVID-19 prevention for people who are deficient. That paper made inferences from how vitamin D works against other respiratory tract infections and immune health.
More than a dozen studies are now testing vitamin D directly for prevention and treatment, including a large one led by JoAnn Manson, a leading expert on vitamin D. An epidemiologist and preventive medicine physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. That study will analyze if vitamin D can affect the course of a COVID-19 infection. The trial aims to recruit 2,700 people across the United States with newly diagnosed infections, along with their close household contacts.
The goal is to determine whether newly diagnosed people given high doses of vitamin D — 3,200 IU per day — are less likely than people who get a placebo to experience severe symptoms and need hospitalization. "The biological plausibility for a benefit in COVID is compelling," she says, given the nutrient's theoretical ability to impede the severe inflammatory reaction that can follow coronavirus infection. "However the evidence is not conclusive at this time."
What it is: Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.
Why it might help: It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.
How it works for other infections: Studies of using zinc for colds — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in BMJ Open did not find any value for zinc lozenges for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.
What we know about zinc and COVID-19: The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19 (SN: 8/2/20).)
In July, researchers from Aachen University in Germany wrote in Frontiers of Immunology that current evidence "strongly suggests great benefits of zinc supplementation" based on looking at similar infections including SARS, another disease caused by a coronavirus. For example, studies suggest that giving zinc reduces the risk for death from a pneumonia infection. The researchers cite evidence that zinc might help prevent the virus from entering the body, and help slow the virus's replication when it does.
Another review — also based on indirect evidence — published August 1 in Advances in Integrative Medicine also concluded that zinc might be helpful in people who are deficient.
In September, researchers from Hospital Del Marin Barcelona reported that among 249 patients studied, those who survived COVID had higher zinc levels in their plasma (an average of 63.1 mcg/dl) than those who died (43mcg/dl).
Overall, though, the jury is still out, says Suma Thomas, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, who in June led a team that reviewed the evidence for popular supplements in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. Given what's already known, zinc could possibly decrease the duration of infection but not the severity of symptoms, she said, particularly among people who are deficient. About a dozen studies are now looking at zinc for COVID treatment, often with other drugs or supplements.
Thomas and her colleagues are comparing symptom severity and future hospitalization in COVID-19 patients who take zinc with and without high doses of vitamin C with those who receive ordinary care without the supplement. Results are expected soon, she says.
What it is: Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.
Why it might help: It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.
How it works for other infections: Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the Journal of Medical Virology, looked at what is already known about vitamin C and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."
But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies didn't support the idea that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."
What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.
In a review published online in July in Nutrition, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the vitamin may help prevent infection and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.
Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful, the pair concluded in July in Drugs in Context. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.
And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."
This story was originally published by Science News, a nonprofit independent news organization.
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You can't discount the importance of your gut health. Research shows that the microbiome within your digestive system has a disproportionate impact on how well your whole body functions.
Unfortunately, bad diets, the overuse of antibiotics, and other stressors mean many of our digestive systems are in trouble. Probiotic supplements claim to solve this problem by replenishing your gut with the healthy bacteria it needs for optimal functioning. Here, we'll analyze the popular probiotic brand Seed to determine whether its supplements are worth taking.
How We Review Probiotics
Whenever we review a probiotic supplement, we evaluate six specific categories.
- Number of active strains - How many types of bacteria are included?
- AFU (Active Fluorescent Units)/ CFU (Colony Forming Units) - These units of measurement tell you how many billions of bacteria are estimated to be within each supplement dose.
- Storage Requirements - Some probiotics are shelf-stable, while others require refrigeration.
- Ingredient Transparency – does the company disclose where it sources its active strains and provide clinical research for their efficacy?
- Value - How are the probiotics priced? Can you purchase them without an auto-ship program?
- Sustainability - Does the company show ways its supplements are better for the environment through sustainable ingredient sourcing or packaging?
Let's evaluate these criteria for Seed.
About Seed Probiotics
Seed is an e-commerce supplement brand with a single product—the DS-O1 Daily Synbiotic probiotic. The company got its start in 2018 when cofounders Ara Katz and Raja Dhir determined that the current probiotic supplements available weren't hitting the mark.
Katz's experiences of pregnancy and breastfeeding as a new mom led her to develop a deeper appreciation of the body's microbiome and its role in overall health. She joined forces with Dhir, who had the scientific experience to understand what could be improved within the probiotic industry.
Together, they strove to create a supplement that "raised the bar on bacteria" by giving the body what it needed for all its systems to operate most effectively. They collaborated with a large team of entrepreneurs, artists, and scientists to develop a probiotic known as DS-01 Daily Synbiotic.
The Seed DS-01 Daily Synbiotic
- Active Strains - 24
- AFU - 53.6 billion AFU
- Storage Requirements - Shelf-stable for 18 months after opening
- Ingredient Transparency - Clinical data available for each strain
- Sustainability - First order ships in reusable glass canisters and subsequent orders arrive in compostable biofilm.
- Value - $49.99/60 supplements (30-day supply subscription)
The DS-01 Daily Synbiotic is a broad-spectrum probiotic that combines 24 probiotic strains with a non-fermenting prebiotic concentrate of Indian pomegranate for better delivery. Of these strains, 23 are human-derived, and one is isolated from fruit and added to promote healthy cholesterol levels.
These strains work synergistically to support the 38 trillion bacteria that make up your microbiome. They will purportedly help the body digest food, minimize inflammation, and better synthesize nutrients.
This supplement contains four distinct probiotic blends:
- Digestive Health/ Gut Immunity/ Gut Barrier Integrity: 37.0 Billion AFU
- Dermatological Health: 3.3 Billion AFU
- Cardiovascular Health: 5.25 Billion AFU
- Micronutrient Synthesis: 8.05 Billion AFU
(See strain-specific studies here)
How It Works
With these multiple strains, the company claims to take a 'Microbe-Systems Approach' through microbes that impact specific physical functions beyond the digestive system. These include skin and heart health, better immune system functioning, and micronutrient synthesis.
In other words, DS-01 goes beyond digestive issues to support full-body health. The company claims it's even one of the first probiotic formulations able to synthesize folate and increase its production.
Seed's DS-01 Daily Synbiotic probiotic also stands out with its delivery system. The supplement utilizes "nested capsule technology" along with a patented algae delivery system. This two-in-one capsule design houses the probiotic formula within a prebiotic casing made from Indian pomegranate to ensure these fragile bacteria survive both sitting on store shelves and the perilous journey through stomach acid to your colon.
Through this method, Seed claims to average a 100% delivery rate of the probiotic's starting dose to your colon. According to internal testing, DS-01 probiotics will exceed the living cell counts listed on the label even after ten days of constant 100º F exposure.
Adults can take two Seed probiotic supplements per day, preferably at the same time. It's best you do so on an empty stomach to limit the capsule's exposure to digestive enzymes that start to break it down. However, those with sensitive stomachs may want to eat something first. While you'll get optimal results from taking the supplements daily, it's not a problem if you occasionally skip one.
If you're new to probiotics, start by taking one per day for the first three days and then increasing your dosage to two per day. You may feel its effects on your digestive system within 48 hours, though long-term improvements to the cardiovascular system take more time and might not be noticeable to you.
Seed probiotics don't need require refrigeration. They are shelf-stable for 18 months at temperatures up to 78℉ and are safe to take when expired. Just note that the company can't guarantee their potency at this point.
How to Buy
Seed DS-01 Daily Synbiotic probiotics are only available on a subscription basis. They cost $49.99 per month and ship free throughout the US (international orders include a $10 shipping fee).
You will receive a 30-day supply (60 capsules) when you order through the company website, and the first order includes a reusable glass canister and travel vial. Each subsequent order arrives in compostable biofilm so you can transfer the capsules to the reusable ones.
All first orders are covered by a 30-day risk-free trial, during which you can return the probiotics for a full refund. It's possible to cancel the subscription at any time by contacting customer service at [email protected].
Note: At publication, these probiotics were sold out. They are available for pre-order and expected to ship again in 2-4 weeks.
What We Like About Seed
As a product within the largely unregulated supplement industry, Seed broad-spectrum probiotics earn major points from us for both transparency and abundant clinical research. The company shares detailed information about every bacterial strain within the supplement and links out to the scientific studies highlighting their effectiveness.
Customer reviews on Facebook and other review sites show that Seed probiotics work as described for many users. Some shared they experienced positive improvements in their digestive system within 48 hours and noticed better-looking skin within a month.
Those with allergies or food sensitivities will also appreciate these supplements are soy-free, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, corn-free, and free of binders and preservatives.
From a consumer standpoint, Seed makes taking probiotics simple. The shelf-stable formula means you won't have to store them in the fridge, and each 30-day supply is guaranteed to remain viable for 18 months after opening. Likewise, the nested capsule delivery system should improve how many billions of bacteria make it into your digestive system intact.
Equally noteworthy, we love Seed's commitment to environmental sustainability. By sending each customer two reusable glass containers at the start of their subscription, the company minimizes the packaging waste for each subsequent order.
What We Don't Like
Despite these positives, Seed broad-spectrum probiotics have some downsides. To start, they are pricier than many competitors. You will pay $1.66 per day's dose, which is more than some want to pay for supplements.
It's also not possible to try them without committing to a monthly subscription. While it will take several weeks or longer to start noticing their effects, some customers might not want to be locked into an auto-ship program so early in the experimenting process.
Likewise, some customer reviews complained of unexpected side effects such as breakouts and rashes. It's not clear whether these went away for users after a few weeks of use.
Finally, it's currently only possible to pre-order these supplements. If you're dealing with digestive distress today, you may want to try a probiotic brand that's available right now for faster relief.
Seed Safety & Side Effects
Seed DS-01 Daily Synbiotics are considered safe for adults over 18. Each supplement is vegan and free of common allergens like gluten, dairy, soy, and corn. They have undergone extensive third-party testing and adhere to the highest global regulatory standards for safety.
As with all probiotics, you might notice unpleasant side effects when you start taking them. Many people experience bloating, increased gas production, constipation, and other gastrointestinal problems for the first few days.
This can be discouraging, as many users take probiotics precisely to combat these symptoms in the first place. However, your system should adjust to the new bacteria within two weeks, and this digestive distress should diminish accordingly.
The DS-01 Daily Synbiotic is classified as safe for women who are pregnant and breastfeeding, although the company recommends speaking with a medical professional before starting them. As will all probiotics, you should not take these supplements if you have a weakened immune system, recently underwent surgery, or if you have a serious illness. Speak with your doctor before starting any dietary supplement if you have concerns or questions.
Takeaway: Are Seed Probiotics Worth It?
The Seed DS-01 Daily Synbiotic is well-formulated and shows clinical evidence of improving your gut biome for far-reaching health benefits. The company solves the tricky problem of selling a live product with its innovative delivery system that keeps the bacteria within the supplement safe both on the shelf and through the digestive process.
If you are dealing with digestive problems, or are looking for a way to improve your general health, then this broad-spectrum probiotic might be one worth trying.
Just keep in mind that you might feel worse for a few days before the microbes will take full effect in your gut and that giving it a try means you are committing to a monthly subscription.
Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness, food and farming, and environmental topics. When not working against a writing deadline, you can find Lydia outdoors where she attempts to bring order to her 33-acre hobby farm filled with fruit trees, heritage breed pigs, too many chickens to count, and an organic garden that somehow gets bigger every year.