Food & Fitness After 50: Beware of Online Advice to Take Vitamin D or Zinc to Prevent COVID-19

Dietary supplements can help fill nutrient gaps or be used to treat deficiencies but lately I’ve seen lots of headlines implying supplements of vitamin D and zinc can make you immune to COVID-19. In a word? NO.

To top it off, many well-meaning people are touting these nutrients on their social media feeds with messages like, “wash your hands and take loads of vitamin D and zinc,” or “stock up on vitamins and minerals, they are natural so you can’t take too much.” Ouch. Hemlock is a natural poison, so clearly you can take too much of a “natural” substance.

vitaminddiscVitamin D

What do these headlines have in common?

  • Vitamin D deficiency may be linked to more severe cases of COVID-19.
  • New study claims vitamin D deficiency may impact coronavirus mortality rates.
  • Could vitamin D deficiency and coronavirus be connected?
  • New study suggests vitamin D is linked to COVID-19 mortality.
  • Coronavirus: How vitamin D could keep you healthy during the pandemic.

I’ve underlined the key words to give you a clue. These headlines are from the same study. The study found a relationship, not a cause and effect, with vitamin D and the virus. When you see the words or phrases like “appears to play a role,” “may be linked,” “may impact,” “suggests,” “related to,” or “associated with,” it tells you about a relationship between two things. It doesn’t tell you that one thing caused another. Did you know there is a strong relationship between the increase in bottled water consumption and rising rates of obesity in the U.S.? Clearly, it doesn’t mean that bottled water is “causing” obesity.

In addition to the well-recognized role in bone health, Vitamin D is important in immunity. It helps modulate the immune system, making immune cells less inflammatory. Various groups, from the Institute of Medicine (IOM is a nonprofit organization and part of The National Academies that works outside the framework of government to provide evidence-based research and recommendations for public health and science policy) recommends that all adults age 51 to 70 years get 600 IU (equal to 15 micrograms or mcg) a day and those over the age of 70 get 800 IU a day (20 mcg). The Endocrine Society suggests adults need 1000 to 1500 IU to ensure adequate blood levels of the vitamin.

It is hard to get enough vitamin D from food and older adults are at risk for insufficiency because skin doesn’t make vitamin D from sunlight as efficiently with aging. Many adults turn to vitamin D supplements to get the needed vitamin D.

And, we started this post with suggestions that the vitamin plays a role in COVID-19. At this point, it is only speculation, but there are at least nine clinical trials listed on ClinicalTrials.gov, exploring various aspects on the vitamin on the virus. A rapid review paper from University of Oxford in the UK (click here for the paper), published May 1, found that currently is there is no clinical evidence to support prevention or treatment of COVID-19 with vitamin D

The Bottom Line?

  • If you have had your blood levels of vitamin D measured by your doctor and she or he has recommended a supplement, continue to take the dose as recommended.
  • If you have not had a vitamin D blood test, don’t self-diagnose and start taking vitamin D.
  • If you take a multivitamin/mineral supplement you may be getting the recommended amount or slightly higher for vitamin D; multis formulated for “seniors” often contain 1000 IU of vitamin D. Don’t take any more than the Upper Limit of 4000 IU/day unless prescribed by an MD.
  • Best food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish; think salmon, tuna, sardines. We know eating fish is good for our health in many ways, so include a fish meal at least twice a week.

Zinc 

Picture1We have no storage site in the body for zinc, so it is needed in the diet every day. Zinc is better known for its role in inhibiting the common cold virus from sticking and replicating in the nose and throat. It can also stop inflammation that contributes to the symptoms of a cold…runny nose and stuffy head.

There is no research on using zinc for COVID-19.

While there are many zinc preparations in the cold and flu cold aisle of your local drug or grocery store, should you use them? The research results are mixed, of course, they often are, but the latest review from the Cochrane Collaboration (a group that reviews medical topics by reviewing many studies on a particular topic) found that when zinc is taken at the first sign of a cold the length of the illness is reduced by about one day.

When using it for warding off a cold, keep in mind the following:

  • Timing and dose are important, try one zinc lozenge at the first sign of a cold and take it every 4 hours (most have 10 to 15 milligrams of zinc per dose).
  • More isn’t better, in fact, in can make things worse; nausea and vomiting can occur if you take too much and it can leave a metal taste in the mouth.
  • Avoid zinc nasal sprays…the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that zinc sprays can lead to changes in the sense of smell and sometimes permanent changes.
  • Zinc can interfere with some prescription medications, like antibiotics and blood thinners, so always consider potential drug interactions.

The Bottom Line?

  • Zinc is important for a healthy immune system but there is no evidence at this time that it will protect against COVID-19.
  • Too much zinc, which is easy to get in supplement form, can cause nausea and vomiting.
  • The Upper Limit for zinc is 40 milligrams so keep that in mind if you use zinc lozenges.
  • Aim for zinc-rich foods every day. Good choices are seafood (oysters, lobster, crab), beef, pork, poultry, baked beans, and fortified breakfast cereals.

I asked Connie Diekman, registered dietitian, food and nutrition consultant, and former President of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to help sum it up:

“With this new virus, much is unknown which makes it more important that we depend on the science related to supplements, rather than opinions posted by a variety of people. The body of evidence related to vitamins and minerals is extensive, while the knowledge behind Covid-19 is evolving. Therefore, as an RD, the best advice I’d give is to focus on a well-balanced eating plan and talk to your MD or RD to determine if you would benefit from supplements – don’t go it alone!”

Dr. Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved

 

Healing Foods

Although I was in denial for about 6 years the truth is I needed a total hip replacement. For me, an old high school injury + 25 years of running + age = osteoarthritis. I tried physical therapy, cortisone injections, glucosamine, chondroitin, oral meds, and even acupuncture, and while everything helped for a little while, the reality was that the cartilage cushion in my hip just wasn’t coming back. I was sure I was too young for such a big surgery, although my surgeon’s PA assured me I was a year over the average age of patients getting hip replacements (thanks for reminding me of my age). I learned from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website that hip replacement “is one of the most successful operations in all of medicine,” with more than 285,000 performed each year in the U.S.

So, I had a total hip replacement five weeks ago today. The first 2 and half weeks were rough but then I got my strength back (thanks to home physical therapy) and am walking 2 miles a day without pain and without a limp…no more swaying when I walk!

In all the preparation leading up to the surgery no one talked about the importance of nutrition in recovering from surgery, so here is my advice to anyone having major surgery.

1. Eat high quality protein foods before and after surgery. Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are need to keep your immune system strong (the last thing you want is to get sick before surgery). After surgery protein-rich foods help wound healing and to make blood cells to replace blood losses from surgery. Expect a poor appetite after surgery (my appetite was depressed for about 2-3 weeks after surgery) so eat small portion of protein several times a day. For example, eat a hard cooked or a scrambled egg for breakfast, a piece of string cheese mid-morning, Greek yogurt for lunch (regular yogurt is OK, but Greek yogurt is higher in protein), shredded chicken in chicken soup for dinner and a handful of almonds in the evening to get protein at every meal and snack. As your appetite picks up, add cereal and milk, peanut butter toast, turkey on a bagel, grilled cheese, a small lean steak, or a tofu noodle bowl.

2. Vitamin C-rich foods are needed to make the protein collagen that provides strength to the surgical wound. In the old days when vitamin C deficiency led to scurvy (it was prevalent in those undergoing long sea voyages with little access to fruits or vegetables) it was common for wound dehiscence or the opening up of old wounds.We don’t have to worry about scurvy today and it is easier for us to get vitamin C by eating citrus fruits or drinking orange juice. I snacked on my favorite seasonal fruit, Clementine tangerines, every afternoon. If your appetite is not good, try a supplement of vitamin C or a vitamin C adult gummy.

3. Zinc is a mineral found in meat, fish, poultry and dairy foods, with smaller amounts found in whole grains, legumes and nuts. Zinc is needed to repair cells and keep a healthy immune system. Get zinc from foods rather than supplements…too much zinc can cause nausea and vomiting.

4. Tart cherry juice is a potent source of anti-oxidants and many athletes use it to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation after exercise. And, tart cherries also contain melatonin which might help improve sleep quality. Tart cherries aren’t the same as the sweet cherries that you eat for a snack; so, it you want to try it look for tart cherry juice. One 10.5 ounce bottle contains the equivalent of about 45 tart cherries which is enough to reduce inflammation and pain.

5. Fiber may not seem to fit with the “healing” foods theme of this article, but after surgery including high fiber foods in your diet (along with plenty of water) can alleviate constipation. Prescription pain meds are well known to cause constipation so stock up on prune juice or dried prunes. Drink about 4-5 ounces of prune juice or eat 2-4 dried prunes each day to keep things moving without having to resort to harsh chemical laxatives.

No one wants to have surgery, but if it happens, use foods to help you heal and bounce back to be better than the old you!