Science Answers: Will Vitamins Keep Me Healthy?

Each winter, millions of people come down with the common cold, the flu, or another respiratory illness. Taking vitamins is a traditional remedy, but how well do they really work?

Vitamin Mineral Herbal Supplement for Health and Immune Function

Science actually has a lot to say about this. Whether you are a fan of big pharma or not, vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplementation for health reasons is a booming business, and where there is money to be made, there is also research going on. Unfortunately, the numerous studies produced every year do not exactly compare apples to apples. Different studies may (often) use different strengths and preparations of the supplement in question. Ingredients in different brands sold over-the-counter are not standardized, and there is little to no requirement for quality control (at least in the United States, and in Australia products are only evaluated for safety, not effectiveness).  Different preparations and different brands can even be absorbed differently by the body – you may be taking something just to have it go right through you, so to speak (a doctor friend of mine talks about having very expensive pee). All of this can make it harder to determine whether a given supplement is actually going to help you stay healthy. But it’s better than no science at all, by a long run!

It’s also important to note that your health “starting point” will make a big difference in how well any of these supplements work, if they work at all. If you are deficient in a nutrient, then increasing your intake will almost guarantee you a stronger immune system and healthier body. This also goes for people who are under high levels of physical stress (think lots of exercise or a highly active job). These types of activity can depress your immune system, and recovery from often requires more nutrients than it would otherwise.

Now let’s see what the science has to say about some of the most common cold-fighting vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements.

Vitamin C

Famous for being THE sickness-fighting vitamin, research results on the effectiveness of vitamin C have actually been somewhat controversial, for the reasons mentioned above. In normal healthy people, regular vitamin C supplementation in doses of up to 4g per day has shown a small reduction in the duration and severity of illness. There is not A LOT of evidence that it makes a person any less susceptible to infection in the first place (though there is some). To make matters more confusing, there is no agreement on how much you should take, or how often, for optimal effect. On the whole, the science supports the use of vitamin C, but they aren’t sure how much you actually need.

Zinc

Often sold and/or taken in tandem with vitamin C, large doses of zinc have been shown to prevent viruses from sticking to the mucus membranes of the body (think: sinus cavity) and from replicating. Daily supplementation of zinc in order to prevent colds is not recommended, since long term use can have adverse side effects, including suppressing the immune system – the exact thing you’re taking it to avoid! If you do come down with a cold though, there is evidence that zinc supplements may be useful in decreasing both the duration and severity of the illness. Optimal dose size and frequency have yet to be determined, so stick with the instructions on the packaging.

Echinacea

This is one of the most commonly sold herbal “cold-fighting” supplements. Best-selling does not always mean highly-effective though. A 2015 meta-analysis of research done on echinacea products suggested that some products may be associated with a decreased risk of catching a cold, but that there was little evidence that, once sick, these products would decrease the duration or severity of the illness. Interestingly, the individual studies included in the meta-analysis actually showed no association between supplementation and illness prevention. Another report from the Harvard Medical School agreed that evidence of echinacea fighting colds is weak. It still might work for you – if nothing else, there is always the placebo effect (if reading this didn’t ruin it). Maybe let the buyer beware?

Vitamin D

Vitamin D and sunshine are closely linked (sunlight helps the body produce some vitamin D internally). There is also more and more evidence that vitamin D and immune function are linked. Even people who spend significant time outdoors can be vitamin D deficient (and even in part of the world with great weather), prompting suggestions in some research that regular vitamin D supplementation be used to keep the immune system powered up. Your vitamin D levels can be detected in a blood test, and your doctor can help you determine what dosage is right for you. If you don’t feel like making a trip to the doc especially to get this checked, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin D intake is 600 IU per day in both the United States and Canada.

Probiotics

The surprise cold fighter. Many people think of gastrointestinal support when they think of probiotics, and they aren’t wrong. It just so happens that we get a two-for-one with probiotics. Our digestive system is very closely linked to our immune system; much of the bacteria we encounter on a daily basis ends up going through our digestive tract and approximately 70% of the body tissue that secretes immune cells is located along the lining of our gut. Probiotics are actually live microorganisms that help your body out, often thought of as “good” bacteria. You can take them in capsule form, and almost every type of fermented food is rich with them (think: yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, probiotic drinks, etc.).  Regular probiotic intake – whether via food or a specific supplement – has been shown to decrease the risk of catching a cold to begin with, as well as decreasing the duration of illness.

Again, the results of this medical research don’t always give us clear-cut answers. For many supplements, the question of how much to take and how frequently hasn’t been clearly answered. Follow the instructions on the packaging, since each product can differ in strength, preparation, and effectiveness. Also remember that it can be difficult to control for placebo effects. For some people, simply the act of taking anything can be enough to give themselves both a physical and mental boost. And that is nothing to dismiss. If you are generally healthy (without any medical conditions or prescriptions that vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplements may interfere with), and you feel even better when you take these things, then by all means, stay healthy!


At-Home Exercise: Wall Sit

This is a great at-home exercise that really targets your quads (the muscles at the front of your thigh). These guys are important! Your quads are a group of four muscles that work with you lift you knee up in front of the body (a movement known as hip flexion) and also when you straighten your knee (a movement called knee extension). Why should you care? If these muscles aren’t strong, these movements may not come as easily as they once did. Weak quads can also lead to knee pain – no one wants that!

While the technique to the exercise is not difficult, it’s still a challenging exercise. It usually doesn’t take more than 10 seconds to start feeling the burn at the front of the thighs – this is totally normal! Those muscles are working double overtime and telling you all about it. You can change the difficulty of this exercise by sitting higher up on the wall.

What you don’t want to feel is pain in your knees while doing this. Knee pain usually happens during this exercise because the body weight is pushing forward through the toes, which causes the force of the exercise to push forward through the knees as well. To fix (and prevent) this, make sure that your weight is staying through your heels. Pro tip: lift the toes off the floor slightly and you’ll automatically put your weight through your heels.

Go quads go!

Wall Sit
  • Start standing 2-3 feet from wall, with feet hip width and toes straight ahead
  • Slide down the wall to the desired depth (eventually you want to work down to a 90 degree angle at the knees and hips, as pictured)
  • Glutes, tummy, and pelvic floor on, and keep hands off of legs
  • Press back into wall and heels of the feet into the ground
  • You should feel this: through your quads (front of your thighs). A LOT.

Wall Sit


At-Home Exercise: Incline Pushup

Push ups are an excellent way to build upper body strength.

Push ups are also hard, especially if you are doing them correctly.

Incline push ups are the right way to work your way down to the flat-on-the-floor traditional push up. I prefer this incline version to the from-your-knees version. The technique and body alignment is closer to the traditional and will make it easier to progress to the floor (if you so choose).

The key to getting the most out of this exercise is to keep your entire body involved. The main movement is still produced with the muscles of the arms and chest, but holding your body in a straight line means maintaining active muscles all along the back of the body too. Think tight glutes, squeezing the shoulder blades down and together to activate the muscles of your back, and keeping your abdominal muscles braced. All of a sudden, this is a full body exercise!

Incline Push Up
  • Stand on the balls of the feet with hands on a bench, a bar or a wall, just outside shoulder width.
  • Keeping your body in a straight line by tightening your tummy and glutes, and keeping head and neck in line with the spine.
  • Lower yourself towards the bar or wall.
  • Push yourself back up to the starting point.
  • To make it more difficult, move hands to a lower position; to make it easier, move hands higher.
  • Aim to maintain the straight line with the hips and back in neutral (I can’t emphasize this enough). No sagging through the lower back or hiking the hips up.
  • You should feel this: “bracing” through torso/core, slight squeeze in glutes, work in arms and chest.

Incline Pushup

 


You’re Never Too Old…

The story: 104-year-old Ray Chavez, the oldest surviving veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack of World War II, is going to Hawaii for the 75th anniversary of the strike. He made the decision to go three years ago, and has been working with a trainer to help him physically prepare for the trip.

At 104 years old, Ray put on 20 pounds of muscle mass.

I love this story. The decision to make an effort, and then stick with it for years and attain such spectacular results is phenomenal. But the fact that he could actually make these gains isn’t!

What we think about the aging process – that our bodies will become unable to lift heavy things, or walk certain distances as our age advances – is not necessarily true. As with any age group, if you don’t continue to use the strength, flexibility, or cardiovascular endurance you have, you’ll lose these abilities to a degree. But…

you-can-do-it-poster

No matter how old you get, you can still gain at least some of the qualities back!

The body’s ability to build strength or endurance or flexibility doesn’t change as we age, though the process can differ slightly. Everyone has their own starting point, dependent on age and other characteristics (like being a couch potato or an avid outdoorsman). With advancing age, starting strength or endurance often decrease, so it’s important to recognize where you are, rather than where you think you should be or want to be. A good guideline:  whatever exercise or activity you choose should be moderately challenging, but achievable. And your starting point is just that – a starting point. Though the aging process usually means that it takes a bit longer for our bodies to respond to the exercise, they still will respond. In fact, if you stick with the “challenging but achievable” guideline, you’ll be able to continue to progress with weights or other resistance training for strength, or to stick with the treadmill or bike for a greater duration. All of it will eventually become easier. Once it does, you can find a new challenge. Heavier weight. Longer bike ride. Higher steps.

The long and short: Our bodies are designed to move, and that design doesn’t change with age. The body may not progress as fast as we’d like it to, but it will make progress!

You can read Ray’s story (and watch the inspiring video) here.

 


At-Home Exercise: Side Planks, Level 2

Ready for the next step? The Level 1 Side Plank is a great intro to this exercise, and though the positioning isn’t all that different, the effect sure can be!

It’s important to note that if you aim for this version before you’re ready, you can do more harm than good. The stabilizer muscles that work to support the spine and pelvis can fatigue easily and be overloaded if you try for too much work, too soon.  If this is happening, you’ll usually feel this as an aching or burning in areas like your lower back rather than through the “core” muscles that should be working. (It’s also helpful to note that many, many, many people will feel this exercise in the bottom shoulder more than anything. Our arms and shoulders are not used to supporting our body weight and they’ll be working triple overtime and complaining about it. No need to panic, this is normal and those muscles will be fine.) Pick the right level to start with. You’ll get strong and progress soon!

Remember from the post about Level 1 Side Planks that doing these correctly will result in better activation and strength in the muscles that provide support for your spine and pelvis. This is good: Stable equals pain-free and decreases risk of injuries, as well as allowing more efficient movement.

 

To really maximize the benefit of this exercise, it’s important to maintain the straight lines that you start with. That means that shoulders need to stay stacked (one directly above the other), as do hips. The hips also need to stay straight, so keep squeezing your glutes! Keeping your pelvic floor activated will also make a huge difference in the strength and activation. (Not sure what that means? Think about the last time you had to pee and had to hold it. That’s the same squeeze you want.)

Side (Lateral) Plank, Level 2
  • Start by laying on your side with your shoulders and hips stacked (one of top of the other) and elbow under shoulder
  • Legs are aligned straight down from torso – if you look straight down your body, everything should be in line
  • Brace through tummy and gently squeeze pelvic floor and glutes
  • Lift hips off the ground, pushing through your bottom foot and elbow
  • Keep top hand on hip, or reaching straight up in the air (this will help keep you aligned)
  • When at the “top” keep squeezing glutes to maintain straight line
  • Keep head and neck in line with spine
  • Hold for 10-12 seconds, then relax back to ground
  • You should feel: work/bracing through the core and glutes, and through the bottom shoulder

side plank core exercise