Immune Boosting Foods – Lessons from a Dietitian on the Front Lines

Allison Pingel is a registered dietitian working with the Moffit Cancer Center to provide patients with the nutritional knowledge they need to stay healthy. As we know, COVID-19 is a severe threat to those individuals with an impaired immune system. Allison talks about building a strong immune system by eating correctly on a consistent basis.

The construction of this strong immune response does not occur overnight but occurs over time when you give your body the correct nutrients. She is quick to point out that there are no scientific studies that document or prove that vitamin supplements are a good substitute for foods which provide these building blocks naturally. “Fruits and vegetables are a more economical and nutritious way to obtain your necessary vitamins and minerals as well as other nutrients that are helpful including fiber.”

“Foods high in Vitamins A, C D, E and zinc support the immune system.” She cites broccoli, berries, garlic, ginger and spinach as products containing high amounts of these vitamins which assist the body in fighting infections. She encourages yogurt and nuts as plentiful sources of probiotics and zinc, which she considers essential for building a strong immune system. Additionally, she is a strong advocate of fruits and vegetables. One and a half cups to two cups of fruit per day, plus 2-3 cups of vegetables per day, are helpful for building a strong immune response.

While eating correctly to build your immune system is essential, so is some regular exercise and activities that are social and put you in touch with others in a safe manner. As spring descends on our country, it’s a fine time to take a walk or ride a bike and say hello to your friends and neighbors from a safe distance. Just make sure you adhere to your community’s stay-at-home restrictions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is frightening but with healthy eating, regular exercise and safe social interaction we will prevail and come out of this crisis stronger.

Life’s New Reality with Coronavirus aka COVID-19

We are bombarded daily with news about the spreading infections with CoronaVirus or Covid-19. With television, the Internet and other news mediums; the quantity, quality and accuracy of information can be overwhelming.

This single stranded RNA virus has managed to invade most of our populated continents and is now moving into communities. There is more we do not know about this pathogen than we do know.

Public health officials which include the Trump Administration, the CDC, the NIH and local health departments have been extremely tight-lipped on the clinical course of the hundreds of US citizens evacuated from infected areas and quarantined for 14 days.

We do not know if there are any telltale historical or clinical markers to tip us off as to whether the patient in front of us with a cough and low grade fever might have a run of the mill seasonal viral infection or Covid-19.

And, it is still unclear,

  • How long the virus stays alive on a surface and remains infective.
  • How long the incubation period is and how long in advance of demonstrating signs of infection asymptomatic patients can transmit the disease.
  • What role, if any, children, who seem to be less vulnerable to the disease, play in the transmission of the disease as asymptomatic carriers?
  • How a relatively healthy nonsmoking adult in their 30’s to 50’s will do if they catch the disease?

The recommendations on testing from the administration and CDC have been unrealistic based on the lack of availability of the testing labs and kits in affected states. This will improve with time, but will it improve to the level of the “quick, never get out of your car, drive-through testing” being done in South Korea? That story, covered by CNN, was both enlightening and disheartening. Enlightening by illustrating how government can institute a plan quickly and efficiently.   Disheartening realizing that with all our wealth and expertise in the United States we are not doing something similar.

The recommendations about prevention are commonsense. Do I really need to log onto the CDC website to learn that I need to wash my hands, avoid touching my face and stay home if ill?

The selfishness and entitlement of the American public make even asking these minimal changes in our pattern to be a major inconvenience and intrusion into our privacy. I see the Ultra Rock Festival in Miami and the Calle Ocho street festival have been cancelled smartly to prevent infection. At the same time restaurants are jammed, servers and food preparation individuals without sick leave and health insurance still show up at work ill, to serve and prepare food, and many chronological adults balk at giving up their restaurants, bars, clubs and shows to prevent the spread of disease.

Posters suggesting we stay six feet away from others are plastered on buses and train platforms of mass transit systems where if you can stay 6 microns away from another transit passenger it’s as if you are travelling in the First Class section.

If we are all fortunate, Covid-19 will ultimately be an annoyance in the low risk population. We will develop fast and effective ways to detect it and then, with knowledge of how it spreads, we will be able to provide advice on how to protect others.

I am just not sure today’s American public has the will, the determination or the sense of community, altruism and sacrifice of lifestyle needed to prevent a major health and economic crisis.

INFORMATIONAL RESOURCES:

Natural Substances That Work

In an article published in the pharmaceutical journal MPR, pharmacist Cassandra Pardini, compares the use of melatonin to provide sleep to hospitalized patients taking sleep medicine zolpidem (brand name is Ambien). The patients were hospital inpatients over 18 years of age who were unaware whether they were receiving melatonin or zolpidem to sleep. These patients completed a questionnaire using the Verran and Snyder-Halpem sleep scale to respond.

There were a total of 100 patients included in the study which showed that the favorable sleep effects of melatonin were as effective as the favorable sleep effects of the zolpidem. Both sleep aids were well tolerated and there were few, if any, adverse effects such as morning grogginess or headaches.

The authors concluded that melatonin may be a better choice for inpatient sleep aid because of the lower profile for serious adverse effects. Further studies looking at dosages and drug interactions are in the planning stages.

The same periodical presented a review of the scent Lavender used to reduce anxiety. The authors performed a literature review of all the published studies on the subject. There are over 65 randomized controlled studies and 25 non -randomized studies.

When lavender was used in an inhalation method, they found a general decline in reported anxiety. The inhalation method did not lower systolic blood pressure which is felt to be a physiological marker of anxiety. When the lavender was administered as an oil preparation (Silexan 80 mg per day), for at least six weeks, there was a reduction in anxiety as measured by an accepted Anxiety scale. In a smaller study, lavender administered by massage had a positive effect as well.

There were few if any adverse effects in these studies. Clearly lavender does reduce anxiety in subsets of patients and should be considered as part of our treatment options.

Dog Ownership & Staying Alive

An article published in the Journal of Circulation and Cardiovascular Outcomes in October 2019 looked at the effect of owning a dog on survival and mortality. The authors looked at research studies, published between 1950 and May 2019, that evaluated dog ownership with all-cause mortality and cardiovascular related deaths – including almost 4 million patients and 515 events.

Dog ownership was associated with a 24% risk reduction for all- cause mortality when compared to non-ownership with six of the studies showing a significant reduction in the risk of death. Those individuals who previously had a cardiovascular event (MI, heart attack, etc.) had an even more pronounced reduction in the risk of death of all causes.

When they just looked at the issue of cardiovascular death risk in dog owners who had a previous cardiac event, the risk reduction for cardiovascular death was 31%.  The reviewers concluded that, “dog ownership is associated with lower risk of death over the long-term, which is possibly driven by a reduction in cardiovascular mortality.”

My wife and I lost our treasured Pug of 15 years, “Pug Sly”, and his sweet mix-breed partner “Chloe” two years ago.  Losing these two just one year apart was like losing beloved family.

So, we adopted a rescue Pug and then a young pup who had been returned to its breeder.  At our first dog checkup with the new pets and our vet, my wife expressed concern that at our age the dogs might out-live us. Our vet told us that if that were to occur, and no family members wanted the dogs, he and his family would adopt them and care for them. He said that is common in many practices and they encourage senior citizens who can provide a loving and caring home to not worry about that aspect of continued care and adopting a dog.

While there is no data on this topic, I suspect pet ownership of cats and birds and other domestic animals requiring care and love confers similar benefits.

Environmental Pollution Linked to Decreasing Lifespan and Increased Deaths

Worsening air pollution is killing more people at a younger age. We read on a daily basis about a White House sponsored movement back to the use of coal for fuel. At the same time, rules and regulations designed to keep our air and water clean are being relaxed by Administration appointees to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Instead of protecting the environment so that future generations have clean air to breathe, and water to drink, we see rule after rule put in place to protect our countries environment scraped by officials who cite economic profit and jobs over environmental concerns for future generations. When the discussion gets heated, officials cite the fact that even if we use clean energy, developing countries like China and India and third world nations produce enough environmental pollution to offset our best efforts.  The rhetoric goes back and forth between advocates for developing and exporting clean energy (solar, wind, natural gas and nuclear) versus coal products. But, what do the facts say?

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Open Network directly linked air pollution and its contribution of fine particulate matter to the atmosphere with an increased burden of death from several causes. The researchers followed 4,522,160 military veterans in the USA from 2006 to 2016 and linked their exposure to increased particulate matter or pollution to increased deaths from nine causes including:

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Cerebrovascular Disease
  3. Chronic Kidney Disease
  4. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
  5. Dementia
  6. Type II Diabetes Mellitus
  7. Hypertension
  8. Lung Cancer
  9. Pneumonia

The increased death rate was more noticeable in persons of color living in poor socioeconomic communities. The causes of death were in no way related to accidents.

The concentration of pollutants the study population was exposed to was actually lower than the new relaxed standards the current Environmental Protection Agency has approved. Last month a similar study was presented at a worldwide meeting of the World Health Organization.

The message is quite clear.  Unless we want to see a rising death toll due to air pollution, we need to improve the air quality and ask for more stringent standards. At the same time, the USA needs to support the development of clean fuel and energy sources that we can export to developing countries so that their reliance on coal and polluting sources diminishes.

We need to do what we can to control the issue rather than continuing policies that increase the deaths of our citizens in the name of profits.

Taking BP Medications at Night More Efficacious Than in the Morning

The European Heart Journal published the Hygia Chronotherapy Trial which followed hypertensive patients in Spain for a decade between 2008 and 2018. There were 19,000 participants of whom 10,600 were men, all older than 18 and all being treated for high blood pressure.  The group was randomly selected to either take their blood pressure medications at bedtime or in the morning.  They were followed with frequent blood pressure checkups plus 48-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitoring to assess their sleep time blood pressures.

The study was performed only on Caucasian participants who went to sleep on what would be considered a normal day/night schedule.  The results were significant and important.

Those who took their blood pressure medications at bedtime saw the risk of dying from a heart or blood vessel related problem drop by two-thirds compared to those who took their meds in the morning.  Night time administration of blood pressure medications resulted in a 44% drop in heart attack risk, a 40% drop in the need for coronary artery revascularization, a 42% drop in the risk for heart failure and a 49% drop in stroke risk.  The overall reduction in risk for cardiovascular death was 45%.

This is a significant study which must now be performed in patients of color who tend to have higher night time blood pressures.  While these studies are in progress, it appears that taking your blood pressure medication before bed is the correct choice.

Healthy Aging – Adjustments for Living & Reality

For several years now my wife has been complaining that I do not hear her when she talks.  I have gone for regular ENT checkups with audiology testing and while there is clearly a drop in hearing certain frequencies, my word discrimination and comprehension put me in a position of delaying using hearing aids for another year.

I was aware I had trouble hearing my middle adult daughter’s voice frequency.  I was missing words on TV especially when foreign accents were present leading to the purchase of TV Ears which solved the problem.  Still I knew that without auditory stimulation your brain deteriorates at a faster rate.

Last year the ENT doctor sent me home with a pair of hearing aids to try.  “Your wife called and said that if you don’t try them she may find me and kill me in my sleep.”  I was so angry with my wife for interfering that I made a point of pretending not to hear her every time she addressed me and I had the hearing aides in.  Those hearing aids were returned within the 30-day trial period because I could not use my stethoscope with them in.

One year later I was back again and this time my hearing test showed some drop in my word discrimination. They suggested trying a blue tooth compatible pair of hearing aids and even took out a stethoscope to show me how my hearing was enhanced using the stethoscope thus eliminating my favorite argument.   I wore them home and frankly they are wonderful.

The next day I had an appointment for my six-month eye exam. My acuity was off and I suspected my visual field in one eye had diminished based on driving and athletic pursuits.  The test confirmed my suspicions with my ophthalmologist diagnosing “normal pressure glaucoma” in my right eye.  “We need to lower the pressure by 3% with the drops I am prescribing and if the pressure doesn’t decrease we will recommend a laser surgery procedure in three weeks.  You are not going blind, but we want to preserve your visual field.”

The look on my face advertised my disappointment.  “It’s not so bad, you have sent me hundreds of patients with this situation and we helped them all. Why are you so troubled over this?  Looking at your med sheet and problem list at least you aren’t complaining about ED.”    When I didn’t answer her there was a long pause and she said, “Oh, I am sorry if I brought up a difficult topic.”   The best I could mutter was that in geometry what was once an acute angle is now an obtuse one.”

I tried to sell the fact that my dermatologist had me on a short-term course of prednisone which was raising the ocular pressure, but she wasn’t buying that argument.  New glasses, nightly eye drops and hearing aides all in a 72-hour period.

Instead of being grateful and thankful that I had minor correctable issues, and I could afford to spend the $6000 plus dollars for hearing aides and new trifocal lenses, I was moaning and groaning about the trials and tribulations of healthy aging. It was like running into the ocean surf on a hot day preparing to dive in to the surf and cool off and an unexpected wave smacks you down and stuns you before you can dive below its crest and avoid the strong impact.  I was devastated.

It took about 72 hours to adjust.  At my regular Friday night dinner with friends my buddy said, “Steve you seem to be hearing much better tonight. We did not have to repeat anything. What are you doing?”   I told him I was wearing new hearing aids which he had not noticed.  I hear better through my stethoscope than I did before.  When I walk my dogs or take my daily walk I hear the birds chirping, the children playing, the sprinklers initiating their watering cycle. These are all sounds I had forgotten about.  At lectures and movies I am hearing clearer. The blue tooth connection to my cellphone makes calls easier to complete.  My new trifocals allow me to read up close far more easily and see distance much better.

As a physician and geriatrician, I stress eye exams, hearing tests and evaluations to determine our ability to stay independent and functional. I cannot explain why I was so resistant to applying the same principles to my own health.

My day-to-day life has improved markedly with the hearing enhancement and new glasses. I hope my patients and students will look at my stubbornness and reluctance to accept healthy age-related changes as an example of how hard we cling to our independence and how reluctant we are to give up pieces of it even when we know it is for the best.