Shoring your immunity: a multipronged approach

For the first 30 years of my life, I thought my immune system was pretty awesome. I would fall sick 1-2 times a year, and the infection with fever and malaise would last maybe 3-4 days. Not too shabby, right?

Then, I discovered I was Vitamin D-deficient, and had probably been so all my life – my levels were around 16 ng/mL. On continuous supplementation to correct for this,  my blood levels have held steady at 40-50 ng/mL. Many things changed subtly. My skin improved,  I gained some badly needed weight, and interestingly,  over the next 4 years, I never got really sick. Nasty infections would come around, but at the worst, I would be under the weather for a day – there was never a three-day bout.

Then, I had a baby. Via surrogacy, yes, but the first days were still mentally stressful. I did not appreciate how much so till I had my first 15-day cold, the first in recent memory. With a baby at home and the sleep deprivation of the first year, I quickly realized I needed MORE.

Now, I was already doing much more for my daughter, which I have covered here. I made sure that:

  1. She was vitamin D-replete: Vitamin D’s role in infection defense is, in part, through its requirement for making the anti-microbial peptides cathelicidin and beta-defensin-1, which form an important part of the first line of defense against infections. Overall, vitamin D is vital for optimal immune function, and children who fall ill repeatedly routinely turn out to be vitamin D deficient.
  2. She got a rather unique probiotic, Lactobacillus reuteri, which is interesting because it is the only Lactobacillus species (out of 10 examined) found consistently in a variety of birds and mammals, suggesting that it may play an important role in health. Indeed, it has been shown to protect against infections, and interestingly, protected against cancer by improving immunosurveillance in a single mouse study; now, one cannot at all conclude that this probiotic will have a similar effect in humans, and the effectiveness of Biogaia in protecting against cancer has sadly not been further explored,  yet the results of this one study are intriguing. Overall, there have been many studies examining this bacterial strain in multiple contexts (protection against infections, dental carries, etc.), and the preliminary results overall indicate that this is a very good choice if one were attempting to use probiotics to improve immune functioning.
  3. She got plenty of lauric acid via virgin coconut oil in her formula: this fatty acid, which is most abundant of its type in breast milk, also has potent anti-microbial effects. I talk about them at length in this post.

Now, thanks to Linus Pauling, when people fall sick, they dive for the Vitamin C, and think they have done enough. While it appears to have some usefulness (anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and even anti-microbial properties), its effectiveness in as reducing infection severity and length may be limited by itself.

Enhancing Immunity

Basically, a MULTI PRONGED approach may work best to protect yourself against falling ill.  I developed this arsenal after much thought:

  • Vitamin D: Maintain repleteness (ideally, blood levels between 30-45 ng/mL) via continuous supplementation or sunblock-free sun exposure.
  • Probiotics: I recommend the BioGaia probiotic (Lactobacillus reuteri) for maintenance (this has potential anti-microbial effects and protects against GI tract infections). When suffering from a GI infection, alternating BioGaia with a very different probiotic, Florastor (Saccharomyces boulardii, available as Econorm in India) will be more effective. Two points to emphasize:  1) Random, unstudied probiotic supplements that currently flood the market are likely to be utterly ineffective and a waste of money. 2) Florastor is very effective for stopping GI infections, and may be valuable adjunct to antibiotic treatment (please talk to a doctor about this, if prescribed antibiotics). 
  • Vitamin C: While getting this from food is best, if one wishes to take a supplement, a  bio-available  form (for example, Madre C, which contains acerola cherry and indian gooseberry extract) is recommended.
  • Extra virgin coconut oil, which has anti-microbial and anti-viral effects.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: While these are mainly associated with roles in brain building and protecting from stroke/heart attacks and reducing pain, new evidence shows that they also have a role in immune functioning; specifically, they appear to affect B cell immunity. While the understanding of Omega 3s in the immune response is still fledgling, making sure your diet includes some Omega 3 intake (either through diet or supplementation) seems sensible.
  • Elderberry Extracts: These, like turmeric, have been medicinally used for centuries. Their anti-viral effects have been shown in the case of influenza in mice, in birds,  in vitro, and even in one very small human study.
  • Turmeric with black pepper:  Turmeric, which has used as folk medicine for centuries, has an eye-popping array of useful properties,  including anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-microbial, and anti-cancer effects.  But despite all of these useful properties, even taken in vast quantities orally, it shows almost no effect because of the low solubility and very poor bio-availability of its component curcuminoids. There has been a lot of research aimed at addressing these issues. But sitting at home, what can you do? While this is by no means optimized, piperine, a component of black pepper, increases the blood levels of curcumin considerably by inhibiting its removal through the liver. There are two ways to get a good quantity of turmeric in your system:
  • Turmeric home-brew: Add 1 tsp of turmeric + 0.25-0.5 tsp of  fresh ground black peppercorns to a sufficient quantity of fat (I recommend coconut oil for lauric acid) to mix. Then add honey (manuka is a good choice) and eat the resulting paste, or mix with milk with or without adding honey.
  • Bioavailable turmeric supplement containing liposome-encapsulated turmeric root extract + piperine (from black pepper) – go here.
    I now  prefer the bioavailable supplement to the turmeric home-brew as it is far more convenient, especially when ill or travelling – one should ideally take turmeric multiple times per day when trying to ward off infection.

Of these, Vitamin D if needed to correct deficieny, the Biogaia probiotic, vitamin C via food or supplementation,  and Omega 3 fatty acids via food or supplementation can be taken regularly: most of these have functions that go beyond optimization of immune responses.

In contrast, elderberry and turmeric extracts should not be taken daily, ideally. A great many people have expressed interest in taking elderberry regularly, and I would have to advice against this stratagem, especially with elderberry: this is certainly not required for normal functioning, unlike Vitamin D, vitamin C, omega 3 fatty acids, and even probiotics (which may play a role in shaping the gut microbiome, which in turn has a tremendous effect on health).  Elderberry extracts actually exert their anti-viral effects in part by inhibiting ribsome functioning,which means they affect protein production, and hence in theory could affect any rapidly dividing cell in a dose-dependent manner. They may exacerbate autoimmune diseases thanks to their ability to induce inflammatory cytokine production, and their long-term safety has not been studied.

Small (non-medicinal quantities) of turmeric in combination with black pepper can be taken daily by older people: this may be a particularly good idea for individuals with or at risk for metabolic syndrome. There is a wealth of literature on this, but I will highlight this analysis which suggests that it may be helpful in diabetics. If anybody wishes to take medicinal quantities of turmeric in a bio-available form for any number of conditions (cancer, osteoarthritis, other chronic pain conditions, metabolic syndrome, and so on), I would suggest that they do so in consultation with their doctor, as turmeric can interfere w/ certain medications. Memorial Sloan Kettering has an excellent resource page on turmeric. I should emphasize that turmeric is a potentially extremely useful supplement for cancer patients, as its anti-viral, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory effects may really help protect those with immune systems weakened by chemotherapy and radiation. It could also combat some of the mechanisms by which drug resistance develops, and it also is anti-angiogeneic, so it could help in the fight against cancer itself. However, as noted previously, some of the medications turmeric interferes with includes certain drugs used in cancer, so check with your doctor, please.

I do not advice that children be given turmeric + pepper or elderberry daily, though they can be given turmeric and elderberry if okayed by their doctor, if they are showing signs of infection.

Over the many years since I have written this post, I have had multiple threatened infections, most of which were (coincidence or not) staved off within a day by taking all of these in combination. If in case there has ever been a fever, that has gone within a 24-36 hour period. I have also tried these (absolutely safe) experiments on all my family members, and they claim all of these (especially the probiotic and the turmeric-in-milk-with-pepper home brew) have helped. All of this is done for my toddler daughter as well, and again, it really seems to help, especially the Florastor + BioGaia combination for GI infections. As she has gotten older, the bioavailable turmeric and elderberry have seemingly helped her get over her very rare infections astonishingly quickly.

More than reducing the incidence and severity of minor infections, these easy, safe, and relatively inexpensive strategies, if in play from an early pointmay have a far more important role: to reduce the severity of illness following infection with the very nasty bugs (dengue viruses, EHECs, MRSA, Influenza A virus, malarial parasites, and so on) thus reducing the risk for hospitalization, a requirement for intensive care, or worse.  The gravity of this point cannot be emphasized enough.

Two things should be emphasized:

None of this should be taken as a replacement for vaccination. The protection vaccines provide (including the flu vaccine, which reduces the risk for severe infection, hospitalization, or death from the flu) is tangible and very real. I vaccinate my child in addition to do all thing – we get yearly flu shots. 

Elderberry and Turmeric can be taken while keeping your doctor in the loop. Everything covered here should NEVER CONTINUE be the sole form of care in a severe infection that is not improving. If you do not recover quickly, see your doctor and follow their advice, although you could continue to take turmeric and elderberry WITH whatever they prescribe, if okayed by them.

Many people have asked about sources of these, so here is a Where to Buy list:



Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  To get more information/interaction on the topics raised here, or to catch these supplements when they go on sale, join the Smart Savers Unite! group on Facebook

Posted in Living healthy | 19 Comments

How “healthy” are you?

images A few weeks ago, somebody close to a family member of mine suffered a massive heart attack. He was Indian, in his fifties, was extremely health conscious, exercised regularly, and for all intents and purposes, appeared absolutely healthy prior to the incident.

Why are some populations so very prone to diabetes and heart disease, while others are not?

How do the chips fall, ethnicity-wise? Off the bat, If you asked me who the healthiest people in the world were today, the answer that would spring to mind would be the Scandinavians. Is that really so? Where do different ethnic groups feature on the health spectrum? More importantly, what is the best yardstick to measure “health?”

While it would be difficult to find any single parameter that would be truly representative of the overall health status, cardiovascular disease seems like one of the better choices, because this is often the end-of-the-road problem in people with many conditions: obesity/overweight, diabetes, and even inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. It also seems to be the top killer: for example, the highest death rate per 100,000 individuals for all cancers is 261.5, while that for coronary heart disease is 405.1. Here is a fascinating infographic on death due to coronary artery disease, and you can go here to get the actual numbers and ranking: caronaryartherydis Now, what this shows is that heart disease is a BIG problem in Russia and adjoining countries, as well as the middle-east. Given that I am Indian, I paid attention to where this country, with its skyrocketing incidence of the metabolic syndrome lies: India features a bit lower on the list, towards the tail end of the “high” category, but still cannot at all be counted as one of the healthier nations based on this criterion.

While genetics definitely plays a role in predisposing or protecting, the environment also plays a huge role in increasing or decreasing risk.

To this end, the diets of the Japanese, Scandinavians, and the Mediterranean populations, who of whom fall in the lowest risk category, should be scrutinized.

Additionally, here we will scrutinize two factors that are commonly seen in some of the high-risk category nations.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency and high homocysteine:

Why does Vitamin-B-12 deficiency arise? Well, one risk factor is vegetarianism, where the only dietary source is now cow milk and its products. An even stronger one is veganism, where you have no vitamin B-12 in your diet.Then, there is Vitamin-B-12 malabsorption, where is is not absorbed if taken orally: here, your diet matters not at all. While B-12 deficiency is rare among say, whites,  it is extremely prevalent among Indians, especially Indian males: Nearly 70% of a population of Indian men were Vitamin-B12 deficient!  As a note, I have seen firsthand that many Indians, despite being total carnivores, are still B-12 deficient because of malabsorption, which is probably genetic.

What is the connection between this and heart disease? Turns out, Vitamin B-12, folic acid, and maybe Vitamin B6 have important, and possibly non-overlapping roles in making sure your levels of homocysteine are low.  Elevated homocysteine has been implicated in both heart disease and stroke (reviewed here). And, not surprisingly, but very worryingly, homocysteine elevation is ridiculously common: 25% of Indian men in America and 58% of Indian men in India.

 Vitamin D:

Why is this one implicated? Well, for one thing, maternal vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy may increase LIFELONG risk for insulin resistance (which leads to Type 2 diabetes) and type I Diabetes (multiple studies) in the child.

Next, let me first introduce you to this concept: most disease conditions (including heart disease, autoimmune disease, stroke and cancer) have their root in something called “inflammation.” This process is required to fight infections, but it is truly a double-edged deadly sword: it needs to be a laser strike to be protective, but it is not always so: inflammation can persist, but it does so silently, stealthily, over decades, without you being aware of it.

To guard against this, nature has evolved many mechanisms to curb inflammation, one of the most important, possibly, is  Vitamin D.

Indians (also people of African origin) have a big problem with vitamin D deficiency:  nearly 90% of “healthy” Indians were Vitamin D-deficient (reviewed here). Compare and contrast this to the finding that only around 11% of a “healthy” white population comes up as deficient. Clearly, despite ample sunlight, Indians have a problem making vitamin D. And, I have made myself blue in the face repeating this, diet is a very poor source of Vitamin D.

Russia, where heart disease is such a big killer, may also have a vitamin D deficiency problem given lack of sun exposure in the long and brutal winters. This however, is poorly studied.

To summarize RISK:

If you are Indian (or are of African origin), or are of another ethnicity but lack/avoid sun exposure or constantly wear sunblock,  you are almost certain to be vitamin D-deficient.

If you are Indian, vegetarian, or vegan, you are possibly or certainly Vitamin B-12-deficient, and are at high risk for having elevated homocysteine levels.

These risk factors will likely increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, and your risk is further increased if you have either hypertension or diabetes in your family.

I am writing this blog post to increase awareness because both these fixes are so darned easy. However, both these risk factors should be addressed as early as possible in life (i.e., start with your kids, or even better, fix this while you are pregnant with your children). In addition to screening for Vitamin D and Vitamin B-12, older people are ideally best off testing their homocysteine levels as well, in addition to their lipid profile and all the other traditional tests.

Easily doable things to cut your risk:

1) As discussed above, screening for and correcting Vitamin D/B-12 deficiencies if you are an at-risk population

2) The Scandinavian/Japanese fix: Include plenty of Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet: this has been shown to protect against CVD and strokes.

3) The Mediterranean fix: Include olive oil very regularly in your diet, but without subjecting it to high heat, given its low smoke point.

4) Get plenty of folic acid: supplementing with it is controversial,so I recommend getting it via vegetables and greens; that has been shown to protect against heart attacks. Note that cooking destroys much of the folic acid, so salads are a great idea.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

DHA and infant sleep

As a new mom belonging to a very active Facebook parenting group, I have sat in on many, many discussions on that Holy Grail of topics: How to Make Your Child Sleep through the Night. I have subsequently seen multiple methods being put forth—-cry-it-out sleep training, no-cry sleep training, sleeping away from them, sleeping with them, rocking, walking with them, absolute quiet, white noise machines, absolute darkness, strict nap schedules, standing on your head, sacrificing small animals, and so on and so forth.

As I read through these discussions, I became aware that I may be lucky: my baby appears to be a pretty good sleeper.

I have co-slept from the start, and while she started sleeping 8-hour stretches from three months onward, few nights were actually picture perfect, and she would sometimes take 3-4 hours to fall asleep. My nights remained intermittently rocky till she was about five months old. From that point on, something magical happened: she started sleeping quickly and through the night regularly, and would even self soothe when she stirred from sleep.

Our bedtime routine is probably wildly antithetical to that of most others: her bedtime is a late one; we start around 10 pm, and if I’m lucky she is asleep by 10:30, and if I’m not, she is asleep by 11/11:30. This is what I do: I tuck myself in bed with her and let her play and romp around, and there is absolutely no need for quiet or darkness. When she gets tired, I read her signals right, haul her in my lap, feed her milk, and she drops off and wakes up in the morning.  No nap scheduling, or walking or rocking required.  Every time a developmental molehill comes around (with teething being the biggest fly in the ointment so far), my nights become a little/very rocky again, but with all things difficult and inexplicable, it passes in a few days, or if I am really unlucky, a couple of weeks.

As I pondered a thread where people who had NOT sleep trained were talking about when their baby started sleeping through the night (apparently well after 1 year was common), and what they had to do to make them sleep, it seemed that my baby was a much better sleeper than average, and much easier to put down to sleep as well. What makes this so?

Now, experts will concur that the ability to sleep through the night has to be developmentally acquired, and requires brain maturation/development to occur. So maybe this occurred a little on the earlier side in my child, as it does in quite a few children, but what makes it so? Genetics? Sheer luck? Or do specific factors contribute?

Given what I knew about Omega3s and brain development, and the fact that I have included a rich high-quality DHA source (arctic cod liver oil) in my daughter’s homemade formula (see here), I then decided to check whether DHA is linked to baby sleep.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that a few studies suggest that it is, indeedy.

While these above studies weakly suggest that DHA intake may improve sleep, there clearly has not been much research done on it, and far, far better designed studies can be done to better address this question. I do not know if anybody is gearing up to do them, but in the meantime, how can you ensure that your baby is getting DHA—or more importantly, that he/she is getting ENOUGH DHA?

While infants can make DHA themselves from fatty acid precursors, their ability to do so is poor. They really need to get it through food, and indeed, DHA is an important component of breast milk.

Now, while maternal diet has little or no influence of many components of breast milk, this does not hold true for fatty acids in breast milk. This is an immensely important point. To elaborate, mothers who consume a lot of coconut-based products will have more lauric acid in their breast milk, while mothers who eat a lot of fatty fish or certain types of seaweed (unsure about this point) will have much more DHA in their breastmilk than moms who have a vegan diet.

Thus, simply breastfeeding may not be enough to provide an optimal amount of DHA to your child. It depends on your diet. Obviously, if you are a mom living in Norway who eats wild-caught Atlantic salmon four days a week, you are good. But how many of us have access to diets like that? There are many issues with farmed salmon, for example, and it is not a good source of DHA, unlike wild-caught salmon (as the DHA buildup is diet dependent).

So for many of us, we may have to supplement to get a good amount of DHA in our system to pass on to our children. So for moms who breastfeed, taking a good quality DHA supplement (arctic cold liver oil that has been tested for heavy metals and PCBs) is a very good idea, and may just improve the way your child sleeps. This will also help many more things other than infant sleep, so this is a very good general practice.

Btw, vegetarian sources of DHA are flaxseed oil and walnuts, but again, the question arises, how many walnuts and how much flaxseed oil must one consume to get a good amount of DHA in? Again, to keep it simple, I do recommend that fish oil supplement.

What about infants who are not breast-fed? Obviously, they would benefit from a DHA supplement. A while ago, after the importance of DHA became clear, formula makers decided to add it in. Of course, with an eye on the bottom line, they were not going to add a natural source of DHA (fish oil) to their formulas, because that stuff is expensive, and their goals are always to maximize their profits. Here entered a company called Martek, that makes cheap DHA by extracting it from algae. There are many alleged issues with this product as well as the production process: see here for a synopsis. There are a few alleged safety issues also reported after the consumption of these synthetic DHA containing formulas: see here.

In summary, optimal DHA consumption may promote sleep. Nobody knows what the “optimal” amount is, but we know that natural is best: however, as stated above, few  people can breastfeed for two years while dining on wild caught salmon regularly. With vegetarian options, you may not get enough, and it is hard to say how much is enough. Formulas containing synthetic DHA or DHA-supplemented baby drinks (e.g., Pediasure) should be avoided, IMO, to err on the side of caution. So what is a person to do? I just add a fish oil supplement (Nordic Naturals) to my baby’s homemade formula, and call it a day.

Experiment if you will, and please talk about what you find here if you do. As a I said, it may be a while before good large scale studies are done on this topic.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

How to arm your baby’s fledgling immune system

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

800px-Dendritic_cellsThere are two immune responses involved in the fight against any germ: there is the very rapid innate immune response that forms the first crucial line of defense, and then there is the slower adaptive immune response, which is required for the effective vanquishing of that germ. There is nothing one can do to shore up the adaptive immune response, other than vaccinations against specific illnesses. When your baby is born, he/she is protected by the adaptive immune components (IgG antibodies) that are transferred via the umbilical cord into the baby.This rich and potent protection transferred from the mother starts to wane after the first 21-30 days of life, however, and is utterly depleted by  six months. Even after this protection wanes, active, fulminant infections may be largely prevented by optimizing/shoring up that first line of defense. Indeed, there is both anecdotal and scientific evidence to show that doing these very simple things may reduce the incidence of infection, and if infection results, then it is much milder and easy to get over.

                                                                           Vitamin D

D drops The levels of this “vitamin,” which is really a hormone that is so important that it may have shaped the evolution of human skin color, have been shown to be far too low in large sections of the population, and low levels strongly correlate with both disease incidence (topic for other post) and predisposition to infections, particularly respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza, enteric (stomach) infections, ear infections, urinary tract infections, and even the deadly dengue fever. It has also been implicated in susceptibility to tuberculosis. The correlative evidence, which shows that people who develop infections have generally lower levels of Vitamin D, is really, really strong. But is correlation also causation: i.e., are you really at greater risk for infections if you are vitamin D deficient, or did you become Vitamin D deficient as a result of your infection or general state of health? This is much harder to study.

To do so, you have to supplement one group of people with vitamin D, and give a similar other group of people a placebo, and see if the group that gets vitamin D get sick less often. Obviously, this would require a very large group of study subjects, observation over long periods of time, and a really good study design. Such difficult studies are underway, and the results are mixed: For example, one study in children showed a potential beneficial effect in decreasing the incidence of influenza. But the results are not clearcut: another clinical trial in adults yielded no protective effect. Yet, when I look at this study, I see two clear issues: 1) none of the study subjects was severely deficient (levels below 10 ng/mL; this group is the most vulnerable), and 2) the dose they supplemented with (1000 IU/day) was far too low. But such studies are difficult to design, and it is clear that theoretically, Vitamin D can protect you in 2 ways:

To summarize, Vitamin D is very important in optimizing and bringing balance to the immune response, and levels below 20 ng/mL may make your child more susceptible to infection and even worse, damage from the resulting inflammation. Breastfed babies are especially vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency.  However, given its multiple roles, it is best not to get too high, and it is best if the vitamin D blood levels can be maintained at between 25-45 ng/mL. If your baby has little to no regular sun exposure (requirements would vary greatly depending on race), supplementing with this (400-800 IU/day) is crucial. Checking the blood levels of this at some point (fit it in whenever your child has a blood test for something else), and adjusting the dose you give your child based on his/her blood level is a very good idea.  


The immune system and indeed, your overall health is largely modulated and regulated by the ginormous microbial population that populates your gut and also your skin. Scientists have long coined the term “normal flora” to describe the microbes that live in your gut, on your skin, in the membranes of your throat, etc. We need these bacteria, very badly so, to maintain health and to protect us. So unless you are sick and are sneezing/coughing on your hands, do not go gung-ho with the hand sanitizer on a regular basis when in the comfort of your own home/workplace.

 Recently, a great deal of attention has been paid to figuring out the composition of the normal flora in healthy and diseased people, and the striking thing is, that there are clear differences in the microbial communities. Scientists are now feverishly working to understand all this better. What they do know is that certain bacterial species may be protective, and indeed, a great deal of research has been directed towards identifying useful probiotics.

One such very promising candidate, especially in newborns and infants, is Lactobacillus reuteri. This bacterium, which was originally isolated from breast milk, is very promising because it produces a strong natural antibiotic reuterin that zaps various types of bacteria, and even fungi, viruses, and parasites. Basically, this one can keep all the really bad guys from moving in and making themselves at home, so to speak.  To summarize the research on this one: General digestive health:

  • Colic: Two out of three clinical trials, and considerable anecdotal evidence also support that this probiotic is more effective than other remedies in reducing the severity of infant colic, but this effect seems to be truer for breast-fed babies rather than formula-fed babies (also reviewed here).
  • Spitups: One small study showed a significant effect in reducing regurgitation in babies with reflux.
  • Constipation: One study showed that continued administration of L. reuteri helps resolve some parameters of constipation in infants
  • Diarrhea/gastrointerstinal disease: There is very strong evidence to show that L. reuteri reduces the incidence of diarrhea, as well as its duration and severity of gastroenteritis (reviewed here).

Protecting against specific conditions or microbes:

  • Asthma: Animal studies suggest thatL. reuteri may be protective against asthma. A study in asthmatic children also backed this up, which is pretty darned exciting, IMO.
  • Hemolytic uremic disease: While E. coli are generally harmless, certain strains can be very scary. Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), for example, can cause a life threatening condition  called hemolytic uremic disease; one study in mice showed that prior administration of L. reuteri protected mice against EHEC, which I find an extremely compelling argument for taking this probiotic.
  • Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): The very mention of this antibiotic-resistant superbug can strike terror into the hearts of hospital administrators: There is limited evidence to show that many probiotics (including L. reuteri) could act as natural deterrents to MRSA infection. Another really good reason to take this (and other) probiotics!

To summarize, this probiotic may promote health, comfort, and resistance to multiple infections in infants and children. Its safety in non-immunocompromised infants and even in pre-term babies is well established. This probiotic is marketed by BioGaia, a Swedish company. Subsequently, the L. reutri brand has been bought out by Gerber, and is marketed as Gerber Soothe. Both the original BioGaia ProTectis drops and Gerber Soothe Colic drops are available via Amazon in the US, and should be widely available in Europe as well, given the origins of the company. Note: This was originally isolated from breastmilk, suggesting that some, if not all women will pass it on via milk. However, its presence in your breast milk depends on your own microflora, and you may not have it at all, or have it in low quantities. Hence it is a good idea  for even breastfeeding moms to supplement with this (you can give it orally or in expressed breast milk, or some breast feeding moms directly apply it to their skin).

Virgin coconut oil:  

This is the richest source of lauric acid and also contains other fatty acids such aImages caprylic acid. This oil has been a traditional staple of many civilizations, and only in the last century, has incorrectly got a bad reputation for “increasing cholesterol.” That turned out to be a case of misinformation and misrepresentation that may have actually contributed to the increase in heart disease seen today, but that is a topic for another post.

Generally, the populations that consumed coconut oil traditionally enjoyed excellent health. I found this page extolling the virtues of virgin coconut oil very interesting reading, though all of it is anecdotal.

Lauric acid, the main fatty acid in coconut oil, is abundant in breast milk. As a side note, its levels in breast milk are not set in stone: they can go up and down depending on the mother’s diet. This highlights a very important point about breast milk: it acts as a distilled source of what is good for the baby, but the mother has to first obtain these things (such as DHA or lauric acid) either via diet or by synthesizing it from precursors. It would hence be a good idea for breast feeding mothers to incorporate coconut oil or products in their own diet.

Breast milk contains a lot of different things. Why focus on lauric acid? It is rather awesome because its rather eye-poppingly potent anti-microbial, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Here is what I could find on either lauric acid or virgin coconut oil:

  •  Has bactericidal activity against a range of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Alone and also combination with organic acids such as lactic acid and citric acid,  both lauric acid and caprylic acid can inhibit the growth of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) strains, with caprylic acid (present in small amounts in VCO) being the most potent. Now, EHECs are scary news, causing about 73,000 infections annually in the US. While this rarely results in fatalities, the healthcare costs resulting from these infections is staggering. If this could be warded off by a little relatively cheap coconut oil, would it not be so worth it?
  • Multiple studies (giving this one as an example) have shown an effect against the causative agent of acne, Propionibacterium acnes
  • Inhibits the growth of C. difficile, an organism that is one of the most common causes of diarrhea.
  • There seem to be only limited studies on effects of lauric acid/virgin coconut oil on viral infection, but based on very limited evidence, it seems to inhibit some part of viral life cycle in a poorly understood way. One study showed that it inhibited the growth/production of VSV (a virus that mostly causes disease in animals) and also that of the Junin virus, which causes the appropriately frighteningly named disease, Argentine hemorrhagic fever (AHF).

To summarize, virgin coconut oil is safe and is even recommended for babies, given that they need a lot of saturated fat in their diets, especially the lauric acid. If you are formula feeding, check whether your formula contains coconut oil. Not all formulas have this. Even if they do, it may be hydrogenated coconut oil, which is far from ideal. It is a good idea to hence try supplementing even  store-bought formula with this one. Remember to get an organic, extra virgin source. If you are breast feeding, it would make sense to take the coconut oil yourself. When bottle feeding, you can add it to the formula. Where to buy all of these: If you do not live in the USA or Europe and cannot find a  good brand of these items locally, then iHerb, which offers international shipping to most countries, is a good resource for getting both the Virgin Coconut Oil and Vitamin D. Finding the probiotic (Biogaia ProTectis) is harder. Living in India, I usually have somebody send it over from the USA. You can also check this website to see if it is available in your country.

Collectively, we spend billions of dollars battling scary infections. Antibiotics, which were hailed as the white knights of modern medicine, are being beaten back by a wave of antibiotic resistance that some claim will reverse the advances made by modern medicine. The best weapon we have is the immune system, a marvelous multifaceted army, that when optimized to shore up that first line of defense, can beat off most things. If we arm it well at little cost to ourselves, it is not any guarantee that we will never get sick, but it is likely that the majority of people will atleast fall ill a little less frequently, and may be protected from some of the more scary things out there such as MRSA and EHECs, which are truly deadly when they strike.

Evidence from studies aside, do these things actually work? My daughter, who was born via surrogacy, was born via c-section, received intravenous antibiotics for a mild respiratory infection that looked like it was acquired in utero, and is not breast milk-fed: three strikes against the development of an optimal, balanced immune system. After we got home, I started her on a homemade formula that is made using goat’s milk, lactose (which promotes the development of a normal flora), virgin coconut oil, olive or safflower oil, and ghee, and is supplemented with Vitamin D, the probiotic (Biogaia ProTectis), and a fish-oil source of DHA. When she came home from the hospital, nearly everybody in the house caught a nasty cold that laid us low for days. Then one day, she started coughing sporadically, and I was convinced she would get the infection too. Magically, it never progressed, and she never showed the full-blown symptoms of the cold/bronchitis that we all had: I gave fervent thanks, but I never knew what was responsible for her managing to fight off a bug that all the adults in the house could not.

Since then, it has been two months and counting, she has never fallen even mildly ill, shows no signs of colic or spitups, her bowel movements resemble that of breast-fed baby, and is generally doing marvelously. When you consider this and her risk factors based on her circumstances (C-section delivery, antibiotics at birth, not breast-milk fed) and compare it with the mile-long list of things I have done, you have utterly no way of telling if any of those things was actually helpful, but you have to wonder. There is no way to know the true impact of any of these things, but you just have to do what you can do, when it is easy, economical, and safe.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 31 Comments


We (Jaya and Devasena) are scientists by training who found that we enjoyed collating scientific discoveries and putting them into perspective for the general public. After meeting at a major scientific communications company where we both worked as scientific editors and becoming fast friends, the idea for this blog took root.

Why this blog???? Most science that is presented to the public via news articles has some sort of slant on it and is written to sound as sensational as possible. We, on the other hand, wanted to talk about scientific discoveries while trying to stay as unbiased as possible: In writing our pieces, we want to present all possible sides of the argument, and, most importantly, try to interpret the findings with a measure of sensibility: For example, yes, coffee has some minor effects on your physiology, but can the drinking of it actually have a major impact on your health or make you miscarry? Do you really need to torture yourself by giving up coffee entirely during pregnancy? Are genetically modified crops as evil and utterly void of benefit as they are made out to be? Is Vitamin D a miracle cure or mostly hype? How scared should you be of BPA? What next after you get rid of BPA: are the alternatives that populate all the “BPA-free” products really safe??

We will also focus on the newest discoveries that are making the scientific community wet its pants in excitement: for example, the role of bacteria in your gut on disease and health, and the possible benefits of probiotics.

This blog will also discuss specific disease conditions, specifically collating the information available and discussing the newest treatment options possible.

Why are we writing this blog?

One, because we are nerds who love gathering information and understanding things, and due to our training and ability to put a scientific discovery in perspective and string together an understandable sentence, think we are very well suited to do this kind of thing.

Second, because we are very interested in scientific journalism and are not greatly fond of the current face of it.

Third, both of us have a measure of do-goodery (not a real word but it should be!). We genuinely want to help people live a healthier life and also try to help understand the situation when you have a scary disease/medical condition and do not know how to process the swarm of information coming your way.

Anyway, we have a lot to say, and we hope you will stick around to listen!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments