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Autoimmune disease over 50

Dr. Adria Schmedthorst

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November 2022

Why the Rise? and How to Stop it.

As I dip a toe in my 50s, there are two supplements I won’t go without…Vitamin D and Omega 3s

Fighting back against auto immune diseases

Vitamin D has been found to help with everything from combatting weight gain to disease-proofing your brain.  Its “cure-all” reputation comes from its well-researched ability to lower inflammation — considered to be the factor behind the unifying theory of disease.


And while omega-3s deliver their very own brain-boosting power, they’re also known for supporting the heart and even reducing stroke risk.


Of course, these are health issues we begin to be especially cognizant of as we age. But there’s another threat rising among the over-50 crowd — autoimmune disease (AD).


Research shows these conditions are 50 percent higher in older adults than they were 25 years ago.


Autoimmune conditions hijack your immune system so it gets confused and attacks its own healthy tissues and body structures. Think of it as getting injured by friendly fire.


But even though the threat comes from within, that damage is still sinister and can leave you with rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, among others.


This brings us back to vitamin D and omega-3s. If you’re already supplementing these nutrients for all the other ways they can support your health — you may already be ahead of this growing threat…

Enter the VITAL trial

“Given the benefits of vitamin D and omega-3s for reducing inflammation, we were particularly interested in whether they could protect against autoimmune diseases,” said JoAnn Manson, co-author and director of the VITAL trial at the Brigham.


Researchers followed 25,871 adults for 5.3 years. They were divided into one of four groups who received either:

• An omega-3 placebo and a vitamin D placebo


• 1,000 milligrams (mg) of an omega-3 fatty acid supplement and 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D


• An omega-3 placebo and 2,000 IU of vitamin D


• 1,000 mg of an omega-3 fatty acid supplement and a vitamin D placebo


Want to guess who the winners were?


Participants who took both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements for 5 years reduced the occurrence of autoimmune disease by 25 to 30 percent compared with those who got placebos only.


“Autoimmune diseases are common in older adults and negatively affect health and life expectancy. Until now, we have had no proven way of preventing them, and now, for the first time, we do,” said first author, Jill Hahn, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brigham.

Leveraging the results for your immune health

The results were so impressive that senior author of the study, Karen Costenbader, sums them up this way, “Now, when my patients, colleagues, or friends ask me which vitamins or supplements I’d recommend they take to reduce risk of autoimmune disease, I have new evidence-based recommendations for women age 55 years and older and men 50 years and older.”


Common symptoms of AD include fatigue, achy muscles, hair loss, skin rashes, swelling, and possibly a low-grade fever.


The cause? Anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure: our diets are full of chemicals and additives that didn’t used to be there.


If you or a loved one suffers from an autoimmune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, it looks like vitamin D and omega-3s could help.


But it’s not as simple as running out and grabbing supplements off the shelf. There are a few things you should know…

How to supplement vitamin D and omega-3s

When it comes to vitamin D, there are two popular versions available in supplement form. And there are big differences between the two.


For starters, D3 or cholecalciferol is the kind synthesized by your body when sun hits your skin. It can also be produced for supplements. D3 is also considered more bioavailable — meaning your body can easily absorb and use it.


But perhaps the most important thing you need to know about the two types of vitamin D is this: The scientific community has recognized that vitamin D3 is not only superior to D2 but has proven effects on your health.


Most adults, especially those over 50 are deficient in vitamin D because it is harder to make natural vitamin from the sun with age. If you are unsure about your levels, your doctor can perform a blood test. But it is not necessary to supplement safely. Concerns of getting too much vitamin D are unfounded. According to the Mayo Clinic, you’d have to take 60,000 IUs of the vitamin daily for months to get anywhere near toxic levels.


Bioavailability is also a big factor for omega-3s. The reason many fish oils cause fish burps is that when they make it to your stomach, the capsule dissolves and the contents (the fish oil) sits on top of your stomach contents.


That’s because we have a tough time metabolizing fish oil, and in the process, most of the nutrients can be lost. In contrast, omega-3s sourced from krill (shrimp-like crustaceans) are naturally bound in a phospholipid structure that allows them to be absorbed 10 to 15 times better than fish oil.


Join us next month for another Healthy Tip