In the Christmas holidays of 2002, a young and athletic Conor Kerley woke with a strange sensation along his entire left hand side. At first he put it down to his previous day's exercise but his physical state quickly deteriorated over the following days and he ended up under the microscope in a Dublin Hospital, receiving multiple scans and tests.
"Over the next two weeks I slept for 15-20 hours per day. My physical strength was gone to the point where I had almost total paralysis on one side.
"During my two week stay, I received five days of high dose steroids and multiple other examinations. Upon discharge I was referred for extensive rehabilitation therapy, including physiotherapy and speech therapy.
"I had to relearn how to walk, how to tie my shoe laces - everything. I thought I was going to die!"
He had a three major relapses over the next eight months, was treated with steroids each time, and was eventually diagnosed with the poorly understood autoimmune disease MS, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the brain and nerves.
His doctors put him on injectable medication (interferons) three times per week which caused terrible side effects, including sore muscles, poor sleep, and flu-like symptoms. The doctors never discussed lifestyle or diet changes.
This led him on his quest for nutrition knowledge.
There were very few studies into how diet might affect autoimmunity back when he first started looking for answers but he did find some research which was consistent.
"I immediately adopted a whole food, plant-based diet and began to think about nutrition a little different," he says.
Since then, he has completed a PhD in Human Nutrition at the School of Medicine and Medical Science at University College Dublin, published 15 articles in scientific/medical journals, presented his results at conferences worldwide, and won numerous prestigious national and international prizes.
What's more, he is symptom-free, relapse-free, medication-free and still playing several sports.
"MS is a chronic, degenerative disease. This means it is incurable and gets worse over time. It is estimated that only 50% of those with MS will be walking unaided in 15 years following disease. 15 years from my first symptoms, not only am I walking, unaided, I play sports, lift weights and maintain a hectic lifestyle.
"Since 2003, I’ve had no symptoms, no relapses and no medications. I believe that nutrition plays an important role in my own MS and MS in general. The science continues to support this opinion with new studies observing a detrimental effect of high fat meats and dairy products, while other studies support the benefit of a whole foods, plant-based diet."
After many years of researching the benefits of plants and feeling the benefits for himself, Dr Kerley has founded Phytaphix, set to launch next month (October), selling a ‘powerful’ nutrient-packed powder which can easily be added to food and drink for example water, milk, a smoothie, yogurt, porridge, or oatmeal.
One teaspoon of the elderberry flavoured powder contains: 255mg vitamin C, the same amount as 13 fresh tangerines (955g) fruit; 1,000IU vitamin D3, the same amount as five glasses of milk; 2.5mcg vitamin B12, the same amount as 250g (9oz) sirloin beef; 8mg zinc, the same amount as 7 portions of Brazil nuts (200g); 116mg magnesium, the same amount as six portions of prunes (180g); 100mcg selenium, the same amount as four portions of sunflower seeds (126g); and the same antioxidant score (ORAC) as five carrots (260g).
In addition to fruit powders and mushroom powder, Immune Phix contains flavonoids from whole, Organic, Japanese Matcha tea.
“We’ve designed it to be as powerful as possible so you only need a teaspoon of the powder to get all this nutrition which is really good for anyone who isn’t eating enough fruit and veg – which is most people," explains the doctor.
“A lot of the ingredients are the kinds of things you can find in capsules in places like Holland & Barrett, but to get the dosage level we offer in this product you would need to take 10-20 capsules.
“We believe many people can increased their daily intake of flavonoids by 50% from one tea spoon of this powder.
“We hear a lot about the importance of vitamin C and D for immune support but we don’t hear so much about the importance of flavonoids – the two together are a really powerful combination.
“It is also a great addition to the diet for anyone prone to respiratory issue, anyone on the front-line in healthcare, anyone who is regularly in close contact with members of the public, and anyone with an auto-immune disease.”
Dr Kerley has received EFSA approval for three claims for our Immune Phix product: Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, vitamin D, selenium and zinc contribute to the normal function of the immune system; Vitamin C, selenium and zinc contribute to the protection of cells from oxidative stress; and Vitamin B12, Vitamin C and magnesium contribute to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
Eventually, he would like to expand his nutrition range to offer powders targeting a number of need, such as brain health, blood sugar control, energy, and sleep.
Phytaphix uses a moderate dose of vegan vitamin D3 with a highly bioavailable magnesium from an Irish Sea mineral complex, Kerley says, in-keeping with the findings from his own research.
“Magnesium is a well known co-factor in vitamin D metabolism, including 25-hydroxylase, binding to vitamin D binding protein and 1α-hydroxylase. In 2019, I collaborated with Professor Adrian Martineau on a widely cited meta-analysis of vitamin D and acute respiratory tract infections.
“In 2020, with colleagues at Connolly Hospital, Dublin we found that COVID-19 patients who progressed to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) had significantly lower vitamin D levels than COVID-19 patients who did not progress to ARDS. I also designed, conducted and published 3 vitamin D RCTs in Dublin."
Explaining the scientific backing for the efficacy of a fruit powder supplement, Kerley explains that double-blind, randomised, controlled trials have demonstrated that fruit powders can significantly reduce number of days with respiratory tract symptoms, as well as inflammatory markers and DNA damage while increasing T cells (play a central role in the immune response) and antioxidant capacity in conjunction with increased plasma vitamin C and carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein).
Specifically, a 2019 meta-analysis reported that supplementation with elderberry substantially reduced upper respiratory symptoms from influenza and common cold. Similarly, a 2020 review of clinical studies reported that elderberry: ‘may reduce influenza-type symptoms, including fever, headache, nasal congestion and nasal mucous discharge in adults’ and ‘most adult participants experienced significant symptom reduction, by an average of 50 %’ .
In a randomised, controlled study cherry consumption before and after running a marathon decreased inflammation and completely prevented upper respiratory tract symptoms, whereas 50% of runners in the placebo group experienced symptoms.
Dr Kerley adds: "It is likely that the effects of fruit powders are due to high content of antioxidants and phytonutrients (including carotenoids, polyphenols, flavonoids) which are lacking in most modern diets and most dietary supplements."