With COVID-19 news everywhere you turn, we debated writing this article in the first place, but we feel strongly that it’s important to provide some empowering (and science-based) information related to coronavirus that can help you.
If there is one thing the past few months have shown us, it’s that anyone of any age, health condition and gender can still get the virus. Regardless of that, your diet and lifestyle influence your health and seemingly the severity that you may contract the virus. With that in mind, we wanted to also summarize some of the research on how to support your immune system against this particular virus. The research is new, but there are nutrients that are ‘promising’ and it’s worth discussing them.
Please click here for a separate article exploring Risk Factors for More Severe Outcomes from COVID-19, along with recommendations to prevent and reverse the causes.
When it comes to your immune system, there isn’t just one nutrient or one factor that you have to consider. There’s a genetic component, but there are many nutrients needed for a strong immune system and factors like lack of sleep or chronic stress really take a toll on your health. This is a topic we’ve covered fairly extensively in other articles on HEAL.
With that in mind, researchers are looking at the role that some of these nutrients may play in whether someone falls sick from COVID-19 that I want to highlight
Vitamin D is an important nutrient for the immune system. Not only does it help to support healthy, normal immune system function, but deficiency of vitamin D is associated with increased autoimmunity and a higher susceptibility to infection.
Researchers from Trinity College in Dublin have been studying the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Northern Hemisphere countries to see if there is a link between vitamin D and the severe inflammatory responses seen in really sick COVID-19 patients. While there are many factors involved (i.e. age, population density, a country’s social distancing response, etc.), the study found that countries below the latitude of 35 degrees North have relatively low death rates from COVID-19, whereas people in countries that are 35 degrees North and above receive insufficient sunlight for adequate vitamin D levels in winter and spring.
For example, vitamin D deficiency is common in both Europe and the Middle East, two regions of the world that have been hit hard by the virus. It occurs in <20% of the population in Northern Europe, in 30–60% in Western, Southern and Eastern Europe and up to 80% in Middle East countries. The lower prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Northern European countries like Norway and Finland, despite their long winters, is due to supplementation with vitamin D, cod liver oil, and vitamin D fortified foods. (source)
What can you do? The majority of clients we have had tested at HEAL either have vitamin D deficiency or their levels aren’t optimal. Ideally you would do a blood test through your doctor to see where your levels are currently at. However, given that it may not be easy to get a vitamin D test anytime soon, we recommend a maintenance dose of 2000 IU of vitamin D3/K2 daily and safe sunlight exposure when you can. I’ve linked a few brands in our supplement store here that are liquid Vitamin D3/K2 combined.
Your lungs, like your gut, have a bacterial population (called the microbiome) that is part of your immune system. These bacteria are thought to regulate your immune system and they prepare and mount a response against harmful bacteria, pathogens, etc. that enter your lungs. In animal studies, researchers have also found that the bacteria in your gut can influence sites in your body far from the intestines, including the respiratory tract (a concept called the “gut-lung axis”). What this means is that supporting the bacteria in your gut supports your overall health, including your respiratory tract.
When you look at some of the examples of the links between a diverse and healthy microbiome, and inflammation and respiratory diseases, it’s difficult to ignore the role that probiotics might play. For example, studies have found that children with allergies and asthma are more likely to have dysbiosis, which, put simply, is an imbalance of beneficial and harmful bacteria. In research on probiotics and pneumonia, supplementation with probiotics was associated with a lower incidence of ventilator-associated pneumonia. Probiotics have also been shown to reduce respiratory infections in children. We also have an article on HEAL on the link between seasonal allergies and your gut health. This is not specific to COVID-19, but still worth noting.
What can you do? Eating fermented foods every day is one of the best ways to introduce a wide variety of healthy bacteria into your gut (more on that here). We also recommend taking a good quality probiotic with 10-50 billion CFU. For more on the benefits of probiotics, click here.
Vitamin C was discussed in the media a lot back in March, primarily because researchers have been testing whether high doses of intravenous vitamin C helps treat patients with COVID-19. A report put together by Dr. Paul Anderson, based on use in China and US settings, indicates that intravenous ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in high doses is a safe medical intervention, has been shown to shorten hospital and ICU stays, is relatively inexpensive and has been used successfully in the ‘cytokine storms’ that are proving so deadly. (Think of a cytokine storm as an immune system reaction gone wild.)
A direct quote from one article in PubMed does state: "It is believed that IV Vit-C has been particularly effective by inhibiting the production of cytokine storms due to COVID-19. Here’s what’s important for you to know:
Vitamin C is a very important nutrient for your immune system and deficiency of vitamin C can put your immune system at risk. Vitamin C is easy to get if you eat even small amounts of fruits and vegetables (especially citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, and sweet peppers), which is why deficiency is rare in North America. That being said, your body does not store vitamin C and you have a higher need for vitamin C when you are stressed, sick, physically exerted (like athletes or healthcare workers), have had surgery, if you smoke, have inflammatory disorders (like IBD, Crohn’s) or iron deficiency.
Vitamin C supplementation has been shown to reduce the likelihood of catching a cold and the duration of colds. It has also been shown to reduce the incidence of pneumonia. It has been shown to reduce the duration of upper respiratory tract infections in children. While this isn’t specific to COVID-19, it’s worth knowing. Most of the research showing the positive effects of vitamin C supplementation has been when the group receiving vitamin C has low dietary intake or increased need, highlighting that it’s really important that you make sure you get enough.
What can you do? Your best bet is to eat a colourful diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Are you getting 5-6 servings of veggies every single day? Our Weekly Meal Plans will give you all the recipes you need to ensure you’re eating a nutrient dense, vitamin C rich diet. For supplemental vitamin C, I’ve linked some of the brands that I like here in my supplement store under “Immune Support”.
Quercetin is an important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrient found in onions, apples, tea, broccoli and other fruits and vegetables. It is relevant as it relates to COVID-19 because quercetin is most commonly used for its anti-inflammatory and antihistamine benefits in reducing symptoms of asthma and allergies. These are two inflammatory health conditions that put someone at a higher risk of having a severe COVID infection.
It is currently being researched on COVID-19 because of some promising research on SARS, another coronavirus. A few studies on SARS found that quercetin could block the virus from entering cells.
What can you do? Until a clinical trial takes place, we can’t assume anything. That being said, because it’s considered a generally safe antioxidant supplement, if you have allergies, asthma and are interested in supplementing with quercetin, you can start with a dose of 500mg daily and you can find it here under Immune Support supplements.
To summarize, it’s never too late to focus on your nutrient intake and increase foods that are rich in quercetin, vitamin C and probiotics. If you aren’t getting daily exposure to sunshine, make sure you also look into vitamin D.
This article is not meant to replace medical advice. If you are on medication or have a pre-existing health condition always check with a doctor before supplementing.