Sure, they can boost your immune system
- Just because vitamins, supplements, and medications can help prevent and treat the common cold and symptoms of the flu, that doesn’t mean they are the best measures to prevent and treat COVID-19.
- While getting essential vitamins and minerals from supplements and whole foods can help bolster your immune system, it’s best to first take coronavirus-specific precautions, such as washing your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face, covering your coughs and sneezes, and practicing physical distancing or physical isolation to prevent getting and spreading the virus.
In the face of a global pandemic, it’s only natural to want to stock up on some preventative vitamin C packets and zinc supplements in an attempt to boost your immune system and maybe even wrestle back some control in what feels like a helpless situation.
But before you throw all your hard-earned money at vitamins and supplements, we talked to Donald Boyd, M.D., R.D.N., an oncologist, hematologist, and nutritionist at Yale Medicine, to find out if everyday vitamins, supplements, and medications can safeguard you from the most recent contagious strain of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)—or if there’s more you should be doing.
First, a quick refresher on the virus: COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and has since rapidly spread throughout the world. According to a February report of a joint World Health Organization-China mission, the virus’ symptoms can be as mild as a sore throat, headache, and nasal congestion, or as severe as fever, dry cough, fatigue, sputum (phlegm) production, and shortness of breath.
How to Prevent Coronavirus
Given that these symptoms can mimic the flu or common cold, you might be tempted to use the same types of medications, vitamins, or supplements to treat and prevent it. (It’s worth noting that the majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 so far have reported a fever and shortness of breath to start—both of which typically don’t present with the flu or the common cold, Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told Prevention.)
But according to Boyd, you can’t compare COVID-19 to the common cold or the flu. “It’s a brand new virus that is dangerous,” he tells Runner’s World. “For people who are taking multivitamins or vitamin C, it won’t hurt, but you should not rely on them over the advised precautions of preventing coronavirus, like washing your hands often or practicing social distancing or social isolation.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other precautions include covering your coughs and sneezes, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces every day, and avoid touching your face.
With those precautions in place, being well-nourished with the proper nutrients is a factor in preventing any illness—including COVID-19—Boyd says. Research backs this up—according to a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients, being nutrient-deficient can lower your immune function.
“Various micronutrients are essential for immunocompetence, particularly vitamins A, C, D, E, B2, B6, and B12, folic acid, iron, selenium, and zinc,” the study states. “Micronutrient deficiencies are a recognized global public health issue, and poor nutritional status predisposes to certain infections.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following daily doses of the above micronutrients for adults:
- Vitamin A: no more than 3,000 micrograms (mcg)
- Vitamin C: 75 milligrams (mg) for women; 90 mg for men
- Vitamin D: 600 international units (IU)
- Vitamin E: 15 mg
- Vitamin B2: 1.1 mg for women; 1.3 mg for men
- Vitamin B6: 1.3 mg
- Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg
- Folic acid: 400 mcg of dietary folate equivalents
- Iron: 18 mg for women; 8 mg for men
- Selenium: 55 mcg
- Zinc: 8 mg for women; 11 mg for men
As a general rule of thumb, the safe level of most nutrients in a multivitamin or mineral supplement should be around 100 percent of the daily value. However, there are some exceptions, according to Healthline. Taking high doses of vitamins A, D, and E can lead to longterm complications such as irregular heartbeat, blood clotting interference, hemorrhages, and organ damage. Taking high doses of vitamins C, B6, and folic acid can lead to issues such as GI distress, nausea, heartburn, and can negatively impact your immune system, so it’s important to pay close attention to the doses of these micronutrients.
That’s also why whole foods are always the best way to get the nutrients you need, Boyd says. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), you should eat 5 servings of vegetables per day, 4 servings of fruit per day, 6 servings of whole grains per day, 3 servings of dairy per day, 8 to 9 servings of lean meat and eggs per week, 2 to 3 servings of fish (preferably that provide omega-3 fatty acids) per week, 5 servings of nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes per week, and 3 servings of healthy fats and oils per day.
As for other ways to better help boost your immune system and prevent against coronavirus, Boyd recommends getting enough sleep and moderate (but not excessive) physical activity—both can help lower stress and improve your immune function. “Listen to music, dance, play guitar—whatever helps calm you down.
What to Do If You Think You Have COVID-19
Symptoms can occur two to 14 days after exposure, according to the CDC. If you are experiencing symptoms you think may be related to COVID-19, Boyd suggests contacting your local coronavirus hotline, which provides recommendations based on symptoms.
As a general guideline, if you have mild symptoms, stay at home and self-isolate, and take medications such as Tylenol and decongestants, Boyd says. If you have more severe symptoms, such as a fever over 100 degrees, a cough, and shortness of breath, call your healthcare provider or local health department.
Bookmark your state, county, and local public health departments—you can find a directory of state offices here. They’ll have the latest on the recommended protocol in your area.
9 Spices That Boost Your Immune System
“You don’t want to go to the emergency room unless you are specifically told to because that’s where you could get or spread [coronavirus],” Boyd says.
Boyd cautions that if you do suspect that you have COVID-19, you should work closely with your doctor, especially if you are already taking medications regularly as some may interact negatively with the virus.
“This is rapidly evolving illness, and more information should come out about the relationship between medications and coronavirus as more research is done,” Boyd says.
It’s best to avoid herbal products at this time—such as ginseng, elderberry, echinacea—Boyd says, because medical professionals don’t currently know the effect they have on this virus either.
The Bottom Line
While getting essential vitamins and minerals from supplements and whole foods can help bolster your immune system, it’s best to first take coronavirus-specific precautions, such as washing your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face, covering your coughs and sneezes, and practicing physical distancing or physical isolation to prevent getting and spreading the virus.
If you come down with any symptoms of the virus, call your local coronavirus hotline for specific recommendations and instructions.
Get Your Gut Back On Track!
An estimated 110,000 people consume antibiotics daily in Ireland, between December/March. (Source: Health Protection Surveillance Centre).
We asked Nutritional Therapist Rosanna Davison for her Top Tips to get your gut back on track after an illness.
1. Take time out
Don’t push yourself too quickly. Remember your body needs time to rebuild its reserves and regain strength.
Take more rest than usual. If you need to sleep longer, go to bed earlier.
Cut back on non-essential activities; they can wait until you are feeling 100%.
- Embrace fibre-rich foods full of protective nutrients
Fresh vegetables and fruits are rich in dietary fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. Try eating seven to nine portions over the course of each day. Choose different colours so that you nourish your body with a variety of phytonutrients.
Eat a portion of complete protein at each meal, such as poultry, fish, eggs, beans, pulses or tofu.
Consume essential omega-3 fatty acids daily. Avocados, seeds (flax, chia) and oily fish (mackerel, wild and organic salmon), are naturally rich in anti-inflammatory fats.
- Go ‘fermented’
Fermented foods are rich in ‘friendly’ bacteria. Sauerkraut is simple to make at home or buy kefir or kimchi in your local health store.
- Reduce or eliminate sugary foods
Processed foods often contain refined sugars to enhance taste. Excess refined sugar and processed foods may encourage the growth of ‘unfriendly’ bacteria, so aim to buy and eat fresh food.
If you have a sweet tooth, try eating berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries). They are rich in antioxidants and naturally low in sugar.
If you need a sweetener, try Stevia which is extracted from plant leaves and doesn’t impact blood sugar levels.
Do vegans need to take supplements?
A varied, wholesome vegan diet provides almost all essential nutrients in sufficient quantities. I hear you shouting ‘Noooo! It provides absolutely everything we need!’ and you may be right, but only if you regularly eat certain fortified foods. The sad truth is that modern food production systems and lifestyles make it more difficult for everyone – vegans or not – to get all they need from diet alone. It doesn’t mean a vegan diet is unnatural or unhealthy, in fact the opposite is true. It means that how we grow, produce and consume food has changed and, with an ever-growing population, the demands on the systems that produce our food are so high that certain nutrients become harder to obtain.
I get a lot of questions about supplements and understand why people are confused. Over the years, I’ve worked on many vegan research projects and as science and population studies reveal ever more data, the guidelines and recommendations change and evolve. Hence, what we were told 10 years ago may no longer be up-to-date and that’s why different opinions arise, depending on where and when we got our information. It’s my job to keep up-to-date, so hopefully I can bring some clarity to the supplement discussion!
So what’s needed? The trio of nutrients to keep a close eye on are vitamin B12, vitamin D and iodine. You may not need to supplement with all these, all year long, but it depends on several factors. Read on…
Vitamin B12 naturally comes from bacteria in the soil and both people and animals would traditionally have got it from eating unwashed plants. However, we not only wash vegetables before we eat them (and for good reasons), but food production is now so sanitised that most vegetables are washed in chlorine, or other sterilising solutions, so there’s not a trace of B12 left.
People are not generally aware that most farmed animals are given B12 supplements and this is how the vitamin eventually ends up in their flesh. So, the argument that meat is a natural source of B12 doesn’t really stack up as meat-eaters essentially consume B12 supplements recycled by the animals that were given them!
It is absolutely necessary that we have a reliable source of vitamin B12 for our bodies. We need it to make red blood cells, for a healthy heart and circulation, and it’s essential for the nervous system. It takes years to develop a B12 deficiency, so on one hand, you don’t need to worry about not having taken B12 for a while. On the other hand, you do need to pay attention, as when symptoms develop, it’s usually serious.
To ensure adequate intake, you should have at least 5µg (micrograms) daily from supplements or fortified foods. The B12 used in both foods and supplements is produced commercially by growing bacterial cultures in large vats – and it’s always suitable for vegans.
There are two forms of B12 in supplements – cyanocobalamin (cheap) and methylcobalamin (expensive). Cyanocobalamin is the stable ‘inactive,’ form of B12 and is used in supplements and to fortify foods and drinks. Once ingested, it’s activated by your body so it can be used. Methylcobalamin is the ‘active’ form of vitamin B12 as it does not require any metabolic reactions to be activated. It costs more and is not so stable.
So which one to choose? Unless you’re a heavy smoker, have kidney failure or any other serious condition affecting your metabolism, cyanocobalamin – the cheap form of B12 – is perfectly fine. Intakes up to 2,000µg a day are safe and you can take either a lower dose daily or a higher dose a couple of times a week.
We need vitamin D for healthy bones, teeth and muscles and it also performs other essential functions in our metabolism. It is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight and this is the main source of vitamin D for most people. However, if you always use sun-block, cover most of your skin or live in a country, like the UK, where we don’t get enough sunlight over the winter, you need a supplement, whether you’re vegan or not.
The UK Government now recommends that we all take a supplement from October to April and, if you protect your skin ferociously over the sunnier spring and summer months, you should take a supplement all year long. Otherwise, just 20 minutes of sunlight on the face and arms is all that is required by the body to manufacture sufficient vitamin D.
Fortified breakfast cereals, bread, plant milks and vegan margarines can be useful sources if exposure to sunlight is not practicable, but may not be enough. When it comes to supplements, there are two types and your body can use both, but it’s advisable to check the source – vitamin D2 is always vegan, but vitamin D3 can be of animal origin. Many vegan foods are fortified with vitamin D2 and labelled so, but if not specified, especially on cereal products, vitamin D tends to be of animal origin. If you choose to supplement your diet, there’s a range of quality and affordable vegan supplements with vitamin D2. There are also those made from algae or mushrooms that contain D3 and these are recommended if you need a higher dose. When deciding on your dosage, 10µg per day is enough and you shouldn’t go above 25µg.
Iodine has been a hot topic lately, especially with plenty of tabloid ‘experts’ warning that vegans are missing out. This mineral is necessary for thyroid function and helps to regulate how energy is produced and used in the body.
The amount of iodine in plants depends upon the iodine content of the soil in/on which they are grown. The closer to the sea, the more iodine and therefore vegans can get enough from plant foods, but there’s no guarantee. Seaweed, which of course grows in seawater, is always a good source and includes nori, laver, dulse and the kelp family (kombu, arame, wakame). But be warned – kelp absorbs far more than other seaweeds and you can get too much iodine from it. So, while seaweed consumption is encouraged, kelp should be used only sparingly.
It’s best to use a kelp supplement so you know exactly how much iodine you’re taking – it’s cheap, reliable and you don’t have to worry about taking too much. The recommended daily intake is 140µg and intakes up to 500µg are considered safe. In many countries, iodised salt is commonly used to ensure iodine intake, but it’s not the norm in the UK.
The dairy industry has been boasting about the iodine content of cow’s milk. What they don’t tell you is that it’s not a natural component of milk, but comes from iodinated cattle feed, supplements, iodophor medication, iodine-containing sterilisers of milking equipment, teat dips and udder washes. Cow’s milk is neither a natural nor the best source of iodine, so we can happily leave all that dairy out of our diet.
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