Yesterday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease to be a pandemic. Naturally, people are beginning to look at their current way of living to ascertain what they can do to prevent contracting the disease. One of the common questions being asked is, “Can I boost my immune system?” This is definitely a natural response to a disease that can destroy lives, especially those with compromised immune systems. Before you head out and stockpile cases of orange juice and bottles of vitamin C and zinc supplements, it will be important to take action from a place of sound empirical knowledge versus misinformation and panic.
The Immune Response
The immune system functions to protect you from environmental agents such as microbes or chemicals, thereby preserving the integrity of the body (1). Basically, it exists to prevent or limit infection (2) by distinguishing between healthy cells and cells that are damaged due to infection or cellular damage by non-infectious agents (e.g., sunburn or cancer). The immune system can also receive signals from cells that are infected by microbes such as viruses and bacteria. Once the immune system receives the signal from the damaged cells and responds by initiating an immune response by releasing numerous fighter cells which come from precursors in the bone marrow.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases defines immune tolerance as the prevention of an immune response against a particular antigen; when tolerance is lost, disorders like autoimmune disease or food allergy may occur (3). The strength of our immune system is largely driven by non-heritable influences such as cumulative influence of environmental exposure (4) – in other words, how exposed were you to germs over the course of your lifetime. Although there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function, general healthy-living strategies are a good way to start giving your immune system the boost it needs!
Sometimes your immune system fails and you find yourself susceptible to disease-causing microorganisms. You begin to think of all the ways you can boost your immune system to help stave off serious infection. Thoughts such as these may run through your mind: Should I start taking more vitamin C or other supplements? What foods should I start eating to strengthen my immune response? What other lifestyle changes should I make to intervene in this immune response and give myself a fighting chance to prevent or decrease my time being sick?
Recently we’ve seen a surge of panic buying at the grocery store -stock piling everything including toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and bottled water. The spread of misinformation is causing many to react out of fear and anxiety instead of reacting from a solid knowledge base. Below are a few general guidelines based on empirical evidence to help you boost your immune system to give you a fighting chance!
Eat a Balanced Diet and Skip Megadosing Vitamins
You may be thinking that the best way to boost your immune system to ward off the coronavirus is to start megadosing vitamin C. Megavitamin therapy is defined as the consumption or injection of vitamins in doses well beyond the current Recommended Dietary Allowance and often well above the Tolerable Intake level.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, has several functions including acting as an antioxidant, helping to defend cells from free radicals and helping the immune system work properly to protect the body from disease. Vitamin C also helps to activate many enzymatic reactions in the body involved in the synthesis of collagen, carnitine and norepinephrine.
Megadosing vitamin C would seem like a novel approach to boosting your immune system against COVID-19 . The effectiveness of vitamin C in regular doses of up to 1 g per day for cold prevention and treatment appears to only reduce the duration of cold symptoms by about 3% to 13% in adults. Ingestion of high doses (1-2 g per day_ of vitamin C has not been shown to prevent the common cold or reduce its symptoms. Vitamin C doesn’t ward off the common cold, and there is even less evidence that they grant immunity against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Support your immune system the healthy way by fueling your body with nutrient dense meals. Plant based meals are packed with phytonutrients which are natural chemicals produced by plants. Phytonutrients possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help support a healthy human body. Phytonutrients may also enhance immunity and intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and alter estrogen metabolism. By incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables on your plate you can boost the phytonutrient value of your meal.
Well, what about zinc?
If you’re like most people, you take a zinc lozenge the minute you feel a cold coming on. Clinical research has provided mixed data on the effectiveness of zinc supplements on preventing or reducing the common cold. Currently, there is no concrete evidence on what the most effective dose or treatment would be when using zinc to combat the common cold. Furthermore, taking large amounts of zinc is toxic and can cause copper deficiency, anemia and damage to the nervous system. Again, you should be able to get the recommended daily amount of zinc from your diet.
Minimizing stress and getting adequate sleep will be essential in maintaining a healthy immune system. A sleep deprived and stressed immune system has a difficult time fighting infection. Current studies indicate that individuals who obtain inadequate sleep are more likely to get sick when exposed to viruses. In fact, the immune response to the influenza virus vaccine was diminished after six days of restricted sleep. Furthermore, there is also evidence for an enhanced susceptibility to the common cold with poor sleep efficiency (5). The CDC recommends getting seven or more hours of sleep per night. Additionally, when we are stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off infection is reduced (6). Stress limits your body’s lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that help fight infection.
The Cleveland Clinic states, “High stress levels also can cause depression and anxiety, leading to high levels of inflammation. In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that can’t properly protect you.”
Managing both physical and physiological stress will help decrease stress’ influence on your immune function. While this is most certainly a stressful time, find moments to decompress through meditation, yoga, journaling, or doing whatever activity brings you joy!