COVID-19 & Immune Health Basics
Have you been left confused about what you can do nutritionally during the outbreak of COVID-19? It’s not surprising if you have when there are mixed messages EVERYWHERE about what nutrients you need and social media is rife with immune-boosting tips – which can lead to confusion about what is the best or right thing to do.
So, let’s start with the term ‘immune-boosting’. This is really great marketing term (and one I'm guilty of using previously!). It’s also one that is being pulled apart by medical professionals and with good reason. We don’t actually want to ‘boost’ our immune system because boosting immune cell activity can play a role in autoimmune conditions or inflammation, we just simply want to support our immune health.
What does the research say?
It’s also important to know that this virus has spread so rapidly that there is, to date (that’s as of the date I wrote and shared this article!) NO PUBLISHED SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH to support the use of any nutrients or nutrition-specific advice in relation to prevention or reduction of symptoms specific to COVID-19.
When it comes to research, this is evolving and it takes time and there will, at some stage in the future be some published research papers on the role of nutrients and COVID-19. Nutrients that are currently being looked at to undergo clinical trials are vitamin C, vitamin D and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
Vitamin C has been shown to be effective in reducing mortality in patients with sepsis and a similar theory is being applied to its potential efficacy in COVID-19 patients with pneumonia due to its high antioxidant properties and support to immune health.
Vitamin D is known to modulate immune response and research is planned to analyse its potential use to reduce the severity of symptoms in COVID-19 patients, particularly those with vitamin D deficiencies - something that is commonly seen in the UK and USA.
Omega 3’s and some omega 6 fatty acids are typically known for their anti-inflammatory properties and in this instance EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) combined with antioxidants. As part of a randomised controlled trial, the aim is to assess whether this nutrient combination can modulate immune response and reduce the severity of symptoms in COVID-19 patients.
So, in theory, there is potential for some nutrients, but currently, with little research to work with, all you can do is think about what should you do to support your general immune health.
I’ve listed below some recommendations that I advise year-round, with or without the threat of catching COVID-19 or any other virus. These are recommendations to support immune health on a day to day basis and help form the basic fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle.
Immune Health Basics
A Balanced Diet
A balanced diet includes macronutrients, vitamins and minerals. Primarily if you think about your diet focusing largely on whole foods over processed foods, this is a great place to start.
Carbohydrates: Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (lentils, chickpeas etc.), nuts and seeds.
Fats: Sources of both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated (omega-3s) opt for extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts/seeds, oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines).
Protein: Lean meats, limit intake of red meat to 2-3 meals per week, fish, eggs and include plant-based protein options such as tofu, tempeh, chickpeas and lentils.
Eating a mixed and varied diet of whole foods will naturally include the nutrients you need to support immune health such as vitamin C and zinc. Carbohydrates also contain fibre which is beneficial for lots of reasons and when it comes to immune health, it’s particularly important for our gut microbiome. Some carbohydrates contain prebiotic fibres which act as fuel for our gut microbes and this also offers benefit to our immune system (I have a more comprehensive article on prebiotics here if you would like to understand this in more depth).
Hydration is king. Aim for approximately 2 litres of water every day.
A good tip to is to buy a bottle and keep it on your desk or in your bag, car, place of work etc. If, for example, the bottle is 500 mls, aim to sip your way through 3-4 throughout the day.
This, for me, has been the number one perk to the work from home situation of the last few weeks. No commute to the office means an extra hour of sleep in the morning.
The optimum amount of sleep is 7-9 hours and while we sleep, our body has an opportunity to rest, repair and produce all important immune cells. We are all different, so you might thrive on 7 hours sleep or maybe 9, and I recommend putting it to test and see what works for you - but ultimately sleep is key to supporting immune health and if you are getting less than 7 hours sleep per night, aim to hit at least 7 as a minimum.
When we are stressed we produce increased levels of cortisol and adrenalin and whilst some level of stress is healthy, chronic stress isn’t.
Chronic stress can take its toll on your health, impact sleep and weaken immune function, so it’s important to find ways to destress. Find what works for you when it comes to reducing stress.
Good quality sleep plays an important role in reducing stress and find ways to help you to feel relaxed, for example, exercise, a Netflix binge, reading a book, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga class or something as simple as a walk outdoors. Meditation and yoga are both scientifically proven to help reduce stress and there are lots of options available online to do at home.
Ok with restrictions on spending time outdoors becoming more prevalent around the world, there are some amazing options to exercise now both indoors and out. A lot of gyms are offering live online classes, some you can pay for and there are also lots of free ones available.
Two good reasons to keep moving;
Firstly, mental health. Exercise increases the release of endorphins (think runners high!) and in the current environment and change in routine, it can be challenging. A daily dose of movement to increase production of endorphins can help to improve mood as well as reducing stress.
And secondly, moderate exercise supports immune health (worth knowing that on the flipside, too much exercise can weaken immune health). Research shows that regular and moderate exercise (less than 60 mins) increases anti-pathogen immune cell activity, improving defence and enhancing immune and metabolic health.
To stay up to date with latest COVID-19 developments, I recommend visting the World Health Organisation website here.
If you have any questions, please feel free to add comments below and in the meantime, practice social distancing, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay safe x
Ps. Before the term ‘immune-boosting’ became an unpopular phrase, I created some ‘immune-boosting’ recipes (so I've contradicted myself using the term, but this was a while ago...) and they are designed to support your immune health;
Amy Savage is a qualified Nutritionist with a Bachelor of Health Science in Nutritional & Dietetic Medicine and is available for consultations online and in Sydney CBD. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.