Let’s chat about your immune system and the coronavirus. The novel coronavirus outbreak (also called COVID-19) is changing life for everyone—all over the world.
Of course, your primary focus is to (1) stay away from the coronavirus and, in case the first effort fails, (2) keep yourself away from anyone you could infect.
And rightfully so—this virus is different than any other that we’ve seen before and calls for serious measures.
But, it’s estimated over the next two years 40-70% of adults all over the world may contract the virus. In light of that, your immune system deserves a little attention too. In fact, taking care of your immune system now could mean less viral shedding later. To put it in simpler terms, giving attention to your immune system could make you less likely to infect another more vulnerable person with the coronavirus later.
So, as we prepare to hunker down and wait it out, let’s do the social distancing and handwashing, but let’s also do more.
Sure, there is no vaccine or “cure” for COVID-19. But 80% of those infected have only mild to moderate symptoms. Of course, that leaves 1 in 5 of those infected with a serious battle ahead of them.
In light of this, it makes sense to strengthen ourselves in case of possible exposure.
Is your immune system ready for the coronavirus?
So how do you make sure your immune system is running on all of its cylinders? The answer might surprise you.
It turns out the list of things that might suppress your immune system are all pretty common:
- Seasonal allergies
- Chronic inflammation
- Digestive issues
- Stress (sorry, yes, we do realize the entire world is stressed right now)
- Lifestyle factors, like whether you exercise or not
Don’t be discouraged by this list.
There are simple, easy, and even enjoyable ways to start undoing that burden now, for ourselves and our loved ones.
Take this pause from normal life to invest in your (and your family’s) health.
In doing so, we can use the crisis of this pandemic as an opportunity to highlight where we need to bolster our health. And what better time than this social distancing break to do a reset? Here’s what our Vytal Health doctors recommend to take care of your immune system during the coronavirus pandemic:
1. Feed your immune system (without causing a cytokine storm).
First, you need to understand an unfortunate fact: it is the immune system that kills in severe COVID-19 disease cases. At least, that’s what early data suggests. This is because the novel coronavirus causes an immune response in the lungs that gets out of control. The immune system goes on to attack and destroy lung cells, causing massive damage. This is called a cytokine storm.
In this case, boosting your immune function would only make things worse.
For this reason, there is a healthy debate out there whether or not you should even try to “boost” the immune system in the face of COVID-19.
For those of us that do not show symptoms of COVID-19, there is no harm in seeking immune support. Functional medicine offers many proven ways to avoid getting to the level of respiratory infection in the first place. This includes vitamins, minerals, and herbs.
The trick here is going to be dosing them properly under the guidance of health care practitioners. And right now, doing so by video conferencing is preferable.
If you are in need of a functional medicine physician to work with via telemedicine, please make an appointment today. Our doctors are committed to helping new patients during the pandemic and beyond.
For example, Vitamin A can strengthen mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. However, too much is toxic. That’s why it must be dosed carefully, especially for pregnant women and children.
Food, herbs, and supplements to discuss with your practitioner:
- Garlic, onions, and leeks
- These vegetables all come from the Allium family, which we encourage for multiple reasons.
- “These veggies are rich in organosulfur compounds, quercetin, flavonoids, saponins and much more,” says Vytal Health’s Dr. Alicia McCubbins, ND. In other words: they have powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
- Research has shown that Alliums are specifically helpful as antivirals for Infectious Bronchitis Virus (IBV), a different type of coronavirus. “Even though the study was on a different strain of coronavirus,” Dr. McCubbins adds, “it doesn’t hurt to load up on these flavorful additions to your meals. They also don’t go bad on your counter.”
- These delicious vegetables have incredible immune-supporting benefits.1,2,3
- Many people take them daily as part of a coffee-like beverage, but they can also be taken as capsules.
- Along with the onions mentioned above, throw mushrooms into your daily food–whether omelettes in the morning or spaghetti at night!
- Proteins—Get your essential amino acids!
- There is a tendency to stock up staple foods during an emergency. These staples tend to all be carbohydrates: pastas, cereals, etc. “Make sure you also incorporate protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, etc,” Dr. McCubbin explains. “This will in turn support your body’s response to stress. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can lead to anxiety and fatigue. Eat protein.”
- Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
- Your body cannot make all amino acids on its own, which means you have to eat them. A deficiency in certain amino acids affects your immune system.
- Moreover, make sure you are eating complete proteins. This is especially key if you are vegetarian or vegan. These dietary choices are fine, but know which food combinations give you the essential amino acids that your body can’t make on its own.
- Your microbiome plays a strong role in immune health, and there are so many fun ways to get them!
- Fermented veggies
- Lozenges and other probiotic supplements
- You might even want to take this social distancing break to learn how to ferment your own fruits, veggies, or yogurt! This website has tons of recipes.
- For supplements, you’ll want to use well tested brands that contain the right strains for what is going on in your body. That’s why, we repeat, work with a health practitioner to find the right form for you.
- Your microbiome plays a strong role in immune health, and there are so many fun ways to get them!
- Immune-fortifying herbs
- Elderberry, Goldenseal and Oregon Grape, and Astragalus are all indicated for any respiratory virus.
- Recent studies on Quercitin and Cucurmin are showing specific defense against COVID-19.
- Ginger is thought to contain COVID-fighting compounds as well.
- Studies on Chinese herbs show promise too.
- A lot of patients think all herbs must be taken as a supplement in capsule form, but there are many options! For example, ginger tea or elderberry candies. Explore your options from quality brands.
- As with any herbal treatment, work with a health professional to avoid interactions, even if you are just taking them short term. Many practitioners are offering telemedicine services in light of coronavirus. We are happy to work with you as well.
- Liposomal Glutathione
- Liposomal Glutathione is a high potency antioxidant. It is made of 3 different amino acids, and your body can generally make it when you eat enough of the necessary amino acids.
- We get these amino acids when we eat beef, fish, poultry, and your cruciferous veggies like brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli. Vitamin C and Selenium are also important for building glutathione in the body.
- Eating Glutathione precursors or supplementing it directly will help your body repair its tissues, cells, and organs damaged by viral invaders. It’s great for recovering from the flu, and we have good reason to believe it would be great for recovering from COVID-19.
- It is available as a liquid, capsule, and in some places as injection or inhalation therapy.
- Vitamins and Minerals
- Work with a professional on any supplements. This is key, because dosing is critical and dependent on your body. A functional medicine physician will often order lab work before dosing, as necessary.
- Vitamin A
- Strengthens mucous membranes of the respiratory tract
- Too much is toxic, must be careful of dosing during pregnancy
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
- Helps with immunity and cell and tissue repair
- In initial Chinese trials with COVID-19 patients, it has been shown that C actually prevents cytokine-induced damage to the lungs.
- Vitamin E with Selenium
- Plays a role in stopping the effects of viruses and minimizes mutations.
- Stops the replication of respiratory viruses in their tracks.
It’s true that the new coronavirus is unnerving, but herbs and supplements can help improve our outcomes in the face of exposure. All pharmaceutical companies use herbal derivatives these days in some of their biggest and strongest drugs. As all of the linked research in this section shows, these herbs and vitamins might be our most powerful allies right now.
2. Keep your hearts and lungs active and strong
Viruses like the coronavirus tax the heart, because they increase what’s called “metabolic load” on the body. To put it in simpler terms, your cells are going to be working extra hard to fight and attack the virus. Therefore, your heart has to pump harder to move more blood throughout the body, so that there’s enough oxygen for all the extra work your cells are doing.
How can you get your heart and lungs ready for the extra metabolic load? As long as you are feeling well, we recommend including as many short bursts of cardio as you can fit into daily life right now.
So do go for exercise, but focus on fresh air and skip the germ-ridden gyms. Studies show that heart health improves with just 30 minutes of exercise on most days. This can even mean three 10-minute brisk walks, or walks uphill, as long as you are still raising your heart rate. You are training your heart to become healthier so it can help you not only heal from infection, but also improve your health overall.
Cardio is also shown to boost immunity in other areas of the body. One study showed that mice that jog for 30 minutes a day were more likely to survive influenza.
3. Support the body’s natural stress recovery process
Staying calm in a time like this is no easy task. But it might just be the thing that keeps us healthy.
“The stress hormone cortisol becomes an immune suppressant when chronically elevated,” says Dr. McCubbins. “It is vital that we treat fatigue and support the body’s stress recovery as part of the immune health.”
So how does that look on a day-to-day basis? Dr McCubbins recommends focusing on the integrity of your adrenal glands. This is where cortisol comes from, and they can get out of whack when we are under acute stress.
The adrenal glands respond by producing more cortisol to help you deal with that stress, which is helpful in that moment, but not so much over the long term. When cortisol levels remain chronically elevated, you may develop a condition called HPA-axis dysfunction, commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue (more on that here).
Symptoms of HPA-axis dysfunction:
- Lethargy and lightheadedness
- Frequent infections with poor recovery
- Low blood pressure
- Low sex drive
- Blood sugar problems
- Brain fog
- PMS (for women)
- Alternating constipation and diarrhea
- Hair loss
- Gaining weight around the waist that is hard to lose
- Craving either salty or sugary foods
Returning your cortisol level to normal will look different for everyone.
3 basic steps to mitigate the stress of the pandemic:
- Ask yourself if you know what it means to actually rest and rejuvenate your body.
- Create a self-care routine that helps you lose some of your stress load.
- Ask your physician about “adaptogens.” These are herbs that help regulate your cortisol levels, which your practitioner can help you to source and dose properly. Ashwagandha, for example, is an Indian herb used for many centuries in India that has struck recent popularity for its ability to help restore our overtaxed nervous systems and regulate cortisol activity.
For more steps and advice on how to regulate your cortisol level naturally, read here.
4. Cool the inflammation
If we want our immune systems to be running on all cylinders, we have to pay attention to where inflammation may be occurring in the body. Things that may seem small, like seasonal allergies, are actually making your immune system work overtime.
Perhaps more importantly, one of the ways COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in the body is by unleashing an out of control cascade of inflammatory substances in the respiratory tract. So we want to make sure any background inflammation is under control.
When your digestion is off, inflammation of the intestinal lining almost always plays a role. We know the primary culprits: maybe you’re not quite lactose intolerant, but you get little gut cramps after eating it. It’s manageable, but if it is still a sensitivity, you want to avoid it at this point.
The same goes for seasonal allergies and air sensitivities. There are herbs and other remedies that your functional medicine physician can help you find to quell this irritation. If certain indoor environments make you sneeze or feel generally poor, such as office air, carpeting, or even if you are sensitive to things like heavy air fresheners and perfumes, avoid them at all costs right now.
5. Get some sunlight.
Social distancing doesn’t mean staying cooped up indoors! In fact, there is a lot of scientific proof that it’s a great idea to get outside while we are facing the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists are still trying to understand exactly what effect sunlight has on COVID-19, and whether the warmer temperatures outdoor recreation that summer brings will stop the pandemic. They say it’s too early in the research to tell, but we do know that UV light from the sun destroys nucleic acids, which would certainly have a deleterious effect on the coronavirus and it’s DNA.
Either way, getting outside is a solid idea. “Going outside mid day to get some sun during peak sunlight hours for 15 minutes or more will help our kidneys produce vitamin D,” Says Dr. McCubbins. Since we know that Vitamin D is toxic to other viruses, it seems like a win-win without too many consequences, as long as you make sure to avoid crowds.
History supports getting outdoors
Still not convinced? History backs up the idea of getting fresh air in times of illness as well: During the Spanish Flu back in 1918, fresh air was very effective in healing the sick.
Moreover, in the SARS-CoV outbreak (a related coronavirus to COVID-19) in 2003, researchers 1, 2 found good evidence that being outdoors, especially in windy conditions, decreased the risk of infection. While that’s not saying with certainty that COVID-19 will respond in all the same ways the 2003 SARS did, getting a little outdoors time is an easy (and enjoyable) preventative measure to take.
Even if we aren’t sure exactly how or why it works on our physical health, we all need to get outdoors for our mental well being as well. In the face of everything that is happening, it’s important that we take time to move our bodies, destress, and breathe. In many areas, spring blooms are starting to show up, and it just might help clear your mind and help you think better on your feet as changes come at us daily. It is okay to get outdoors and maintain six feet distance from other people.
One note of caution: The virus can live on shared equipment. That means, you might not want to take your kids to a playground. However, tumbling around grass and boulders in a quiet park might be a safer option.
Use this time to get your immune system ready for the coronavirus
The truth is, we may have a long road ahead of us. Social distancing and bored kids will put a strain on a lot of us, but don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is one time when we can definitively say self-care is not selfish. Taking care of yourself, nourishing your body, and dealing with the build-up of stress makes you less likely to get sick, or to make other people sick.