Viral respiratory infections are extremely common diseases in humans and most of the time we recover from them fully. However, the Covid 19 or corona virus that is currently travelling the globe seems to be virulent and potentially fatal. The main advice to the public is to wash your hands regularly and thoroughly. Whilst not doubting that this is good advice we, as health conscious individuals may want to be more proactive in reducing our risk of infections, be they corona virus, influenza or the common cold.
The key to avoiding illness and creating resilience is to build a healthy immune system.
There are various dietary and lifestyle factors that can support the immune system. Here are some top tips:
Eat an Antioxidant Rich Diet
Eating nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beneficial oils will supply your immune system with a wide array of antioxidants and phytonutrients needed for protection against disease and repair of the body.
Include Herbs and Spices
Many herbs and spices have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Include ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, lemon balm and chamomile. Supplementing with curcumin, derived from turmeric, has been shown to support the immune system and reduce inflammation so is worth doing if you feel you are at risk (1,2).
Vitamin C to the Rescue
Studies indicate that vitamin C may both prevent and alleviate infections caused by bacteria and viruses. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that scavenges free radicals as well as restoring other antioxidants. It may reduce virally induced damage, prevent viral replication and down-regulate inflammation (3). In addition patients with acute viral infections have low circulating vitamin C levels, as vitamin C is used up more quickly during illness (3). Higher doses than usual are needed to have an impact on viruses with 6-8 g per day being shown to be effective (4). It should be noted that high doses of vitamin C can cause loose bowels.
When zinc deficiency was identified in the 1960s it quickly became clear that zinc is vital for a healthy immune system. Zinc has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Zinc is important for the maintenance and development of both the innate and adaptive immune system (5). Zinc deficiency reduces our defences against infection and increases the risk of inflammation (6). Supplementing with zinc is a no brainer if you want to have a resilient immune system.
Probiotics Play Their Part
Probiotics such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are being used in the treatment and prevention of many conditions and in promoting human health generally. They have recently been found to decrease the risk and duration of respiratory infections and protect against microbial pathogens, including viruses (7). Probiotics may exert their antiviral effects directly by interacting with the virus or by stimulating the immune system to fight them (8)
Interestingly, some patients with COVID-19 have been found to have decreased beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Supplementing with probiotics is another easy way to protect yourself against unwanted infections.
Stress can have a negative effect on every aspect of health, including immunity. Stress can increase susceptibility to infection and slow healing. Tried and tested stress reduction techniques include breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, tai chi and talking therapies.
Get Enough Sleep
During sleep the body repairs itself. Not getting enough sleep stops this repair process from happening fully and suppresses the immune system.
Beware Anti-bacterial Cleaning Products
Anything containing triclosan may be best avoided as using this regularly is like taking antibiotics continuously. The organisms it is designed to kill mutate and become immune to it and we are left with resistant germs that can go on to cause intractable problems.
1. Foods. 2017 Oct 22;6(10). pii: E92. Curcumin: A Review of Its' Effects on Human Health. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS.
2. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019 Jan 11:1-53. Cellular and molecular mechanisms of curcumin in prevention and treatment of disease. Patel SS et al.
3. Biancatelli C et al. The antiviral properties of vitamin C. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2020 Feb;18(2):99-101
4. Hemila H. Vitamin C and Infections. Nutrients. 2017 Mar 29;9(4). pii: E339
5. Maares M et al. Zinc and immunity: An essential interrelation. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2016 Dec 1;611:58-65.
6. Wessels I et al. Zinc as a Gatekeeper of Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017 Nov 25;9(12). pii: E1286.
7. Abdelhamid AG et al. Probiotic Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains possess safety characteristics, antiviral activities and host adherence factors revealed by genome mining. EPMA J. 2019 Sep 5;10(4):337-350
8. Lehtoranta L et al. Nutrients. 2017 Mar 29;9(4). pii: E339. Eur J Clin Microb Infect Dis. 2014 Aug;33(8):1289-302.
9. Xu K et al. Management of corona virus disease-19 (COVID-19): the Zhejiang experience. Zhejiang D Xue Xue Bao Yi Xue Ban. 2020 Feb 21;49(1):0.