COVID-19 is still relatively new, but we do know this, according to the CDC:
- It’s mainly transmitted through close contact between people (that’s why we need to stay 6+ feet apart), via respiratory droplets.
- You can be a carrier and transmit the disease to others even if you feel totally fine.
- The virus can also be transmitted through contact with a contaminated object or surface. (Here’s how often to disinfect your home right now.)
There’s no cure for COVID-19. No vaccine. No known treatment that works every time — at least not yet. It’s not like a cold or even like influenza.
That said, preparation is power, and there are some vitamins and supplements that can support your immune health. They don’t hold any special magical powers against COVID-19, but they can help your immune system do its job.
8 vitamins and supplements for a strong immune system
Certain vitamins, minerals, and other supplements can support your immune system as a whole, even though they haven’t been researched for their impact on COVID-19 specifically.
“Having adequate levels of all nutrients in a well-balanced system is important for immune (and overall) health,” explains Dr. Heather Tynan, a naturopathic physician.
Dr. Tynan notes that it’s especially crucial to make sure you’re not deficient in certain nutrients that “play especially large roles in promoting proper immune response.”
Here’s a look at eight of them:
“Our bodies burn through vitamin C at a much faster rate when we’re fighting off a pathogen,” says Tynan. It’s a water-soluble vitamin (we pee out any excess), so we need to take it regularly.
But you can get too much of a good thing: The tolerable daily intake for adults is 2,000 milligrams, and if you take more than that, you might get diarrhea.
“Vitamin C is necessary for proper functioning of the epithelial barrier, which helps keep bad bugs from getting in in the first place, as well as a number or immune cells,” adds Tynan.
Your adrenal glands also release vitamin C when you’re stressed, so you may need more of it during tough times.
Citrus fruits, broccoli, and bell peppers can help you load up on vitamin C.
Research shows that, for adults, taking a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 to 2,000 IU can help prevent respiratory infections like the common cold, says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the NYC area.
While there’s no proof this prevents COVID-19, “we’ve known for a while that vitamin D is helpful for immunity,” she adds.
Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, Tynan recommends asking your healthcare provider to check your base levels before deciding on a supplement.
You can also get vitamin D from sunlight, mushrooms, fortified milk, fatty fish, and eggs.
“Zinc is one of the minerals most commonly associated with immune health — not surprising, considering the many immune cells it affects,” explains Tynan.
The “gatekeeper” of your immune system, zinc helps both innate (built-in) and acquired immunity, and a deficiency can lead to impaired immune function. Zinc has been shown to help reduce the duration of the common cold, but again, there’s no research on zinc and COVID-19.
Oysters are the food richest in this mineral, followed by beef, crab, and lobster.
Most of our immune system resides in our gut, explains Tynan, “so having a healthy microbiome is of utmost importance when it comes to having well- functioning immunity.”
The healthiest microbiome (the “good” bacteria that populate your gut) is “the one with the greatest diversity of beneficial microorganisms,” she adds. There’s no single best strain or brand, she says.
Opt for probiotic food sources, especially fermented ones like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso paste, yogurt, and kombucha.
Selenium is an essential mineral that acts as a powerful antioxidant in your body. Within your immune system, it produces a type of protein that’s used to fight pathogens and helps certain types of immune cells function optimally, explains Tynan.
Selenium deficiencies have been linked to slower immune responses and impaired immune cell functioning.
The easiest and tastiest way to get your daily value of selenium (55 micrograms) is by eating a couple of Brazil nuts a day. Fatty fish and organ meats also contain this mineral.
Tynan says vitamin A is an antioxidant that gets an “honorable mention” for immune health. She recommends getting beta-carotene (which our bodies convert into vitamin A) from whole foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, and other yellow and orange fruits and veggies.
Vitamin A is fat-soluble, so you can overdo it, since your body stores extra in your tissues. “It’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor first,” Tynan says.
She also gives the antioxidant vitamin E an honorable mention for immune function. This is another fat-soluble vitamin that’s best sourced through foods, according to Tynan.
Get your vitamin E from leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and avocado, among other sources.
“Elderberry has gotten a lot of traction lately, and for good reason,” says Gorin. Research shows taking elderberry supplements can reduce the duration and severity of the common cold. Elderberry has also shown promise in shortening the duration of influenza, though that study was industry-funded.
However, elderberry has not been tested with COVID-19, and you’ll find conflicting info on whether you should take it right now.
“We do not have the evidence to support the claim that elderberry is good or bad in terms of protecting us against COVID-19,” explains Alissia Zenhausern, NMD, a naturopathic doctor at NMD Wellness of Scottsdale. “Until we have a better understanding on how natural treatments are affecting our ability to fight COVID19, focus on the basics — and always consult with your doctor before incorporating any new vitamin, herb, or medication.”
7 bonus tips for a healthy immune system
The basics of keeping your immune system healthy haven’t changed much since pre- COVID-19. (No. 1: Wash your hands, please, thank you, and you’re welcome.)
Tynan says it comes down to “optimizing diet, sleep, and exercise; reducing stress and toxic exposures; nurturing a sense of community, purpose, gratitude, and belonging; etc.”
These determinants of health “play a role in helping our immune systems fight off invaders while at the same time protecting our own cells,” she says.
Here are a few other things you can do every day for a healthy immune system.
- Wash your hands. Seriously. (We don’t need to explain this again, do we?)
- Stay hydrated. You’re mostly water, so your body needs to stay adequately hydrated to maintain normal bodily processes, like natural detoxification (pooping, sweating, etc.).
- Limit the booze. Alcohol can negatively impact your immune function, so stick with the recommended limit of one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men (or less) right now.
- Eat the rainbow. All those nutrients listed above? They can be found in real, whole foods. So, as much as you’re able, eat an array of unprocessed foods — including fruits and vegetables.
- Manage stress. Stress impairs your immune function, so as hard as it might seem right now, find ways to cope. FaceTime a friend, do yoga or breath work at home, snuggle your furbabies, take a nap — whatever you need!
- Keep sharing memes. Those silly messages and photos you and your family keep sending? They’re proof that laughter is the best medicine (OK, maybe not the best, but that’s the saying…). Humor can actually support your immune system, so cue up “Schitt’s Creek,” keep forwarding those memes, and find ways to keep things light.
- Commit to daily orgasms. Sexual arousal and orgasm can both activate your immune system, so whether you’re solo or at home with a partner, definitely make time for pleasure! (Is it a cure? Sadly, nope.)
COVID-19 best practices for prevention
There’s no cure and no loopholes to avoid COVID-19. We’re all in this together! The World Health Organization says these are the top five things we can all do to help limit the spread and keep one another healthy:
- Wash your hands often, for at least 20 seconds.
- Cough into your elbow.
- Don’t touch your face.
- Keep a safe distance of at least 6 feet.
- Stay home if you can. If you can’t, be extra-vigilant about the first four.
Got it? Good. It might feel daunting, but staying healthy during a pandemic is possible — and you can do it without snatching up all the toilet paper at your local store.
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