COVID: Supplements, the Immune System, and Preventative Care

In addition to the oft-heard message to stay at home and regularly wash your hands, here is a list of things you can do to give your family a little boost and right now, we all need a boost.

In the midst of a viral pandemic, with orders to “shelter at home” in effect, parents may be wondering what else can be done to protect the health of their families. Unprecedented circumstances often lead to feelings of a loss of control, which can sometimes generate a sense of fear, and even sadness.

Minimizing unnecessary travel and condensing trips to the grocery store or pharmacy is a vital part of slowing the spread of illness, however, there are also ways to take care of yourself and your children that can improve the function of the innate immune system, lessen stress, and increase the chances of staying safe and healthy.

The Basics:

Sleep

One of the most important things that anyone can do for their health is to get enough rest. The body does the vast majority of its repair work during sleep, so regularly getting an adequate night’s rest is vital for the body to keep its immune system working at its best. This is especially true in times of excess stress. Financial, environmental and circumstantial stress all simultaneously increase stress-related hormones in the body and lower its immune factors. A study done with medical students during cold and flu season tested their blood before and after final exams and found that blood samples taken just before their tests had the highest rate of stress hormones and the lowest number of immune cells. Students were most likely to get sick when stress was at its peak.

Stress Relief

It may feel difficult to remain calm during this time, but there are several things that can help, and creating rituals that manage stress sets a great example for children as well. Meditation is one of the absolute best ways to calm the body and the mind and can be done virtually anywhere. If it seems hard to quiet the thoughts in your head, many meditation apps often provide guided visualizations that can make it easier to focus and let go. Quite a few of these apps are even offering free membership in the wake of COVID-19, including one called Waking Up.

Heat & Cold

Hot baths, especially when paired with Epsom salt, do a magnificent job of relaxing the muscles, making them a great practice before bedtime. Spending time in a hot bath, shower or sauna, or conversely, taking a cold plunge, have proven to improve the function of the innate immune system as well.

Exercise

Movement and exercise are also great ways to reduce stress and keep the immune system in balance. Getting outside for walks with the dog or playing in the backyard also has the bonus of increasing vitamin D production, one of the key nutrients for healthy digestion and immune defense. Gardening can also reduce stress and is a fun activity for kids to enjoy. In addition, yoga, tai chi, and other mindful movement practices benefit the body and the mind simultaneously.    

Whole Foods

Refined and heavily processed foods suppress immune function, both in the short and long term. Years of poor nutrition make it much more likely to get sick easily, from colds and flu to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain many of the vital nutrients both kids and adults need to support all systems within the body, including the immune system.

If you have picky eaters at home, one of the best ways to get children to come around to fruits and veggies is to get them involved in preparation. Children are statistically much more likely to try foods they’ve had a hand in making, and even more so if they had a hand in choosing ingredients.

Of the 1 million+ coronavirus case studies we have so far, none of them appear to have been contracted through food, and in fact, avoiding fresh produce at this time is more harmful than helpful. Even if the virus is ingested and passes through the stomach, the acid present there destroys viral material, making it hard to replicate. It’s safe to wash your hands, wash your veggies, and get cooking!

Vitamin D

Even with a diet full of fresh and vital ingredients, it’s not a bad idea to add some good vitamins into the mix.

Even though we’re moving into spring, the colder months spent indoors create vitamin D deficiency in most people. It is for this reason that many doctors and scientists believe that in the northern hemisphere, “cold and flu season” presents itself in the winter months. Less exposure to the sun creates a lack of vitamin D, which in turn generates a weakened immune system. Studies done with school children found that, within the same classroom, students given D3 supplements for the first time were 2/3 less likely to contract a cold or the flu than their peers who had been given a placebo. Vitamin D supports the innate immune system and reduces inflammation, which we know is a symptom of coronavirus. The recommended dose is 1,000 IU of D3 per day. As a nice side effect, that amount often improves mood as well.

Zinc

Zinc is another nutrient vital to immune response. Found in seafood, shellfish, meats, pumpkin and sesame seeds, beans and cashews, zinc can easily be supplemented in addition to eating zinc-rich foods. However, in order for zinc to be most effective at preventing viral replication, it must be present inside the cells of the body. To make zinc readily available in this way, it needs the help of other compounds.

Quercetin

Quercetin is a flavonol found in many plants that acts as a powerful antioxidant. It makes zinc available to cells, thereby enabling them to fight viruses more effectively. Quercetin can be found in kale, red onions, red grapes, berries, apples, and green tea, among other plant-based foods. Quercetin also supports lung health.

CoQ10

CoQ10 is a coenzyme, also containing strong antioxidant properties. Fatty fish, and leafy greens, in addition to oranges and strawberries, are a great source of CoQ10. Greens, in particular, are fascinating in their ability to generate this compound within the body. It was recently shown that if a person ingests leafy greens and then is exposed to sunlight about two hours after the meal, the sun can, in effect, “photosynthesize” the digested greens, thus creating CoQ10 in the body. This method also has the added benefit of producing vitamin D at the same time.

Colostrum

Colostrum – the first milk from cows – is also available as a supplement, as a powder, chewable pill or capsule. Like human colostrum, it is loaded with immune factors and has been shown to decrease some respiratory virus infections.

Probiotics

Increasing in popularity in the last decade, probiotic supplements are one of the best options to help digestion, strengthen the immune system, and even support brain health and mood. Similar to studies of vitamin D, research on the effectiveness of probiotics has also proven to reduce incidents of respiratory illness in children. Probiotics can also be found in an array of fermented (not pickled) foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, and kefir.

Clean Air, Clean Home

Using good quality air purifiers at home can inhibit viral matter in addition to other particles that may cause allergies, thus compromising the immune system. HEPA-rated filters tend to be the best quality and can be found both in air purifiers and vacuums. HEPA stands for “high-efficiency particulate air,” and is used to describe filters that are able to trap 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns.

Aside from man-made filtration systems, houseplants are excellent at cleansing the air. NASA’s “best plants for air purification” include some you may already have in your home, including Boston fern, English ivy, and peace lily.

Even a little fresh air can do wonders for the home. With the increase in warm days, opening windows and letting in the breeze can feel good and get air circulating, clearing out dust and subtle fumes.

This, Too, Shall Pass

One of the best things that all people can do at this time is to remember to be gentle with themselves. There is, unfortunately, no guidebook for how to live under such new and uncertain circumstances. Taking some time to breathe, connect, and do the things that help you feel grounded and happy will benefit you as well as your loved ones. When children see their parents feeling calm, it gives them permission to feel calm as well.

Published on: April 13, 2020
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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