Optimizing Your Immunity

By Diane White McNaughton

An invisible microscopic enemy has infected everything, from the stock market to unstocked supermarket shelves. As the number of COVID-19 cases spreads like a California wildfire, social distancing central Pennsylvanians are desperately searching for a cure, a shield, a vaccine, a magic vitamin…anything to put us on the path back to normalcy.

According to dietitians and doctors, we are not totally helpless in the face of this new viral villain. But the opinion is not unanimous.  

Recently, two medical experts faced off on Fox News, with one urging Americans to take vitamins to bolster their immunity, while another said vitamins give false hope in the face of an unstoppable force. So which is it?

Remedies and recommendations are popping up faster than a game of  wack-a-mole. One popular local Facebook site shares a “Puerto Rican remedy” to combating the coronavirus: gargling with a teaspoon of vinegar, lemon and baking soda diluted in hot water at the first sign of a dry or sore throat, and taking a blow-dryer to the nose.  

What do medical experts and researchers think about home remedies, a fistful of vitamins, and some pricey supplements?

It seems Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is now having a moment.

In late March, Dr. Tom Frieden, former Chief of the Centers for Disease Control, appearing on “The Dr. Oz Show,” sung the praises of Vitamin D.  Years ago, doctors noticed a spike in respiratory infections in the winter months, and concluded that people with lower vitamin D levels are more likely to get respiratory infections. They recommended 15 minutes of sunlight a day.

“It can’t hurt and it may help,” he said. Doctors also said taking Vitamin D supplements is good, but not more than 2,000 IUs per day.

Dr. Oz on MSN.com agreed, saying supplements can’t beat COVID-19, but general evidence shows that they can slow down the progression of viruses in general.

He recommends immune-boosting Vitamin D, along with Vitamin C, zinc and elderberry supplements, along with naturally occurring Vitamin C found in leafy greens, salmon and berries.

If you are already sick, Dr. Oz recommends 80 milligrams of zinc daily, 250 milligrams of vitamin C twice daily, 250 milligrams of beta-glucan daily, and elderberry syrup or lozenges four times a day for five days.

His advice even spawned panic-buying of Vitamin C, D, elderberry and zinc in March, according to the website bulksupplements.com.

Sunshine and supplements are not the only way to get your daily dose of Vitamin D.

Eggs, cheese, tofu and mushrooms are natural sources of Vitamin D, which regulates the production of a protein that kills bacteria and virus, said Boston University’s Dr. Michael Holick, who has published more than 500 papers and 18 books on Vitamin D. Rich sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish, including canned fish like salmon and sardines; eggs, fortified milk and plant milk products; cheese, fortified juice, tofu and mushrooms.

Vitamin D also alters the activity and number of white blood cells, which can reduce the spread of bacteria and viruses, Dr. Holick added.

Winter-associated vitamin D deficiency—from a lack of sun-induced vitamin D production—can weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of developing viral infections that cause upper respiratory tract infections, said Dr. Holick.

Research also suggests that vitamin D supplements may help to protect against acute respiratory tract infections.

Local physician, Chris DeFlitch, MD, FACEP, from Penn State Health said on March 25 on “WHTM-27,” “Vitamins are good in moderation.”

He advises that it is better is to be overall well. “Eat well, sleep well, get outside, practice mindfulness.”

“There are no specific supplements that will help protect against coronavirus and anyone claiming that is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration,” said dietitian Melissa Majumdar, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, on CNN.

She says the key to fighting off coronavirus is no different than the way to maintain strong health in general: good nutrition, exercise, stress management and sleep. Majumdar also suggests filling half of your plate with immune-boosting vegetables and fruits.

In particular, she recommends carrots, kale and apricots for beta carotene, which gets converted to vitamin A—essential for a strong immune system.

Vitamin A helps antibodies respond to toxins and foreign substances, Majumdar says.

Rich sources of beta carotene include sweet potatoes, carrots, mangoes, apricots, spinach, kale, broccoli, squash and cantaloupe.

Oranges, strawberries and broccoli are also good sources of Vitamin C, which increases blood levels of antibodies and helps to differentiate white blood cells, aiding the body in its quest to determine what kind of protection is needed, Majumdar explains.

Research suggests that higher levels of vitamin C (at least 200 milligrams) may slightly reduce the duration of cold symptoms.

“You can easily consume 200 milligrams of vitamin C from a combination of foods such as oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, red and green peppers, broccoli, cooked cabbage and cauliflower.

“Beans, nuts, cereal and seafood are also efficient sources of zinc, which helps cells in your immune system grow and differentiate,” Majumdar explains, “and zinc supplements may shorten the duration of the common cold. 

“Food-based sources of zinc include beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, wheat germ, oysters, crab, lobster, beef, pork chop, dark meat poultry and yogurt.

“Milk, eggs, nuts and more deliver protein, the building block for immune cells and antibodies and plays a crucial role in amp-ing up our immune system.

“Protein comes from both animals and plants, and is a building block in poultry, beef, milk, yogurt, eggs and cottage cheese, as well as nuts, seeds, beans and lentils,” she adds.

Majumdar recommends protein-rich snacks, such as roasted chickpeas.

“Probiotics and prebiotics help boost the health of the microbiome, which supports our immune system,” explains Majumdar.

According to Majumdar, sources of probiotics include fermented dairy foods such as yogurt and kefir, and aged cheeses, as well as fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and sourdough bread. Sources of prebiotics include whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes and beans.

“Some herbs may be helpful as well when looking for natural alternatives for viral symptoms,” she explains. 

“One study found that supplementation with elderberry noticeably reduced upper respiratory symptoms when taken for the cold and flu. While it hasn’t been studied specifically with coronavirus, it may be good for general immune health,” Majumdar says. “If you are interested in taking any herbs, check with your doctor first.”

Doctors advise COVID-19 warriors to stay hydrated.

“Mild dehydration can be a physical stressor to the body,” says Majumdar. “Women should aim to drink 91 ounces of fluids daily, and men, 125 ounces. That amount includes all fluids and water-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and soups.”

Locally, popular news women Flora Posteraro and Carrie Perry featured Dr. Ross Marchegiani of Turnpaugh Health and Wellness Center in Mechanicsburg, on their “Chick2Chick” podcast, and asked him about the relative immune-boosting power of Vitamins C and D, zinc and elderberry.

Marchegiani noted that elderberry can make antibodies more robust in the healthy, but they can cause inflammation in people with an autoimmune disease, such as Lyme disease.  He also agreed that zinc is “super-crucial” for the immune system. 

L-Lysine supplements also have an anti-viral effect, by preventing a virus from replicating. He also noted that Vitamin D is used in every cell in body, and three to four grams of Vitamin C, broken up in two parts, can be helpful.

Although swallowing a pill can be quick and easy, other immunity-boosters may require a bit more time, self-discipline and sweat, he explains. 

According to Marchegiani, exercise causes your body’s antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more rapidly, which means they may be able to detect and zero in on bugs more quickly. It also lowers stress hormones.

Studies have shown that those who exercised at least five days a week had almost half the risk of coming down with a cold. If they did get one, symptoms were less severe. There also may be a protective benefit from sweating: research has shown that simply raising your body temperature may help kill germs in their tracks.

Researcher agree that the key to exercise is moderation. Too much exercise can also stress out the body.  Most experts recommend no more than ½ hour to an hour, a few days a week.

Doctors also recommend other foods as medicine.  

Dr. Yufang Lin of the Cleveland Clinic recommends whole foods and the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, found in foods such as fatty fish, nuts and olive oil. A diet high in nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc and other antioxidants has been shown to help reduce inflammation and fight infection. A daily 400 IU vitamin D supplement for a year, showed small increases in disease-fighting cells such as T cells.

And no matter which pathway or pill you choose to take, don’t stress about it, experts state. The research has shown that stress hormones suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to developing the common cold.

Studies cite that people who are stressed are also less likely to pay attention to other healthy habits, like eating right and getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, which can affect immunity.

When you’re sleep-deprived, stress hormones like cortisol are produced in over-drive, keeping you awake and alert, which can suppress your immune system.

Dr. Yufang Lin also recommends garlic, ginger, rosemary, oregano, turmeric, and other herbs. All have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. 

And besides sleep, supplements, stress-free living, and smart dining, your mom’s advice still holds true:  the best way to avoid sickness is still to wash your hands and stay away from sick people.

As the coronavirus focuses our efforts on our immunities, the silver lining is that we are all becoming more aware of our hand-washing and more grateful for our family, friends and freedoms.  May we never be immune to the power of good advice and healthy living.