The best defense when it comes to protecting our overall health is a good offense, so physical distancing and rigorous handwashing remain the critical first steps in defending against the COVID-19 virus. At the same time, you want your body to have the resources it must marshal its best immune response in an encounter with any virus. Among the key ways to build your immunity will be well nourished: A strong nutritional baseline can help your body ward off illness — and can make your body more able to recovery if you do get sick.
We surveyed some integrative-health experts to understand which vitamins, minerals, and foods they’re suggesting to optimize health and nutrition during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fundamental essentials top five they recommend.
“We can’t make our own vitamin C, [and] when we get sick, vitamin C needs to increase,” explains functional-medicine physician Terry Wahls, MD. She adds that nutritional biochemist Linus Pauling, PhD, became noted for his work on the effect of ascorbic acid on shortening colds, and the cold is also caused by a kind of coronavirus.
All the practitioners we surveyed recommended increasing daily consumption of vitamin C with food and supplements. Good food causes of vitamin C include citrus fruits and brightly colored vegetables. Sauerkraut is another good source, advises Wahls, also it offers the additional benefit of supporting your gut microbiome. To supplement with ascorbic acid, these experts recommend anywhere between 250 mg and 1,000 mg each day. (If you get loose stools, back off a bit.)
Sometimes known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D plays a vital role in immune function. Experts have even speculated that one reason we’re more vulnerable to illness in the winter months is that our vitamin D levels drop from insufficient sunlight.
Because many of us are spending additional time indoors now, and immunity is a central concern, it’s much more critical to ensure adequate vitamin D levels. Good food sources of vitamin D include salmon and tuna (including canned tuna) in addition to egg yolks, especially from pastured eggs.
If you’re not presently symptomatic (see note below), supplementing is yet another supportive choice. “Studies have shown that supplementing with vitamin D can help to eliminate colds and flu by 42 percent,” notes functional-medicine physician Mark Hyman, MD.
Wahls and Kara Parker, MD, a functional-medicine family physician, both advise adding a vitamin D3 supplement to make sure your body has an optimal level. Parker suggests a minimum of 2,000 IU daily for adults and as much as 5,000 IUs. Hyman recommends starting children at 1,000 IU.
The panel of integrative physicians strongly cautioned against supplementing with immune-activating agents like vitamin D if you develop COVID-19 symptoms. This sounds counterintuitive, but during advanced stages of viral infection the defense mechanisms can begin to attack the body’s organs — what’s called a “cytokine storm” — and vitamin D can activate the discharge of a cytokine protein. The panel also recommends avoiding the herbal treatments elderberry and echinacea if you get sick, for the similar reason.
Integrative physician Robert Rountree, MD, recommends vit a to support lung health, because it’s a critical nutrient for building and repairing lung tissue. Most of us can get enough from brightly colored vegetables and fruits, he says, but he recommends supplementation for anyone with lung issues.
Parker recommends everyone supplement with vitamin A right now because “it helps protect your respiratory hair cells, called cilia, that the coronavirus infects.” She suggests taking 10,000 IU daily for one week, then once or twice a week to maintain your stores. (Be careful not to oversupplement, as hypervitaminosis can happen at high levels with this vitamin.)
This mineral is another potent immune supporter. A current panel of integrative physicians, including Andrew Weil, MD, from the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, has noted that “coronavirus appears to be susceptible to the viral inhibitory actions of zinc.” They’re careful to emphasize that this is a potential risk-reduction measure — not a cure — and suggest that supplementing with zinc lozenges to ensure that you’re getting 15–30 mg a day may help protect the upper respiratory tract.
Parker and Hyman also both recommend ensuring you have optimal zinc at this time. Hyman notes that oysters, red meat, and pumpkinseeds are excellent zinc sources. Parker suggests getting 20 mg daily, taken apart from vitamin A for best absorption.
Studies have found that fresh garlic extract has strong inhibitory effects even on antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA infections. Wahls shows that two cloves of garlic are as nutritionally potent like a cup of any other veggies; she recommends consuming extra garlic to aid immunity because it helps boost natural killer immune cells.