During this trying time of concern over COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other state and federal organizations have centered around washing hands, avoiding touching your face, and staying home.
However, not much press has been given to a key concept that dietitians know plenty about when it comes to staying well: tapping into the power of diet (and supplements) to fortify the body’s immune function. RDs have an incredible opportunity to leverage their knowledge and experience and potentially play a vital role in helping to reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19.
As dietitians know, there are numerous dietary and supplemental strategies that can offer support for a more resilient immune system. No matter your place of work, you can offer the following helpful advice to clients.
1. Consume immune-protective herbs and spices. Ginger, garlic, onions, oregano, rosemary, and thyme all have properties that help fight off viruses and harmful bacteria and give the body’s defenses a natural boost. Suggest clients whip up garlicky hummus, sip raw ginger tea, and throw oregano and rosemary into salads and roasted vegetable dishes or even a chickpea/tuna salad. Or go for an all-in-one elixir with my flu buster.
2. Munch on more orange foods. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes all are rich in beta-carotene, which has been shown to protect lung function and act as a strong defender against less favorable bugs. Beta-carotene also gets converted to vitamin A, which is critical for immune function. Bright-colored fruits and veggies in general offer all kinds of antioxidant protection and bolster the body’s infection-fighting mechanisms.
3. Eat vitamin C–rich foods. Citrus, red peppers, broccoli, and kiwi all are great sources of vitamin C. Suggest clients start their day with a grapefruit or an orange or throw sliced peppers on their sandwich. Studies show that consuming vitamin C can help prevent illness. As extra insurance for those who may be immunocompromised or are feeling susceptible to getting sick during flu and cold season, I suggest a supplement of 250 to 500 mg/day. Recommend clients read supplement labels to look for accompanying flavonoids, which help improve absorption and utilization of this important nutrient.
4. Zap it with zinc. Zinc is key for immune function, and it tends to be lower in those who are older, who take antacids, and in some vegetarians and vegans. Clients can find high amounts of zinc in meat and seafood and in moderate amounts in sunflower and pumpkin seeds. A low-dose supplement of 15-25 mg/day (taken with food) can offer clients an additional immune-system boost. Remind clients that supplement quality matters, and suggest they look for zinc supplements in the form of zinc picolinate, which has been shown to be best absorbed.
5. Pop a fortifying supplement. There is some emerging evidence on the benefits of elderberry syrups and tinctures. Research shows elderberry can protect against flu and fortify the immune system as well as be an effective treatment for upper respiratory infections. This supplement can be found in natural food stores and even in some drugstores. Trusted brands clients can look for include Sambucol, Gaia, or Garden of Life.
6. Get your vitamin D. At this time of year and for those living in more northern locations, serum levels of this critical vitamin can decline. Vitamin D is essential for optimal immune function and has been shown to help address respiratory infections. Supplementing is an easy way to get 1,000 IU/day, a safe amount for most people and one shown to raise low serum vitamin D levels (ie, those below 30 ng/mL). Vitamin D also can be found in mushrooms, fatty fish, and eggs.
7. Give the magic of mushrooms a try. These fungal gems can offer an excellent boost to the immune system and provide some food (in the form of beta glucans) for beneficial gut bacteria, which help fend off infection. Suggest clients toss them into salads, stir-frys, and soups or, if mushroom ain’t their thang, there’s a supplement for that. My personal fave: MyCommunity, a collection of different mushrooms for immune support in a simple capsule.
8. Minimize alcohol, sugar, and processed foods. Not only can the consumption of these foods increase the risk of suppressing the immune system, but eating them often means that healthful and supportive nutrients are displaced. Getting clients and patients to focus on a whole foods diet instead of heavily processed foods and try a seltzer with a splash of juice or a few drops of bitters instead of a cocktail can be helpful advice.
Think dietitians can’t also be superheroes in the COVID-19 outbreak? Just watch us!
Please note that this blog is not meant to substitute for medical advice. If you or your clients suspect that you or they may have been infected by the novel coronavirus, please contact your health care provider.
— Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, serves as adjunct faculty at Bastyr University where she earned her master’s degree. She has provided clinical nutrition counseling for the past 12 years, hosts the podcast Mary’s Nutrition Show, and speaks regularly at a variety of conferences.