Everywhere you turn, there is a new update on the coronavirus, and with each new reported case, everyone is getting more and more afraid. Store shelves are cleaned out of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and major events all over the country are being cancelled. As fear of catching the coronavirus continues to rise, many products and services are appearing that promise they can boost your immune system, and help you prevent this terrifying illness. As panic continues to escalate, people are willing to try almost anything. But can any of this really help?
Zinc – The internet has been full of people recommending zinc to prevent this virus. It’s true, if you’re deficient in zinc, it could affect your immune function, but this is pretty rare in developed countries. The research on zinc lozenges, so far only shows benefits for the common cold. And yes, a cold is a virus, but the studies don’t really find that zinc prevents a cold, but instead may reduce the severity and how long it lasts. Only zinc gluconate and zinc acetate have been shown to be helpful, and again, it’s only once you’ve already gotten the cold. Now I know, you may be thinking, but what if it could help? What’s the harm in trying? Well actually, you can have too much zinc. It’s one of those cases where if you supplement with too much zinc, it can keep you from absorbing enough of some other nutrients like magnesium, copper, and iron. And if you’re deficient in some of these minerals, it too can impact your immune system. You see, nutrition is really about balance. Instead, try to include more zinc rich foods in your diet such as beef, chicken, shellfish, pork, dairy, beans, nuts and fortified cereals.
Vitamin C – It’s important to get enough vitamin C for good immune function. However, the recommended daily intake is easily covered in a large orange, 1 cup of strawberries, ½ a red bell pepper, 1 cup of broccoli or a cup of tomato soup. When it comes to preventing colds, larger doses of vitamin C have been shown to slightly reduce the risk of getting a cold, especially if you’re not getting enough to begin with. In this case, vitamin C may help to prevent a cold, but doesn’t seem to help once you have one. Again, while a cold is a virus, it doesn’t mean vitamin C will have the same benefit when it comes to the coronavirus. However, in this case, taking the doses shown to be helpful with a cold may be worth it. The higher doses used in the studies for colds were 500 mg taken 2x/day, up to 2,000 mg. But be aware, there can be side effects. Large doses of vitamin C may increase your risk of cataracts, kidney stones, and diarrhea.
Elderberry – This is a hot supplement on the market right now. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small dark purple berry that has been studied for its immune stimulating and anti-viral properties. It’s mostly sold as a syrup, but can also be found as gummies or capsules. It’s the syrup that was mostly used in the research. The studies are very small, and many are funded by the supplement companies themselves. The available research shows that elderberry did not help in preventing flu and colds, but did help to shorten the duration. Again, these were very small studies, but they were tested on influenza A and B, not just colds. Unless you’re allergic to elderberry, it could be worth keeping some on hand.
Remember, the best way to keep your immune system strong, is to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep, get some exercise, and eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of plants. More plant foods will give your body the nutrients it needs, and will provide your gut with food for the microbes that can impact your immune system. If you want help making easy changes to improve your nutrition, I can help. Let’s all stay healthy together!
Kim Kulp, RD
Gut Health Nutrition Expert
I am a registered dietitian that specializes in gut nutrition to improve digestive and mental health. I help my clients harness the power of nutrition to support their bodies delicate ecosystem, so they can feel better. I have seen hundreds of lives transformed through the power of nutrition. I want to help you harness the gut health connection in your life so you can get “back to good!”
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