I hope you’re keeping in good spirits during these unchartered waters we’re in right now.
People are unsurprisingly feeling uncertainty, fear and frustration because of this pandemic. I hope to reduce some of those feelings for you in this article, with some helpful insights and action steps you can take to improve your health and reduce the likelihood of falling ill to this virus.
So let’s first talk about the lay of the land – the stats, and what they really mean.
The stats – what do they really mean?
You’ve likely seen various statistics about rates of transmission, death rates, and so on. I’m seeing ranges of rate of transmission from 1 – 4 people, and death rates from 1 – 3.5% (and much higher in Italy). The truth is we don’t know what’s true, as stats vary depending on a country’s healthcare system, reporting accuracy, testing ability and accuracy of those tests, the general age and health of the population within each country, resources, medicines, and so on.
It’s also estimated that 80% of people show no symptoms to mild symptoms after being infected. As there is no antibody test widely available right now to test people for past infection, we really don’t know how many people have been infected, so that number may also be much larger, which would reduce the death rate percentage significantly.
Even the incubation period seems to range from a few days to up to 24 days, with the average being 5 days, and the length of time the virus can remain viable on surfaces ranges from 3 – 9 days, sometimes hours. These are quite big ranges!
Rather than focus on these stats that are largely unhelpful and confusing, let’s focus on things that are helpful – ones that you can act upon.
Some insightful stats
What interests me most about the stats is this:
The people experiencing the worst, often fatal, outcomes from contracting the virus are the elderly, immune-compromised, and those with underlying health conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Then, we’re also seeing people with no underlying health conditions being affected. The narrative seems to imply that even healthy people are at risk of falling gravely ill.
For me, this calls up many questions, and highlights a growing problem within our healthcare system and how we view health.
The problematic paradigm around health and our current medical system is this:
If you don’t have a diagnosed disease, you’re healthy.
How many people do you know who feel unwell all the time, yet their doctor tells them there’s nothing wrong with them?
How many people do you know that have seen specialist after specialist, and still don’t have an answer for their health problems?
How many people do you know who eat a less than nutritious diet, are chronically stressed, sleep deprived, or have an addiction to drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, or sugar?
There are millions of people who fall into these categories, and all these factors can greatly compromise the immune system (1, 2, 3).
Unless medical professionals are collecting this kind of information from people without underlying conditions who are falling ill to this virus, this is a huge grey area.
And unfortunately, because we have a healthcare system that focuses on disease care versus health care, this kind of data collection is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Those without any diagnosed disease that still feel unwell are grossly under-served by conventional medicine.
However symptoms are signs that the body is out of order in some way – it isn’t necessarily a disease state – but it isn’t a wellness state either.
If healthcare was focused more on preventing disease, creating better benchmarks for health, and putting the power back into people’s hands by teaching people ‘how’ to be healthy, then we could ease the overall burden on our healthcare systems (and the amazing healthcare professionals on the front line), and far fewer people would succumb to this virus.
All of the above makes me wonder why, while the world is in lock down, the focus is on fear, uncertainty, and waiting for a vaccine or treatment, rather than empowering people to improve their health that would strengthen their immunity. Wouldn’t now be a time, more than any – a perfect call to action – to give people the insights, tools and resources they need to improve their health, raise the health of the world, and improve people’s outcomes?
While I don’t have an answer to that, I do have an answer to improving people’s health.
The answer is devastatingly simple: good nutrition, exercise, stress management, and other lifestyle interventions (4), along with personalised healthcare that seeks to optimise a person’s unique biochemical health.
Thankfully, this is a gap that naturopathic medicine can fill.
Before we move on, one positive stat worth remembering is that the large percentage of people infected – those showing no to mild symptoms – recover without medical intervention. This means the immune system has a very high effectiveness rate at combating the virus. It’s easy to think this isn’t the case, with all the focus on the death and destruction this virus is causing! I encourage you to take a more balanced view and keep this fact in mind.
The narrative seems to forget the amazing ability of your body’s internal defences – ones that you can strengthen through some pretty simple measures that also tend to promote overall health.
So with that said, in the rest of this article, I’m going to share some basic to advanced strategies you can use to improve your health and the health of those around you.
There are many things we can do to strengthen our internal defenses – our immune system – to make us more resilient and reduce viral susceptibility. While this is more important for the elderly and immune-compromised, or those with cardiovascular, respiratory or metabolic conditions like diabetes and obesity, as well as those without diagnosed conditions, it will benefit us all, particularly as we’re just about to head into flu season here in Australia.
While many things are out of our control right now, thankfully, there are some things within our control. We can choose to:
- Eat a healthy diet based on the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet which includes plenty of fresh fruit and veg – at least 8 servings / 4 cups of fruit and veg per day, plus meat, fish, beans and legumes (5, 6)
- Stay hydrated (to support all the body’s functions, especially the immune system) – drink water as well as warm fluids like ginger, turmeric or green tea and warm broths regularly (because viruses become denatured by heat)
- Focus on getting a good night’s sleep every night (have a Magnesium rich Epsom salt bath before bed to wind down) – aim for 8-9 hours of good quality sleep each night to allow your body to rest, repair and keep you resilient (7, 8)
- Practice being mindful and present to reduce stress. Check out Psychologist Lillian Nejad’s informative article on how to deal with stress and anxiety here.
- Exercise regularly, and get out in nature and fresh air each day
- Stay connected to others – spreading love and empathy in this challenging time. Reaching out to those in need – like the elderly, the unwell, and the isolated (I reached out to my elderly neighbour yesterday, and she said my support meant so much to her as she has no family around. The reassurance that someone is there can make a big difference.)
- Choose to switch off from sensationalised, negative media that’s all doom and gloom, and focus on creating joy, peace and harmony instead.
- Avoid processed sugar, refined carbs and limit alcohol as these deplete nutrients in the body, and can compromise immune function
All of these will support the immune system, and help to reduce both physical and psychological stress (9, 10), which in turn strengthens your immune system.
Now more than ever, doubling down on all your healthy habits is key.
Do the best you can, and go easy on yourself if you’re not perfect (like when I ate half a bar of 95% cocoa chocolate yesterday!). If you succumb to eating something less than healthy, move on and just make sure you make it up in the next meal you eat.
More advanced strategies
In terms of specifics with diet, eating foods with immune supporting nutrients like Vitamin A, Vitamin C (11), Zinc (12) and Vitamin D (13, 14) is helpful. Other nutrients like Selenium (15), amino acids like Arginine and Glutamine found in protein, Vitamin E, and Essential Fatty Acids are inadvertently involved in the immune system’s function, whether by being an antioxidant or quelling inflammation – a key factor involved in the immune response.
Here are food sources of the key immune nutrients:
Liver (highest in beef – choose organic only), eggs, dairy products, fish liver oil (cod liver oil), plus green, red, orange and yellow fruit and veg: carrots, oranges, apricots, mangoes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, melon, spinach, peppers, watercress, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus etc., pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts.
Peppers (chilli + sweet), watercress, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, citrus fruits, kiwi, peas, melons, tomatoes, parsley, blackcurrants, apples, papaya, bean.
Vitamin D (main source is sunshine, with small amounts in foods):
Herrings, mackerel, salmon (wild caught only), oysters, cottage cheese, eggs. You’re best to get your vitamin D levels checked, and if below 100, supplement to get to optimal levels (around 150 is optimal) if needed.
Seafood, shrimp, shellfish (esp. oysters – although limit as they also contain mercury), haddock, canned fish (avoid tuna because of mercury), ginger, lean red meat (esp. lamb + beef), nuts (pecans, Brazil, almonds, walnuts), peas, turnips, eggs, oats, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), rice, lentils, pulses, molasses, calf’s liver, Crimini mushrooms, dark green leafy veg (esp spinach, collard greens), asparagus, turkey, quinoa.
Aim for 1g of protein per kg of body weight. Protein is essential for immune function, and surprisingly, many people don’t meet their daily needs. The best protein sources are animal products like beef, kangaroo, lamb, and chicken, followed by eggs, legumes and beans. Protein is especially important for the elderly or convalesced. Prioritise this if you’re either.
Also include anti-viral foods such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, Manuka honey, and mushrooms like Shiitake, Reishi and anti-viral herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage in cooking.
Things I’m making at home are immune boosting bone broths made from chicken frames (one thing not sold out at the butchers!) with heaps of rosemary, chicken livers (another thing available at the butchers) marinated in garlic, olive oil, parsley and lemon, large batches of hearty vegetable soups with my homemade broth for freezing, and squeezing lemon or lime juice into water to get some anti-viral vitamin C.
In addition to that, eat fermented foods like saeurkraut, yoghurt (unsweetened), natto or kimchi which contain probiotics that support the immune system’s function.
Foods like colostrum (find it in powder form in your health food store – add some to a smoothie) or probiotics may also be helpful for supporting immune function (16).
Drinking or even gargling with green tea (17) can reduce the risk of contracting viruses because the tannins in green tea have antiviral properties. Even gargling with hot (not boiling!) water can help, as viruses become denatured (and therefore die) when exposed to heat.
It appears that this coronavirus enters human cells using ACE2 enzymes (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme), and uses them to replicate. These enzymes are in high concentration on our tongue, lungs and heart. This is why the progression to acute respiratory distress can be so rapid for people who are infected. Hence the simple act of drinking warm liquids regularly can potentially help reduce infection, by reducing how many can reach the lungs.
Other than that, I’m supplementing a few nutrients to support my immunity, namely:
- Vitamin C – 2mg per day in divided doses. If I do get sick, I’d increase that to 1g per hour. Intravenous vitamin C is starting to be used in hospitalised cases of coronavirus with some success (18).
- Zinc – 20mg per day in divided doses. Zinc citrate lozenges have been shown to inhibit virus production. You can find these at your local pharmacy (zinc gluconate lozenges are helpful too) (19).
If I do feel unwell, there are a range of options I would consider for mild to moderate symptoms:
- Herbs such as Licorice, Andrographis, Rosemary, Green Tea and Baical Skullcap. All of these work in different ways – from boosting immunity to being anti-viral or anti-inflammatory.
- Bioceuticals ArmaForce and UltraDefense Mushroom 7 (you can get these from some pharmacies)
- If in respiratory distress, compounds that have been shown to reduce the ‘inflammasome’ – part of the innate immune system responsible for the inflammatory response that has been implicated in severe, often fatal, outcomes (due to the ‘cytokine storm’ that causes so much inflammation, it leads to cell damage) such as melatonin, resveratrol, quercetin (20), EGCG from green tea, and curcumin (21).
I hope the above strategies give you some things to focus on to improve your health and your resilience at this time.
Because there’s no better time than now to care for your health.
Your health and safety is of greatest importance to me. The above is information only and should not be taken as health advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare practitioner who is aware of your current health status before making any changes to your health plan, and definitely before taking supplements and herbal medicines. Even natural medicines can be harmful in certain situations, especially if you take prescription medication.
Due to the sudden onset of covid-19, we don’t yet have peer reviewed research specific to treatments, so we’re working with the best insights and data we have. Therefore, references sourced for this article are based on past research on the actions of nutrients and herbs in relation to immune function or their therapeutic, physiological actions.
ABOUT MELISSA SMITH
Melissa is a naturopathic nutritionist and health coach who helps people who are feeling tired all the time get their energy and life back. She consults with people worldwide via webcam (AKA telehealth) from Melbourne, Australia.
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