This is certainly a scary time for all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world in a way that I have not seen at any other time in my life.
We are hearing about the lack of protective gear, shortages in ventilators, deaths throughout the US and the rest of the world, and other terrifying things. No one has really answered this simple question: What can you do to best prepare your body to resist this virus? Equally important, what natural therapies can help you if you do get it? I will try to answer these questions based on the best information available. Let's get started...
Before I go any further, I need to make something clear: As of yet, there are no evidence-based integrative prevention or treatment studies for COVID-19 infections. Most of the information that I give in this article is gained from studying cold viruses, influenza virus, and other coronaviruses.
Much of this information would be relevant for almost any condition I would be discussing. Some of the information is unique to viral infections such as COVID-19.
Think about this for a moment: If you were planning on competing in a triathlon or running a marathon, you would no doubt prepare by getting your body in a good of shape as possible. The same is true for battling any infection. The healthier the body, the better you will be able to resist the infection or reduce the severity of the infection if you do get it.
So what about COVID-19? What natural things can you do?
General Health Measures
1. Avoidance Measures -
These are all over the news and you have no doubt heard about them multiple times, but they bear repeating.
- Frequent Hand Washing - Using soap and water regularly can reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections by 21%. (1) This is especially important when you are in public or in contact with surfaces that could have been touched by someone with the infection.
- Avoid Touching Your Face - This is brutally hard especially during allergy season, but it can be the difference between getting a viral infection and not getting it. A study in 2015 showed that we touch our face and average of 20 times every hour. If we touch a surface contaminated with a virus such as COVID-19, we make it much easier for it to gain entrance into our body if we continuously touch our face. (2)
- Social Distancing - Since 80% of people with COVID-19 may have only mild or even no symptoms, it is important that you limit your exposure to others. Even people that may develop severe symptoms from a COVID-19 infections could shed the virus and infect others up to 14 days before their symptoms develop. (3)
- Wear a Mask in Public - This is a relatively new recommendation. The mask may not actually prevent the virus from entering your system, but people touch their face much less often when they are wearing a mask. It is certainly not going to harm you and may even be helpful.
2. Diet -
- Avoid Sugar and Processed Carbs - They increase inflammation which can impair your immune system. (4)
- Eat 5-7 Servings of Vegetables and 2-3 Servings of Fruit Daily - Fruits and veggies contain flavonoids which reduce inflammation and can augment the antiviral properties of zinc. (5)
- Drink Plenty of Water - Dehydration impairs immunity. Urinating regularly and having daily bowel movements help to clear the body of toxins.
3. Get Regular, Moderate Exercise -
Exercise is important for both physical and mental health. Brisk walks, riding a bike, hiking, and light weights are examples of good moderate exercise. Prolonged, intense exercise can actually suppress the immune system, while moderate exercise has been shown to improve the immune system. (6)
4. Get Adequate Sleep -
Getting less than 5 hours of sleep nightly increases your risk of getting a rhinovirus infection by 350%! (7)
Sleep deprivation increases inflammatory levels in the body.
Adequate sleep also ensures the secretion of melatonin which may play a role in reducing the virulence of coronaviruses.
5. Manage Your Stress -
Stress disrupts immune regulation and increases pro-inflammatory cytokines. (8)
You can combat this by doing things such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, regular exercise, starting a new hobby you enjoy, and going outside just to name a few.
Keep in mind that the majority of the daily stresses that dominate our lives will mean nothing a year from now.
6. Stop Smoking! -
COVID-19 enters the cells of the body through the ACE2 receptor. Think of it as the doorway into the cells for the virus. Smoking up-regulates this receptor, meaning the body makes more of the receptors. (9) It's like adding more doors so there is an even greater chance of the virus getting into the cells.
7. Get Your Chronic Diseases Under Good Control -
Heart disease, diabetes, autoimmunity, and other chronic conditions increase the risk of developing a severe COVID-19 infection. As I stated earlier: the healthier you are the more likely you will be effective at battling the virus.
What About Herd Immunity? -
Just a quick word on this concept that I am beginning to see a lot about on the internet. Herd immunity means that enough people in the community have either been vaccinated or have developed antibodies to the disease (natural immunity) that it stops the disease from spreading. Some people are even recommending that we stop the practice of social distancing so most of us will get infected and just "get it over with." Once the majority of the population has been exposed, the overall immunity of the population will stop the pandemic.
That sounds great, right? In theory, yes, but there are issues or consequences to consider:
- A percentage of the population (about 5% of positive cases with COVID-19) would get very sick. About one fifth of that 5% would die. That could mean millions of Americans could die from the virus. Even if the mortality rate was as low as 0.6% like South Korea, that would still mean that millions of Americans could die.
- If everyone became sick around the same time, it would overwhelm our healthcare system. There are an estimated 100,000 ICU beds in the US. Needless to say, that would not be enough to care for potentially millions of sick Americans.
- There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19. Some experts are hopeful that a vaccine will be ready within the year, but that obviously does not help with this current pandemic. When a vaccine is developed, it will most likely be given preferentially to the people that are at highest risk in the population - the elderly, patients with chronic diseases, and healthcare workers.
***A Quick Comment About Vaccines - There are many in the population that are against all vaccines. I would agree that when possible it is better to have a natural immunity to many of the diseases rather than relying on a vaccine that may not fully protect or may lose immunity over time. However, in a situation where the disease can lead to death in about 1% of the population, a safe and effective vaccine would certainly be helpful.
In the case of COVID-19, I don't think we can depend on herd immunity to stem the tide of the pandemic. Too many people would get sick too quickly, which would overwhelm our healthcare system, leading to more deaths than would occur if we can "flatten the curve" and spread out the infections over a longer period of time.
Supplements That Decrease Inflammation and Improve Immunity
This is by no means a complete list. There are numerous other supplements that can help, but these are the main ones I recommend. I would also recommend talking to your healthcare provider before starting any new supplements to ensure that they are safe for you and your particular situation.
1. Zinc - Zinc may prevent the coronavirus from entering the cells and reduces coronavirus virulence. (10) Typical doses are 15-30mg daily.
2. Vitamin C - Vitamin C inhibits inflammasome activation. It shortens the frequency, duration, and severity of the common cold and the indicidence of secondary pneumonia. (11)
Typical doses range from 500mg up to 3000mg daily.
There are several studies showing the efficacy of using high dose IV vitamin C in cases of sepsis. (12)
3. Melatonin -
Melatonin inhibits inflammasome activation. It also reduces oxidative lung injury and inflammatory cell recruitment during viral infections. (13)
Typical doses are 1-5mg taken about 1 hour before bedtime.
4. Vitamin D -
Vitamin D decreases inflammasone activation and cytokine secretion. (14) It may be helpful to prevent infection, but some studies show that it may increase inflammatory cytokines. (15) Therefore, some experts suggest that it may be best to stop it after an infection develops.
5. Elderberry -
Elderberry appears to be most effective in preventing a coronavirus infection. However, studies show it may also increase inflammatory cytokines. (16) It is therefore recommended by some experts to stop it once an infection develops.
Typical dosages are 1 tablespoon 3-4 times daily of elderberry syrup or 175mg lozenges twice daily.
6. Fish Oil -
Fish oil boosters our immunity by providing good fats to our system. (17) 1000 to 2000mg daily of a good quality brand works well for most people.
Let me end with a personal message.
There is a fine line between being prepared and living in fear.
Make the preparation you need to make and then RELAX!
Hoarding doesn't help, fretting doesn't help.
This is a good time to remind us all what the Scriptures say about times like this:
Matthew 6:27 - Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Philippians 4:6 - Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Isaiah 41:10 - So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God; I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Proverbs 12:25 - Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up. Take this time of no sports, decreased work or school, and less responsibility to refocus your priorities and your life.
A wise doctor told me when I was in medical training: "I have yet to meet anyone who on their deathbed stated they wished they would have worked more."
Spend time with your immediate family. Call some friends you haven't spoken to in a long time. Start a hobby. Enjoy nature. Read a book. Start an exercise program. Quit bad habits. See this as an opportunity , not a trial.
Help the elderly and people in need in your community - meals, grocery shopping, yard care, etc. You can do this either through your church, other local organizations, or on your own. This is a vulnerable time for them. It is our duty to take care of them.
We will get through this together, even if we have to live apart temporarily.
If you need more help, please contact us at the Center for Functional Medicine.
Now it's your turn...
Do you have any concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Are there any other natural therapies you would recommend?
Do you have any experience with any of the things I have suggested?
Leave your question and comments below...
About the Author Dr. Jeff Whelchel
Dr. Whelchel is a family physician who specializes in functional medicine, especially hormone optimization. He has over 20 years experience in private practice managing patients with various medical issues. His passion is helping patients reach their full potential of wellness and quality of life. He grew up in the Texas Panhandle where he currently lives. He is married and has 3 awesome children.