There is absolutely no doubt that proper and diligent hand hygiene, and social distancing are key to dealing with reducing risk for virus infections. Yet there is more we can do to help. With viral infections many of us have the ability to fight off the more complicated symptoms. Nevertheless, there are those people of the population that are at an elevated risk for more severe complications, particularly pneumonia.
For this reason, vaccines are critical to help hopefully mitigate these risks. Unfortunately for newer viral super bugs, vaccines are still in the very preliminary stages of research, while we cross our fingers and hope for a vaccine, many of us live with anxiety hoping for the best as the months pass. Other options are indeed warranted to help the bodies coping mechanisms with handling newer type viral bugs that are surfacing. Optimal nutrition may potentially offer some hope.
Health authorities agree that overcoming the virus super bugs often relies on a persons immune system and state of wellness, in addition to common medical treatments used to treat symptoms. Common sense would thus dictate to help optimize our bodies immune functions.
As a nutritional practitioner and doctor of natural medicine, and nutritional scientist, I have reviewed numerous epidemiological, clinical trials, and double blinded studies that clearly show that many nutrients have the ability to support our immune system. If there are no vaccines for select viruses, then would it not make perfect sense to take advantage of eating better for better immunity support? Common sense dictates, yes, absolutely. We need all the help we can get, especially the elderly and those at greater risk.
Let's look at some of the evidence. Population studies have found that sub-optimal levels of vitamin D status, and vitamin C status may be associated with a larger prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections, with greater risks for severe complications of pneumonia. This is important to be aware of since many people may be at a sub-optimal level of vitamin D, and simply eating more foods rich in vitamin D or taking a sensible dose of supplemental vitamin D may support better immunity. The daily recommended levels for vitamin D range from 400-800 IU, the equivalent of drinking 4 daily servings of fortified dairy milk, or dairy milk alternates. Other vitamin D sources include cold water fish, eggs, sardines, and vitamin D fortified orange juice.
Further, some studies have shown that a greater intake of vitamin C may offer some protective effects and reduce the onset of pneumonia. A recent review study published in Nutrients 2017, titled Vitamin C and Infections showed some interesting food for thought. The article stated that earlier studies have shown that vitamin C deficiency was associated with pneumonia. Two controlled trials showed statistically significant dose response for the duration of cold symptoms while three controlled trials found that vitamin C prevented pneumonia, and two other trials showed benefits for patients with pneumonia. The author concluded that the variances with other studies showing lack of response may be due to varied doses of vitamin C used.
Similarly, author Marrie TJ, of a review study published in the Current Opinion of Pulmonary Medicine stated that the adjunctive therapy with nutritional supplements and vitamin C may improve outcome for elderly patients suffering with community acquired pneumonia. Select studies on vitamin C and the common cold have also shown that greater vitamin C intake may afford a substantial reduction in the risk for pneumonia in those that may be at a suboptimal level of this nutrient, while reducing overall cold duration and severity at significant levels.
To that end, there are currently studies in the preliminary stages looking at the potentials for therapeutic doses of vitamin C for treating severe viral infections. These studies are based on the philosophies of Dr. Linus Pauling, who advocated high dose vitamin C for treating viruses, and other forms of chronic disease. The theory is that during acute stages of viral infections there is an overwhelming amount of oxidative stress in the body, especially at the cellular level of the lungs. These free radicals are too much for the bodies internal antioxidant systems to manage.
Providing the body with extra antioxidant support from vitamin C may help limit the oxidative damage to the lungs and other organs while reducing viral replication, and fortifying the immune systems ability to fight off the virus. The current studies are looking at a more integrative model of treating viral infections whereby the best of modern medicine, is integrated with that of nutritional medicine for a potential synergistic effect. The researchers are hoping that this integrative approach may help. However, we still don't know the full evidence of how this may work, or if there are indeed therapeutic effects.
Although we still don't have all the evidence to say conclusively the role vitamin C may play at a therapeutic level, we can still exercise common sense. What this says to me is that eating a diet rich in vitamin C makes reasonable sense, especially during the times of season when viruses are in the air. Oranges, kiwis, mandarines, bell peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries are some examples of foods rich in this water soluble antioxidant. Including a variety of these foods in your daily diet may be a sensible choice. I like food sources of antioxidants like vitamin C for the simple reason that they also offer many other antioxidants such as bioflavonoids, which may even work better for wellness.
Other nutrients showing potential benefits for severe complications include that of CoEnzyme Q10. This phytochemical is found in many foods at low amounts, it is a type of co-factor that works at the cellular level to produce the energy element ATP, which is the master fuel to our cells energy. This nutrient also acts as a strong antioxidant, showing benefits in many well designed studies for helping with Congestive heart failure, reducing blood pressure, and reducing migraine headache severity. There has been some preliminary work showing that this antioxidant may even help with pneumonia outcome, and more research with larger study populations are warranted to confirm its benefits.
So the take home message for most of us is to eat a well balanced diet, including all important food groups for wellness, emphasizing more foods rich in vitamin C, including plenty of vegetables and fruits, while meeting your daily requirements for vitamin D. This is a sensible way to use nutrition to support your immunity. If you are interested in exploring the use of any supplements, be sure to consult with your natural health care professional, registered dietitian or nutritionally oriented pharmacist. This will help ensure you are taking quality supplements at the correct dose for safety and to prevent potentials for drug interactions or adverse events.