More than 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Now that we’re facing COVID, optimal nutrition is more important than ever.
Which nutrients support the immune system?
Micronutrients are dietary components that may contribute substantially to a robust immune system.1 Essential micronutrients like vitamins A, D, E, C, B6, B12, and folate and trace elements such as iron, zinc, and selenium, available in a variety of fresh animal- and plant-based foods, aid the body’s ability to fight infections.2 Health and survival are increasingly dependent on the functioning of the immune system.
Optimal nutrition impacts the immune system through gene expression, cell activation, and signaling molecules modification. In addition, what we eat determines our gut microbiome and subsequently shapes the immune responses in our body.3
What is optimal nutrition when in comes to preventing COVID?
Certain factors such as lifestyle, age, health status, sex, and medications affect the nutritional status of an individual.4 Several studies have confirmed that micronutrient deficiencies are associated with a weakened immune system that predisposes individuals to increased vulnerability to infections.24,25
Recently, Calder et al6 reviewed the association between optimal nutrition and the immune system in providing better protection against viral infections. They suggested that essential micronutrients and the omega-3 fatty acids have the capacity to boost immunity against viral infections. Similarly, Chaturvedi et al46 described the complex relationship between trace elements and viral infections, highlighting the immunomodulatory properties and antiviral activities of certain micronutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium, and copper. Apart from functioning as antioxidants, these trace elements were shown to inhibit viral replication in host cells.
The role of optimal nutrition for managing the current COVID-19 pandemic cannot be underestimated. Nutrition has a demonstrable role in the prevention and treatment of moderate to severe respiratory and non-respiratory infections. Adequate nutrition is even more essential for marginalized communities and in low- and middle-income countries, where deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals expose individuals to greater morbidity and mortality.
Each meal brings thousands of different substances into the body, affecting thousands of different biological processes, all the way to the cellular and subcellular level. Scientists are only beginning to grasp this enormous universe of food and nutrition effects on the body. Among these substances are nutrients, both macronutrients and micronutrients for which reference daily intakes have been defined, as well as upper levels for safe intake for many.16 17 However, a plethora of other bioactive substances found in foods, such as polyphenols and carotenioids, that seem to be important for health and wellness, are also brought along. The importance of these are bluntly reflected in food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs), represented as recommendations for a variety and diversity of:
- whole vegetables, fruits
- grains and pulses
- along with some meats, eggs, dairy products and fish, if selected, as discussed in the paper by Calder.4
This type of healthy diet is a tactical approach to build a healthy body and a strong immune system, as emphasised by the WHO and other organisations during the pandemic,18 especially when eaten at the expense of more ultra-processed food items.19
However, with advancing age and for high-risk groups, a nutrient-rich diet is not always enough to meet needs for micronutrients.4 14 While high intakes should be avoided, there may be a a role for immune-targeted supplements that might be necessary to achieve the intake of nutrients needed for an optimally functioning immune system.4
Furthermore, there is one thing to enhance the public health nutritional status, through preventive actions, while the clinical situation of an active disease is another situation altogether.
Overall, older people are harder hit, and while fighting an infection, the nutrient needs of patients might be increased.14 This might warrant special nutrition therapy, potentially with higher doses of supplements and functional foods,11 as quality care also involves quality nutritional care.
Tailored nutritional advice and prescription for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 is complex. The best way to navigate this is via professional advice from nutrition-trained professionals. Thankfully, we have 3 of them at Freedom Chinese Medicine; Dr. Jessie Fayers, Dr. Leoni Zakarias & Dr. Laura Thiveos. Telehealth consultations to discuss your nutritional status and get advice or prescriptions are inexpensive and easy to book via: www.freedomchinesemedicine.com/booking
Written by Dr. Elaine Hickman
B.H.Sc.TCM (Acupuncture), Cert.Cl.Ac. (Beijing)
Elaine runs a private practice in Ivanhoe and is the trusted family physician of many. Elaine is a registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). She completed a Bachelor of Health Science – TCM, majoring in Acupuncture, and a hospital internship in China in 1998. Elaine is the Principal Practitioner at Freedom Chinese Medicine, managing a dedicated team of practitioners & staff, and supervises many TCM students in clinical training. Elaine’s passion for Chinese Medicine has her regularly furthering her education, Qi Gong training and sharing knowledge.
- Annual Research Review: Improved nutrition–pathway to resilience. Yousafzai AK, Rasheed MA, Bhutta ZA