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Does Nutrition Affect My Immune System?

 Authored by Bob Wright, M.A.T. – Director of Education at Hilton Head Health

As I read more about the coronavirus and what we can do to reduce our risk of contracting it, it didn’t take long top] figure out there is a lot of B.S out there.  When people are frightened or feel vulnerable as many of us do now, there are always bottom-feeding scum suckers who will try to take advantage. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as of 4/27/2020 issued thirty-seven warning letters to companies selling unapproved products or making false and misleading claims. No doubt that is just a drop in the bucket as the hundreds, if not thousands, of companies are trying to cash in. 

Beware of Nutrition and Immunity Pseudoscience

One of the first to get a letter was the Jim Baker Show, yes that Jim Baker, for making claims suggesting that his product, Sliver Sol Liquid, could kill, eliminate and deactivate viruses like the COVID-19.   These and other fraudulent products not only give false hope and are a waste of hard-earned money, but they may lead their users to be less concerned about following practices that can actually slow and stop the spread of this deadly virus. In a joint statement, the FDA and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) emphasized that “there are currently no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure Coronavirus disease.” This is probably a good time to rely on the old aged saying, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.   

What Should I Eat to Help With My Immunity?

There is misinformation all over the internet and social media sites so it’s important to be sure that you use credible resources as you learn about the Coronavirus and specifically how nutrition can influence it.  The first place I checked is my favorite go-to website, The Nutrition Source, from the Harvard School of Public Health. One thing that they and other health professionals agree upon is that social distancing and regular hand washing are the most effective and proven methods to reduce the risk and spread of the Coronavirus. And that nutrition, even good nutrition, is not a substitute.  They also agree that what we eat can have a powerful impact on the body’s ability to resist and fight infection.  It starts with doing what most of us know we should; having a diet emphasizing minimally processed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, moderate consumption of fish, dairy and poultry and limited amounts of processed and red meats, refined carbohydrates and sugar, complemented with healthy oils such as olive, canola, and soybean.  

This style of eating reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, which is more important than ever because it is those diseases that make those who do get the Coronavirus more vulnerable to its consequence.    

A diet based on these foods not only lower the risk and consequences of chronic diseases but provides the right blend of carbohydrate, protein, and fat to provide the energy that the immune system requires. It also supplies the vitamins and minerals necessary to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of immune cells and antibodies needed to fight infections. Such a diet also supports a healthy gut microbiome which plays a very important role in strengthening our immune system and reduces chronic systemic inflammation which can weaken an already challenged immune system. 

How Long Until I See The Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet?

But how long does it take for a diet to make a difference? According to Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive medicine and public health, not long. In a recent webinar, hosted by Katz, entitled Diet and Immunity: Fact and Fiction. It was stated that changes in your vascular function and its ability to deliver crucial nutrients to cells and bone marrow where infection-fighting white blood cells are produced, can occur in days. Allowing the immune system to more effectively fend off pathogens and more likely to lead to recovery if infected. 

Hilton Head Health’s on-site restaurant True Dining offers a Vegan plant-based menu for guests in addition to the healthy Mediterranean-style menu.

Vegan plant-based burrito

What Types of Vitamins Are Good for Immunity?

There are no specific vitamins or minerals that have been proven to prevent or treat the coronavirus. But according to the Harvard School of Public Health, there are some that are especially important to the immune system in general.  

Zinc for Immune Response

Zinc: Inadequate zinc levels limit the ability to mount an immune response to infections. Good sources include beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, oysters, lean red meat, and yogurt. 

Vitamin C For White Blood Cells

Vitamin C: Plays a vital role in overall immune health and in particular to the proper functioning of the infection-fighting white blood cells. Good sources include: citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, cauliflower, tomatoes,  and dark green vegetables 

Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D: Boosts immunity by promoting optimal white blood cell functioning. Good food sources include fatty fish, eggs, fortified milk, and fortified plant-based kinds of milk (soy almond), fortified juices, tofu, and mushrooms. Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency is common especially for those living in the northern states. The good news is that now that it is getting warmer, it is easier to get sunlight, and it doesn’t take much to make a difference. Exposing yourself to 15 minutes of sunlight in the middle of the day 3-4 days a week is all it takes, and it might lift your spirits as well. If you feel that you might be deficient in Vitamin D, taking a supplement of up to 2000 IU daily is generally recommended. 

Consumer Labs,  a newsletter that evaluates dietary supplements, has a comprehensive review of dietary supplements and their potential impact on the coronavirus available for free on their website.

With the exception of vitamin D, the other nutrients mentioned are relatively easy to get the recommended amounts by following the guidelines mentioned earlier, and that is depicted on this chart shown in the webinar hosted by Dr. Katz referenced earlier as well. Having said that, many people do not meet all of their nutrient needs by diet alone, and that may be more challenging now than ever. For those who feel they may deficient, taking age and gender appropriate multivitamin such as Centrum or its generic equivalent would be worth considering. While getting the appropriate amounts of vitamins and minerals are essential, mega-dosing provides no additional benefit and may have negative side effects.  

As I mentioned earlier, it can be difficult getting accurate information about the coronavirus and especially about how nutrition may impact it.  The True Health Initiative, a “global coalition of world-renowned experts, fighting fake facts and combating false doubts to create a world free of preventable diseases using time-honored, evidence-based fundamental of lifestyle and medicine”, is another excellent resource on how nutrition and other lifestyle factors can influence the coronavirus.

Bob Wright
Director of Education at Hilton Head Health

Click here for more information about the wellness and weight loss programs at Hilton Head Health, recently named the #1 Wellness Resort the Country by USA Today