What We Know So Far (And How To Protect Ourselves)
Origins + Purpose of Discussion
The first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was confirmed in January 2020.
By mid-March 2020, the number of increasing cases led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the novel coronavirus to be a global pandemic.
At the time of this writing, 226,000 Americans have died. Around 1.16 million people have died world-wide.
Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to take pro-active steps to protect your own health and defend against the virus. Not only for yourself, but to reduce the burden on our healthcare system as it strains under the demands of COVID-19 patient treatment.
First, we will discuss what we know about COVID-19. Then we will outline simple but smart steps to defend your health and the health of your loved ones.
This is a novel coronavirus — a new one that has not been previously identified. COVID-19 is not the same as coronaviruses that cause mild illness such as the common cold.
Additionally, while COVID-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 appears to spread more easily and cause more serious illness in some people. And currently, there is a vaccine to protect against flu, but no vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
Anyone at any age can get COVID-19.
Older adults are more vulnerable, and the risk escalates in concert with increasing age, especially for those over 50. The biggest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those 85 and older.
People who have underlying health conditions are also at increased risk. Some conditions known to raise the risk include:
• Type 2 diabetes
• Cardiovascular disease
• COPD (lung disease)
• Immunocompromised, such as organ transplant recipients
The CDC also notes that additional conditions may increase risk, including pregnancy, high blood pressure, dementia, liver disease, and others.
Race and ethnicity are also risk factors. For example, African Americans are 2.1 times more likely to die compared to white, non-Hispanic individuals. American Indian or Alaska natives are 5.3 times more likely to be hospitalized than white, non-Hispanic people.
People with COVID-19 report a wide range of symptoms — or no symptoms at all. Symptoms typically appear 2-14 days following exposure to the virus. The most common symptoms include:
• Fever or chills
• Shortness of breath
• Cough, congestion, or sore throat
• Fatigue, headaches, or body aches
• Loss of smell or taste
• Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Emergency warning signs include trouble breathing, chest pressure, confusion, and the inability to wake or stay awake.
Far fewer children than adults develop symptomatic COVID-19 infections. However, children (especially those with underlying medical conditions) are at risk for severe illness linked to COVID-19 called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C). In this condition, different organs can become inflamed, including the heart, brain, lungs, skin, or other body parts. As MIS-C can be deadly, it is important to seek medical care if symptoms worsen.
Health experts estimate that COVID-19 will infect from 40 to 70% of Americans. About 80% will have mild or no symptoms; 20% will require hospitalization, and 5% will need intensive care.
The key factors that increase community spread and risk to individuals include:
• Close physical contact
• Crowded situations
• Enclosed spaces
• Duration of exposure
There is no evidence that the virus can be spread by eating or handling food or drinking water that has been treated.
Not everyone needs to be tested, but if you have symptoms or have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive, you should get tested and be alert for symptoms. The CDC warns people to stay home for 14 days after last contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Consult with your doctor or health department for the most up-to-date information.
Prevention + Treatment
At this point in time, there are several actions that have been identified which can reduce the risk of getting COVID-19:
Social distancing with a goal of about 6 feet. Don’t shake hands. Based on your personal risk factors, you may consider working from home and avoid unnecessary trips or errands. If you visit with friends, try to do it outdoors. If you are thinking about participating in an event or gathering, realize that risk increases at events where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced out.
Wearing a mask - When around others, masks should be worn over the nose and mouth by anyone over age 2. Masks may slow the spread of the virus and help those who have the virus from spreading it to others.
Hand hygiene - Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 to 30 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your face as much as possible.
Cleaning and disinfection - Surfaces touched often by multiple people should be regularly cleaned and disinfected with soap and water or a household disinfectant.
At this time, there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19. However, many vaccines are being developed and testing, hopefully with roll-out in 2021. The CDC reports that at first, vaccines may not be recommended for children.
Treatment of COVID-19 has been limited to date, with mostly supportive care given.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine drugs used for malaria and lupus have been used for COVID-19 treatment. However, the FDA has warned that these drugs should not be used outside a hospital setting or clinical trial due to the risk of heart rhythm problems. Sometimes, these drugs have been combined with the antibiotic Zithromax, but there is limited evidence of efficacy.
Remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed in response to the Ebola crisis, shows some promise in shortening recovery time of hospitalized COVID patients.
Dexamethasone, a steroid drug, is used for hospitalized patients, particularly when they need oxygen or are on a ventilator. However, these drugs are not usually recommended for milder cases, as steroids can interfere with immune function.
Convalescent plasma therapy, in which antibodies are extracted from the blood of a recovered patient and given to someone ill with COVID-19, is also being used with hospitalized patients. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is not yet known if this treatment is effective.
Cytokine blocking drugs are also being tested. Cytokines are inflammatory molecules that spin out of control with serious COVID-19 cases. Interferon is another drug that may be promising, but needs more data. Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail is also being tested in late-stage clinical trials for its effects on decreasing levels of the virus.
Some doctors have used high dose vitamin C intravenously for hospitalized patients. Again, this treatment requires more testing to determine how effective it is.
Because options are limited, the best way to protect yourself at this time is to use natural dietary and lifestyle management strategies.
Eating to Boost Immune System Function
In ancient times, Hippocrates reportedly said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Particularly in the era of COVID, for which there is no cure, these are good words to live by.
During this time when people have been house-bound more than usual — and restaurants have been closed or offering only limited service — many folks have re-discovered the joys of home-cooked meals.
Preparing healthy foods at home is a great activity to that helps bring families together during a stressful time — and supports immune health naturally. Research has shown that home-cooked meals can be much healthier than take-out or restaurant foods.
If you do eat out, avoid junk food, fried foods, sodas, and other unhealthy menu items. Studies indicate that even one junk food meal can lead to an increase in body inflammation, sending the immune system into overdrive.
At home, concentrate on eating real, whole foods. Avoid processed foods, with their immunity-suppressing additives, sugar, and high glycemic carbs or starches. If you are craving sugar, try a piece of watermelon or eat some berries instead.
As a society, we eat far too much sugar. In addition to causing weight gain and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, sugar consumption has also been linked to immune cell “sluggishness” and disruption of friendly gut bacteria.
Here are a few more healthy eating tips:
Focus on foods with high antioxidant content - Antioxidants fight cell-damaging free radicals, which are unstable molecules or atoms. Overproduction of free radicals increases the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals which then lead to abnormal immune responses.
Polyphenols, flavonoids, and catechins are just a few types of antioxidants. As different antioxidants have different functions, it’s good to consume a range of them. For instance, flavonoid antioxidants have demonstrated anti-viral properties.
Generally speaking, colorful fruits and vegetables are high in various antioxidants. Load up on leafy greens including kale and spinach, red cabbage, beets, grapes, and berries such as blueberries and strawberries.
Add plentiful amounts of spices and herbs to your meals - Many of them also have immune-boosting and anti-viral properties. For example, the spice turmeric (used in curry) contains curcumin. Curcumin enhances immune function and fosters the growth of friendly bacteria.
Other healthful antioxidant spices include cinnamon, oregano, and basil. Ginger demonstrates anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Garlic contains bioactive components with immune benefits and anti-viral effects.
Make sure to consume sufficient protein - The elderly often fail to eat enough protein. Protein is necessary to fight bacterial and viral infections. Insufficient protein in the diet can result in poor immunity.
Eat to make your gut happy. Approximately 60-70% of your immune system is in your gut. This makes it vital to consider gut health. Probiotics support healthy immune function by introducing beneficial bacteria into the microbiome or community of gut microbes. Probiotic bacteria help increase antibody production, stimulate immune cell function, and promote a healthy inflammatory response.
Many people eat yogurt, but most commercial yogurts are loaded with sugar. Plain (unsweetened) Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, natto, tempeh, and kimchi are better sources for friendly bacteria.
It’s also important to eat prebiotic foods, as they provide a nutrition source for friendly gut bacteria. Try eating prebiotics such as Jerusalem artichokes, jicama root, garlic, onions, and asparagus.
Avoid or minimize alcohol consumption - Research has confirmed a link between poor immune health and excessive alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol puts you at higher risk for many health issues, including pneumonia and other respiratory disease as well as poor wound healing and slow recovery from infection.
Drink green tea - Green tea contains anti-inflammatory compounds called catechins, which help protect against inflammation, excess free radical production, and even autoimmune damage.
Lifestyle Tips to Boost Immune Function
In addition to eating a healthy diet, you can also help your immune system defend against COVID by following a few simple lifestyle strategies:
Get enough sleep - High quality sleep enhances immune response and reduces the risk of infection. Most sleep experts recommend 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep each night for all adults. Persistent sleep loss can dampen immune response and increase inflammation.
Maintain healthy stress levels and emotional coping strategies - Short-term stress may be good for immune health, but sustained stress is not. Research shows that older adults or those with health challenges are particularly at increased risk for stress-related immune dysfunction.
This makes it important to nurture social relationships and use stress-reducing techniques such as yoga or meditation. You can even find yoga classes online.
Studies also show that immune function is negatively affected by mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Mood disorders may require the help of a professional therapist or counselor. Many options are available now for “virtual” sessions that do not require meeting in person.
Stay active - Moderate exercise improves immune cell health and antibody production. It also helps keep stress hormone levels low and even helps flush pathogens from the respiratory tract. You can safely exercise and enjoy the outdoors as long as you use appropriate social distancing.
Maintain optimal weight - Research shows that even modest weight reduction can undo damage done to the immune cells of obese individuals, especially when they also suffer from diabetes. Healthy weight is vital to normal immune function.
Avoid smoking - Tobacco smoking can reduce immune system function, so seek professional help to quit if your efforts have not worked. Cigarette smokers also demonstrate higher rates of viral respiratory infections.
Avoid toxic cleaners and personal care products - Research continues to demonstrate the health dangers of the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to daily. Many of these chemicals, which are found in household cleaners, laundry detergents, deodorants, cosmetics, and others have been linked to immune dysfunction. Many products, especially cleaning products, can be made at home using safe ingredients such as baking soda and vinegar.
Maintain good oral health - Gum disease and tooth decay arise from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens in the mouth. Failing to brush and floss regularly allows bacteria to multiply in the mouth and gums, leading to inflammation. This can set off an abnormal immune response if not kept in check by proper brushing, flossing, and regular dental exams and cleanings. You can check with your dental office to see what precautions they are taking for safe visits during COVID.
Taking Vitamins and Supplements
Many immunity-boosting and inflammation-lowering nutrients are also antioxidants. Middle-aged and older individuals often don’t consume sufficient antioxidants or other immune-supporting nutrients. This makes it important to supplement in order to promote immune health. Some suggested nutrients are:
Multivitamins - While not a substitution for healthy eating, a daily multivitamin, according to Harvard, is a good nutritional “insurance policy.” Multivitamins typically provide a boost of antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin A, C, E, and D as well as other minerals important to immune health, such as zinc and selenium.
Other immune boosting nutrients include:
Probiotics - As you’ve seen, probiotics contain immune-friendly bacterial cultures such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. They can be taken in supplement form as well as food.
Omega-3 oils - These play a vital role in immune system function. Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and Atlantic mackerel provide a rich source of omega-3s. However, fish are often tainted with toxins such as mercury, so many health experts recommend supplementing with high-quality fish or marine oil.
Curcumin - While you can get curcumin in the spice turmeric, therapeutic levels are better obtained by supplementation. Curcumin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and antibacterial properties.
Beta glucans - These compounds are found in mushrooms and yeasts, can boost immune cell response. You can use beta glucan supplements and/or add more mushrooms to your diet, including maitake and shiitake.
Elderberry - This nutrient is packed with antioxidants and other nutrients that help boost immune function and may help prevent and lessen cold and flu symptoms.
Ashwagandha - This Ayurvedic herb has been shown to lower stress and cortisone levels. It supports healthy immune function and antibody production.
Echinacea - This herb has been shown to enhance immune function, decrease inflammation, and act as an antiviral and antioxidant.
Resveratrol - This polyphenol type of antioxidant is found in grapes, red wine, and certain berries. Studies have shown that resveratrol fights free radicals and supports a healthy inflammatory response.
Now, you have acquired the basic facts about the novel coronavirus. In addition, you’ve discovered simple ways to boost your immune system and protect yourself and your loved ones from this world-wide pandemic. Following these strategies as we wait for a safe, effective vaccine represents your best path to prevention and recovery.
Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Any changes should be done in consultation with your doctor or health care provider.
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