2020 was the year so much changed for us all. The year began with rumours circulating of a ‘deadly’ virus in China. Within weeks, however, this virus was spreading like wildfire across the globe. It wasn’t long before fear gripped nations; lockdowns, masks and self-isolating became the ‘new norm,’ and phrases like ‘the deadly virus’ and ‘the daily death toll’ dominated the news. Fast forward to 2021 and almost everyone has a new perspective on life. A year of lockdowns forced us to step off the conveyor belt of life, affording us an opportunity to pause and to reflect. Hindsight is always an exact science and lessons are hopefully learned. As we slowly emerge from lockdowns, now is the time to put things into perspective, to start feeling more positive and to realise there is a lot we can do to improve our own health moving forward. No matter what variants, mutations and further pandemics may lie ahead, we are empowered by the realisation that we are greater than the conditions in our environment. After all, we have been around a very long time.
Putting things into perspective
Once we understand how powerful our immune systems are, we move away from fear (which in itself erodes our health), towards the more positive emotional states of love, inspiration, gratitude and thankfulness. We realise the extent to which we have control over our health. If we expect our immune systems to fight for and protect us in times like these, it is only fair that we give them the tools and ammunition needed to do so. Focusing on solutions rather than on problems enables us to start seeing possibilities we’ve never seen before. We are not victims of our environment, rather we live symbiotically with it, capable of overcoming viruses, bacteria, cancer and other insults and injuries encountered on a moment-to-moment basis. With so much more evidence-based data available today, what do we now know which helps dispel the fear of one year ago?
- Despite referring to the virus as ‘the deadly virus,’ more than 99% of the population worldwide who has tested positive, has survived.
- Symptoms range from asymptomatic to severe, with the health of the host playing a crucial role in the severity of the illness. Accumulated data puts those with pre-existing, underlying health conditions such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardio-metabolic dysregulation, hypertension and hyperlipidaemia, and other inflammatory conditions, at a higher risk.
- There is a greater understanding of the different phases of COVID-19 requiring their own focus. They are:
- Prevention: This involves diet and lifestyle strategies that promote health and support the immune system, focusing on reducing baseline inflammation for those with chronic, inflammatory health disorders.
- Early infection: During this stage it is important to support the immune system with good nutrition, supplements, stress reduction techniques and a good night’s rest.
- Escalating inflammation: A pattern has been emerging, distinguishing those who recover quite quickly and easily, from those who become sicker and are often hospitalised. Progressing to more severe symptoms is often due to the inflammatory response of the immune system. This is known as the inflammatory cytokine storm, causing tissue damage. At this stage it is crucial to focus on anti-inflammatory measures. It is also advisable to ask for a blood test to check ferritin, CRP, ESR, platelet count and D-dimer levels, as markers of inflammation and blood clotting. This is important as there is mounting evidence that COVID-19 causes abnormalities in blood clotting as well as causing severe respiratory problems.
- Recovery: It is now becoming apparent that for many, once the acute phase of the virus is over, they are left with a range of symptoms that can last weeks or months, such as extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, brain fog, difficulty sleeping, dizziness, joint pain, heart palpitations, gut issues, depression, anxiety etc. This is more commonly being referred to as ‘long COVID.’ It is for this reason that, without focusing on any residual inflammation, tissue damage, losses of function or oxidative stress as a result of the acute illness, these unresolved issues can lead to continuing, debilitating health conditions and a diagnosis of ‘long COVID.’
Supporting your immune system and strengthening overall health
Food and nutrition
The power of food and nutrition to heal dates back thousands of years. As Hippocrates so famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Food can heal and food can harm. It is as important to include certain foods in your diet as it is to exclude certain others. Eating more plant-based foods can help reduce the risk of many different chronic diseases by bolstering antioxidant reserves and lowering inflammation. They are high in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients and provide dietary fibre, all of which help the function of the immune system.
Tip 1, eat as many fruits and vegetables a day as you can
Aim for 10 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. By eating the colours of the rainbow, you are getting a wide variety of different micronutrients, with each colour containing unique health components. We also know that dietary diversity and plant-based foods increase fibre intake and correlate with immune resilience.
This sounds harder than it is. If, for example, you start the day with a bowl of fruit such as a few strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and papaya, followed by a quinoa salad for lunch with butternut, beetroot, red onion, coriander, and avocado, and end the day with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peas etc. added to your evening meal, you have already had 13 different varieties and all of the different colours.
Tip 2 build a healthy microflora
Increase fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, tempeh, natto, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso and probiotic yoghurt which are good natural sources of probiotics. Including prebiotic foods which nourish the ‘good’ gut bacteria (such as leeks, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, chicory root, asparagus, bananas, oats, apples, and cocoa), will help foster a good, healthy, gastrointestinal lining and activity which in turn supports immune health, moving into a healthy microflora.
Tip 3 cut down on inflammation inducing foods
Reduce or avoid foods that will increase inflammation or reduce the function of the immune system, such as added sugars, trans fats found in foods such as pastries, pies, crackers, vegetable and seed oils, simple carbohydrates found in foods such as white rice, pasta, white bread and white flour, and alcohol and processed meats.
Sleep is a time for healing, repairing, detoxifying, and rejuvenating. Getting both good quality and quantity of sleep helps reduce inflammation and improve immune function. Even one night of reduced sleep can lead to changes in immune function.
It is not about prolonged, strenuous exercise but rather about engaging in moderate, regular physical exercise that you enjoy, so it becomes consistent and easier for you to continue. Exercise has many health benefits but getting the balance is important so as not to stress the immune system and cause inflammation.
Stress impacts health and interferes with the body’s ability to heal. Chronic, ongoing stress over time compromises the immune system making it less robust and less able to respond. At times like these, stress puts one at increased risk of viral infections, so it is more important than ever, during a pandemic, to focus on stress management techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or, for example, the relaxation response developed by Dr Herbert Benson.
The Functional Medicine approach to COVID-19
This article sets out certain specific nutraceuticals and botanical agents that modulate the immune system, impair viral replication and/or reduce the severity of the illness, explaining their mechanisms of action. The protocol, as set out in this article includes:
- Vitamin D3: 3000-5000 IUs daily. Studies have shown that many severely ill COVID patients have had low vitamin D levels.
- Zinc picolinate: 20 -30 mgs daily in divided doses, increased to 60 mgs if infected. Zinc has been shown to suppress viral attachment and replication.
- Quercetin: 500 mgs 2x daily, increased to 1000 mg 2x daily if infected. Quercetin is a zinc ionophore, facilitating the transport of zinc across lipid membranes, into cells where it interferes with viral replication.
- Vitamin C: 1000-3000 mgs daily (taken in increments of 1000 mgs and increased to bowel tolerance level if infected). Vitamin C acts both to support the immune system and as an anti-viral. It is also important in times of stress as the adrenals need vitamin C to function properly.
- Curcumin: 500-1000 mgs per day. Curcumin Is a well-known anti-inflammatory.
- EGCG: 4 cups of green tea daily or 220 mgs per day. This green tea extract potentially reduces viral replication and has been shown to prevent influenza.
- NAC: 600 mgs a day could also function as a preventative measure. It is an important supplement for the COVID ‘long haulers.’
- Potassium: 99 mgs a day if infected. Studies have shown COVID-positive patients have had low levels of serum potassium. Since potassium deficiency is extremely common, supplementing with potassium with active COVID infection is an important consideration.
- Magnesium: 400 mgs a day as most of us are deficient and it plays a vital role in immune health.
There is so much more you can be doing to protect yourselves. Since February of 2020 I have never been without HOCL (hypochlorous acid). The benefit of HOCL is that it has been shown to inactivate a variety of viruses, including coronaviruses, in less than a minute. More importantly it does not kill the ‘good’ microbiome responsible for numerous physiological processes of the human body. Drinking Cistus incanus tea likewise has antiviral properties. In fact, scientists have discovered that extracts of the medicinal plant inhibit docking of viral proteins to cells.
Disclaimer: Supplements should not be taken without the advice of a healthcare practitioner to ascertain your personal requirements and possible interactions with other medications. In addition, none of the advice in this article is intended to supersede the medical advice of your doctor. This article is intended to advise you on how to protect yourself as best as possible, while understanding that there is much you can do to support your own immune system by implementing healthier diet and lifestyle measures.
The light at the end of the tunnel
To date there is still no universally recognised treatment for COVID-19. Although vaccines are rolling out world-wide, they do not protect you from getting the virus but rather lessen the severity of the illness. In addition, it is not clear the extent to which current vaccines will protect against future variants. The good news, however, is that there is a much better understanding of the mechanism of action of the virus together with more evidence-based protocols, such as the diet, lifestyle and supplement suggestions outlined above. Knowledge is empowering and remembering the innate power the body has to heal, will help you shift from fear and negativity to hope and positivity.
For those who have had the virus and are now struggling with ‘long COVID’ look out for my next article which will give more specific advice on steps you can take to help you recover. There is nothing unique about this virus resulting in more long-term symptoms. It was in fact the top virologist, Dr J.E. Williams, OMD, who, decades ago, realised the link between an acute viral infection and chronic long-term symptoms. As with any army that has fought in a battle, there is collateral damage (e.g., wounded soldiers). In protecting you from the acute stage of the virus, there is often damage to tissue, oxidative stress and systemic damage caused by the immune reaction, particularly the inflammatory process. Understanding this and giving your body what it needs to repair and heal is the necessary focal point for long term recovery. To conclude, and again, to quote Hippocrates “The natural healing force within each of us is the greatest force in getting well.” That remains as true today as it was thousands of years ago.
Tracy Tredoux is a Nutritional Therapist, working in London. When not consulting with clients, she posts health articles, tips and recipes on her website. You can also follow Tracy on Twitter for more top tips and to chat!