With coronavirus reaching pandemic status, there’s a lot of chatter about what individual actions are available to those looking to reduce their risk of disease. I’ve seen some great information about good hygiene and hand washing, and I’ve also seen a lot of misleading information about the disease, its spread, and how to prevent it. I thought this might be a good time to discuss supplements for immune support: are there are supplements that improve immune function and/or any supplements that reduce the risk of getting COVID-19? Let’s take a look at the science.
*Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
And please, please use supplements only under the guidance of a health care professional. Many drugs have interactions with certain supplements. It is important to work with a health care provider to tailor what you take, if anything, to your individual needs
First of all, let’s chat about the immune system:
The immune system is your body’s defense system to prevent illness or infection, and includes the skin, bone marrow, the bloodstream, thalamus (a part of the brain), lymphatic nodes, the spleen, and mucosal tissue. Together, these organ systems work to protect the body against pathogens and toxins to keep you healthy.
How does nutrition impact the immune system?
There are several micronutrients that play various roles in supporting immune function.
Vitamins A, B6, C, and E, along with minerals copper, iron, selenium, zinc, and folic acid all play various roles in supporting proper immune function. There is evidence to suggest that deficiencies in these micronutrients may decrease immune function.
But notice that the research is based on nutrient deficiencies decreasing immune function; this does not necessarily mean that taking more or excess of these vitamins and minerals will improve immune function for those who are not deficient.
Eating too few calories can also impact the immune system. Underfueling leads to decreased white blood cells (immune cells that help fight disease) and decreased immune function.
Do supplements improve immune function?
There isn’t much evidence that suggests taking any particular supplement actually improves immune function in any way. In fact, measuring immune function and the body’s ability to ward off certain diseases is a pretty tricky thing to do.
Still, let’s take a dive into what data does exist on popular supplements and immune function.
Vitamin C: Emergen-C, etc
I wrote a whole post about vitamin C that you can read right here. TLDR: Basically, being vitamin C deficient may increase your likelihood of getting sick, but getting more than the recommended amount of vitamin C won’t prevent you from getting sick, or help you get rid of your symptoms earlier.
And as I’ve always said: one packet of Emergen-C is half the daily toxic dose of vitamin C, and can increase your risk of nausea, GI distress, and gallstones.
An ample amount of vitamin D is indeed necessary to support a healthy immune system. That said, much like most of the micronutrients listed in this post, there is not much evidence to suggest that large supplements will actually improve your immune function (unless you are deficient).
If you want to learn more about vitamin D, check out this post.
There is so much buzz surrounding elderberry supplements and syrups these days. There isn’t really much evidence to suggest it actually improves immune function. And studies that have tested elderberry syrup and illness show there aren’t major differences between those who take it and those who don’t in terms of likelihood of getting sick.
That said, there is a bit of research to suggest it may decrease the amount of time individuals (who are already sick) experience respiratory symptoms. So if you already have a cold, it may help relieve some of your symptoms, or help them go away sooner.
Still, I wouldn’t replace a trip to the doctor’s office with elderberry syrup if you think what you have may be something serious.
‘Adaptogenic’ mushroom drinks are extremely popular right now. But is there any evidence to support their use?
There is some research that suggests large amounts of ashwagandha may improve self-reported ability to tolerate stress in some individuals, but overall the data is shaky, and there’s a need for more research.
When it comes to preventing illness and boosting one’s ability to ward off disease, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of adaptogenic ashwagandha supplements to improve immune function.
No, there is no evidence to support celery juice supports or improves immune function, despite what the trendy celery-juice-promoting instagram accounts will tell you.
In fact, there’s not much evidence to suggest celery juice is very beneficial for much of anything, except possibly hydration. In fact, too much celery can be dangerous, especially for those who are sensitive to the sun, and/or may have interactions with some medications.
You can read all about celery juice in this post.
Manuka honey is very popular for immune health. While there is a little data to suggest it may have antimicrobial properties (ie, it can control bacterial growth), the data to suggest its use to treat or prevent certain conditions isn’t convincing, and there is no real evidence to suggest it can actually improve human immune function.
Honey might help soothe coughs, and may soothe wounds, but it’s unlikely to help prevent much illness or strengthen the immune system.
Much like vitamins C and D, not getting enough zinc may hamper your immune system’s ability to function at its best. But there’s little evidence to suggest taking zinc supplements will improve immune function in those who are not zinc-deficient.
There is some data to suggest that taking zinc may reduce symptoms in those already sick with the common cold, but again, it won’t necessarily prevent you from getting sick in the first place (again, unless you were deficient).
How can you boost or support your immune system?
There are several, lifestyle-related, non-supplement ways to support good immune function.
First, eat a balanced diet, and make sure you eat enough (and of course, if you have a certain micronutrient deficiency, in that case, do supplement your diet under the supervision of a healthcare provider).
Exercise, but not too much, because too much movement and overtraining can take a toll on the immune system.
Next, manage your stress levels and get enough sleep. Cortisol and lack of sleep can take a toll on your immune system. Avoiding smoking and enjoying alcohol in moderation (or not at all) can also help.
Oh, and of course, although there is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19, keeping up to date with your vaccinations can be a great thing to do to help your immune system fight off certain diseases.
Eating a healthy diet can support proper immune system function and overall health.
But there isn’t really much evidence to suggest and dietary supplements or herbal supplements will actually improve your immune system function, unless you have a clinical deficiency in select micronutrients, in which case, working with a health care provider to get to a proper nutrient status may be a good idea.
Considering many of these ‘immune-boosting’ supplements are often expensive, it’s probably a wise idea to eschew spending your money on them, and instead focus on eating a balanced diet, eating enough, getting exercise (but not too much), resting enough, managing your stress, and practicing good old fashioned hygiene habits.
That’s all for now. Let me know what supplements you have heard about that I may have missed in this post. I am happy to add to it! Just leave a comment below and/or reach out to me on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube.
Have a great day! Millie loves you.
If you liked “Supplements for Immune Support,” you may also like:
- Is soy good for you? Is soy bad for you?
- Celery juice: what does the science say?
- Should I take large doses of vitamin C to avoid getting sick?