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.…