Lauren Fournier, PT, DPT
With all the fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, people are often looking for ways to boost their immune system with natural remedies and supplements. Below are a few people have used in the past to help, and some that are suggested by research.
Pre and probiotics:
Bacteria are everywhere: on our skin, hair and nails, and inside our body. These internal organisms are called the gut microbiome. Imbalances in the gut microbiome may throw off our immune responses and lead to the development of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune dysfunctions.
Some research supports the use of prebiotics and probiotics to promote gut health by creating a healthier balance of bacteria types. However, since supplements are not regulated, it’s best to consume them from food when possible.
Eating plant-based foods and whole grains provide the body with prebiotics. Prebiotics help create a healthy environment in the gut for the “good” bacteria to flourish. Probiotic foods contain live organisms. These fermented foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi, are good sources of probiotics. Including both prebiotic and probiotic foods in a nutritious diet is your best bet for overall good health and a healthy immune system.
Inflammation in the body can also impair your immunity. Your body produces harmful free radicals when it’s defending itself against infection, which are molecules associated with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Antioxidants help protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Foods that are high in antioxidants include:
- Dark chocolate
- Red cabbage
- Sunflower seeds
Vitamin C has been long used as a treatment for the common cold. Although it seems to boost some aspects of the immune system, studies do not show that vitamin C can help prevent colds in most people. However, it may be helpful in preventing colds in people who are exposed to cold weather or who undergo extreme exercise according to Paul M. Coates, PhD, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health.
Vitamin C as a treatment shows that it can reduce the duration of a cold by as much as 24 to 36 hours. Keep in mind that the high doses of vitamin C sometimes recommended for cold and flu can upset the stomach and even cause diarrhea in some people and should be used with caution in children.
Although some studies do not show that echinacea works as a treatment, others show it can reduce the length and severity of colds by 10% to 30%. Many experts are fairly sure that echinacea can help treat colds by taking the strain echinacea purpurea, which may also work better for adults than for children. Most studies say echinacea doesn’t prevent getting a cold.
Echinacea does have some mild risks if you have allergies to ragweed or certain flowers in the daisy family. It may also not be safe for people with certain diseases that affect immunity, such as autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Zinc lozenges have become a popular treatment for the common cold. Forms of zinc available on the market include zinc acetate, zinc citrate, zinc gluconate, zinc picolinate, and zinc sulfate.
Taking zinc in the first few days of a cold may shorten an upper respiratory infection. A review of 15 past studies on the subject also found that zinc appeared to prevent colds in people who used it over the course of about five months. However, some experts suggest that zinc should not be taken for long periods of time. If it is, it may induce a copper deficiency in the body. There also isn’t good evidence to support zinc lozenges for cold or flu prevention.
Elderberry appears to boost the production of some immune cells and may also help block a virus’s ability to spread. One study shows that taking 4 tablespoons a day for three days of elderberry extract in the form of Sambucol appears to shorten the symptoms of flu, including fever by 56%. Keep in mind that the study was small, and the full implications aren’t clear.
Garlic also seems to stimulate the immune system and may also help fight viruses. Also, there is some evidence that garlic may lower the risk of catching a cold. Garlic works best when consumed raw, either crushed, diced, or minced. Overcooking garlic may destroy important compounds and enzymes necessary for it to be effective. Also, keep in mind that garlic may be dangerous in people taking blood thinners.
Different ginseng species may also boost the immune system and help prevent or treat cold and flu. One species, panax ginseng, may also increase the protection offered by the flu vaccine. Preliminary results suggest that Cold FX, when taken for several months during flu season, seems to lower the risk of contracting either cold or flu. Another study looked at Cold FX as a treatment and found that it reduced the duration and severity of symptoms.
As always, talk to your doctor before taking any herb, supplement, or vitamin if you are pregnant, have a medical condition or you take medicines or other supplements, which may interact and cause an adverse reaction. Also, make sure you purchase brands of supplements that bear a USP or NF seal on the label, which indicate the supplements have undergone quality-control testing. ConsumerLab.com can also be consulted to make sure the product is legitimate and safe. Most importantly, don’t rely on supplements and herbs when medical treatment is needed. Seek your doctor if you feel you have the flu or may have contracted the coronavirus.