Repeatedly, the public health establishment warns us that immune-compromised individuals—those with diabetes and auto-immune conditions, for example— are at greatest risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19. 

Rarely do they encourage us about the opposite:  to strengthen our immune systems via lifestyle actions like maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Rather, they barely pay lip service to such notions, and sometimes actually do the opposite by arguing there is no such thing as strengthening the immune system. For example, Dietitians of Canada recently issued a press release stating: “Simply put, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet and no specific food, supplement or natural health product will prevent you from catching Covid-19. Proper hygiene can help reduce the risk of infection or spreading infection to others.

Advice from Dietitians of Canada, against immune-system boosting

Its advice for stocking up in preparation for the pandemic: “Good options are easy-to-prepare foods like dried pasta and sauce, prepared canned soups, canned vegetables and beans.” Nothing about fermented foods, vitamin-rich vegetables and fruits, full fats, etc.

The real evidence (apart from the preaching by advocates of holistic health, and there’s lots of that around) for strengthening the immune system to counter Covid-19 tends to get scattered about in the public health and scientific communities, and is available in bits and pieces.  For example: 

-There’s this from Healio, a publication for physicians: “A case study in China showed that from the beginning of the outbreak through Feb. 11, 2020, the death rate among patients with COVID-19 who had diabetes was 7.3% compared with 0.9% in those without comorbid conditions.” 

-There are persistent reports of Vitamin C megadoses being used to help patients with Covid-19, in China and the U.S. Renewed interest in Vitamin C was apparently prompted by a 2019 analysis indicating Vitamin C megadoses could shorten stays in ICU. China also has used herbs and acupuncture widely to treat patients with Covid-19. 

-A new paper in PubMed, a government journal, on the benefits of Vitamin D in building immunity to counter Covid-19: “Several observational studies and clinical trials reported that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of influenza, whereas others did not. Evidence supporting the role of vitamin D in reducing risk of COVID-19 includes that the outbreak occurred in winter, a time when 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) concentrations are lowest; that the number of cases in the Southern Hemisphere near the end of summer are low; that vitamin D deficiency has been found to contribute to acute respiratory distress syndrome; and that case-fatality rates increase with age and with chronic disease comorbidity, both of which are associated with lower 25(OH)D concentration. To reduce the risk of infection, it is recommended that people at risk of influenza and/or COVID-19 consider taking 10,000 IU/d of vitamin D3 for a few weeks to rapidly raise 25(OH)D concentrations, followed by 5000 IU/d.” 

-A noted pathologist who has researched coronaviruses in the past recommended in February that his family and friends stock up on zinc lozenges to counter any onset of Covid-19 symptoms. To me, such physician and scientist recommendations carry considerable weight, because professionals wouldn’t recommend approaches to those they are closest to without serious confidence. The pathologist, James Robb, advised: “Stock up now with zinc lozenges. These lozenges have been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus (and most other viruses) from multiplying in your throat and nasopharynx. Use as directed several times each day when you begin to feel ANY ‘cold-like’ symptoms beginning.” The recommendation went viral, and led to hemming and hawing in the public health community, to the extent that Snopes investigated…..and confirmed that Robb did write the note; it’s just that he had little social media experience and thus didn’t appreciate how seriously large numbers of people would take his advice. 

-And finally, this from a 2010 study of the microbiome, out of Loyola University: “Scientists have long known that certain types of bacteria boost the immune system. Now, Loyola University Health System researchers have discovered how bacteria perform this essential task.”

What I’d like to see is some kind of study measuring the experiences and outcomes of people who had built up their immune systems–based on measurements of things like white blood counts and b-lymphocytes. I’m sure, based on all the Facebook posts I see from individuals ready to defy state at-home orders, that there’d be lots of volunteers. Or maybe there’s another way to obtain data about immune system health in the context of how people handle exposure to and recovery from infection by Covid-19. It’s time to stop talking around this issue, pretending that immune health isn’t a factor in overall health. And once this crisis is over, it will be time to shift public health priorities to educating people about immune function, and all the things they can do to keep it functioning at full capacity. 

Thanks to Michael Schmidt for the information about Dietitians of Canada.