Posted on: April 2, 2020 at 8:21 pm

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, one thing that has become abundantly clear is that the virus disproportionately affects certain demographics within our population. Specifically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that adults over the age of 65, as well as people of all ages who have underlying medical conditions, are at a significantly increased risk for developing severe illness [1].

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But why are these groups more likely to become critically ill or die if they contract the virus? The answer is simple: Immune strength.

Everyone differs in their level of immunocompetence, aka- immune strength [2]. For the most part (yes, there have been exceptions), a healthy adult’s immune system is capable of fighting off most infections, including COVID-19. As you age, however, your immunocompetence tends to decrease, leaving you more susceptible to disease [3]. 

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People with underlying medical conditions also see a decrease in their immunocompetence, although the mechanism behind that decrease may vary depending on the condition. Chemotherapy, for example, can destroy bone marrow and white blood cell count, which weakens the immune system. For this reason, someone undergoing cancer treatment will be immunocompromised and therefore at a greater risk for becoming critically ill, even from the common flu [4].

Immunity: The Missing Piece

As the COVID-19 outbreak has continued to spread across the globe, health officials and public authorities have focussed on three main ways to control the virus: isolation, social distancing, and hand washing. 

While these are, of course, crucial to slowing the spread of the virus, immunocompetence and strengthening/supporting our immune systems have been noticeably absent from the COVID-19 conversation.

Of course, even people with strong immune systems are still susceptible to the virus, but the stronger your immune system, the more likely it is that if you do become ill, your case will be both milder and shorter. Not only is this better for you, but it puts less strain on our healthcare system [5].

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Read: Coronavirus symptoms start slowly, then might worsen quickly

How Can You Support Your Immune System?

Scientists have determined that the strength of your immune system is not inherited from your parents, but is largely determined by environmental and lifestyle factors [6]. Stress, sleep, diet, and exercise can all have an impact on your immune system, as well as your exposure to various environmental toxins, particularly during early life [7].

For this reason, there are many small ways that you can strengthen your immune system. A great place to start is reducing stress. When you’re stressed, your body releases greater levels of the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the activity of your immune system [8]. There are various ways to help manage stress, including meditation, controlled breathing, or talking to a therapist [9].

Getting enough sleep at night also benefits your immune system. When you get sick, your body releases protein called cytokines to fight infection and inflammation. These are the same proteins that are released when you sleep. Without adequate sleep, the production of these protective proteins is decreased [10].

Adults should typically aim for seven to eight hours of deep sleep every night, while children and teens typically require nine to ten or more [10].

A healthy diet also goes a long way in improving immune function. Including large amounts of leafy green vegetables, fruits, and good-quality protein will ensure you are getting adequate amounts of disease-fighting nutrients like zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E [11].

You should also consider decreasing the amount of alcohol you drink. Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a decrease in immune function and has been shown to be related to an increase in immune-related health effects such as pneumonia [12].

Read: Opinion: Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired

Vitamin C and COVID-19

Vitamin C and its effects on immunity have been a highly-debated topic in the world of nutrition and health for quite some time. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, however, vitamin C has been showing some promising results when administered to critically-ill patients.

In an analysis of five trials that included 471 patients who required ventilation, those who were given one to six grams per day of vitamin C resulted in a shortened ventilation time by an average of 25 percent [13]. 

Shorter ventilation times can significantly reduce the strain on our healthcare system because it means that ventilators become available more quickly for new patients who need them.

Other studies found that higher doses of vitamin C – six to eight grams per day – can also be effective at treating and preventing pneumonia [14].

Unfortunately, many researchers have concluded that there is “insufficient evidence” to support the claim that vitamin C can help prevent illness. There are many reasons for this, such as inconsistent supplementation by subjects during trials, as well as inadequately-low doses, however, the primary reason comes down to money [15].

According to physicist Amory Lovins and physician Eric Rasmussen, MD, evidence-based medicine requires large, controlled, randomized, double-blind clinical trials, which are very expensive, and vitamin C supplements won’t bring in enough money to make them worth it.

“Industry and govern­ment won’t fund their high cost for unpatent­able over-the-counter supplements,” they said [5].

Related: New York Hospitals Are Treating Coronavirus Patients With Vitamin C

What Kind of Vitamin C Should I Take, and How Much?

According to several research papers, taking three-to-five grams of vitamin C, spread evenly throughout the day, can support your immune system and protect against known viruses [5]. The reason it needs to be spread outcomes down to the pharmacokinetics of ascorbic acid. Its activity tends to peak within hours and then drop, so ingesting it throughout the day to maintain it just makes sense.

There is more than one kind of vitamin C, however, l-ascorbate is the best because it is well-tolerated by your body. Other types, such as d-ascorbate, are not well-tolerated and therefore cannot be taken in high enough doses to be effective [16].

It is difficult to know how “pure” your supplement is, since many manufacturers use a mixture of these two types. Some brands also include extra ingredients like stabilizers, binders, fillers, and colors, so it is important to read the label carefully.

The highest-quality supplement is one that contains fully-reduced and fully-buffered l-ascorbate. It is important that you do your research before purchasing, to ensure that you are not wasting your money on a low-quality supplement that won’t provide the benefits you are looking for [16].

You Still Need to Follow the Rules

No matter how strong your immune system is, how much you sleep, or how healthy you eat, it is important to remember that taking steps to support your immune system or taking a daily vitamin C supplement does not replace frequent, proper hand-washing, not touching your face, and of course, social distancing.

All of the measures that have been put in place by public health officials and governments are there to protect the vulnerable people among us. Even if you have a strong immune system and you only contract a mild case, without proper social isolation you run the risk of passing it on to someone who has a compromised immune system, who could end up dying from the virus.

As difficult as it may be, we all must continue to do our part to flatten the curve of this virus to ease the burden on our healthcare system. This is the only way that we will get through this, and the only way we will be able to return to our normal lives.

Keep Reading: Former CDC Chief: Vitamin D May Reduce The Risk Of Coronavirus Infection

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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