Integrative Strategies to Protect Yourself from COVID-19 by Dionne Detraz, RDN
In the past few months, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in China, we have been slowly learning more about the virus and the best ways to protect ourselves. Scientists are working tirelessly to find both a vaccine and effective treatments, which they are busy testing around the globe.
While we wait for these protections to be created and tested, we can use strategies from both integrative and functional medicine to help protect ourselves and boost healing if we do become infected. Nutrition, supplements and lifestyle strategies can all help block the progression of COVID-19. So far, however, no integrative measures have been validated in human trials against COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use strategies that have supporting evidence from the study of viruses similar to our current coronavirus.
Here’s the good news: there are many steps you can take to both limit your exposure and bolster your immune system.
Staying home as much as possible, physically distancing (at least 6 ft. or 2 m.) and wearing a mask when you leave your home are the best ways to prevent exposure to the virus. Washing your hands as soon as you come home with soap and water is equally important. If soap and water are unavailable, then using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is the next best option.
Five steps to boost immunity
An equally important step is to do what you can to support a robust immune system. This is best accomplished in a holistic way.
1. Food Your food choices are critical as a means of supporting your immunity. Choosing foods that nourish the immune system, lower inflammation and support the microbiome will ALL be helpful at boosting your ability to fight off infection. Choose:
Colorful fruits & veggies (ideally 8-10 servings each day)
Fermented (probiotic-rich) foods
Garlic and onions
Turmeric and ginger
Berries and citrus
Antiviral herbs like rosemary and thyme
2. Sleep Thanks to its restorative and regulatory abilities, sleep has a significant influence on immune function and inflammatory signals. Getting good-quality and adequate-quantity sleep is of the utmost importance right now. There has been some evidence from the COVID-19 data that people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to have complications from infection. The goal is to get at least eight hours of sleep most nights and to be in bed before 11 pm. In many healing traditions, it is thought that the hours of sleep you get before midnight are more restorative than the hours you get after midnight. It might also be worth trying melatonin. In addition to helping with sleep, melatonin has important anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. It also has a history of helping to decrease damage to the lungs. You can start with 3-5 mg/day to help with sleep and can increase up to 20 mg/day to help lower inflammation. 3. Exercise Moderate, regular physical activity helps the immune system function by raising levels of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies, increasing circulation, decreasing stress hormones, increasing oxygenation and eliminating waste from cells. All of these benefits are important at protecting us from infections. Make it a goal to move every day, ideally for 30 minutes—but anything is better than nothing. With the shelter-at-home restrictions in place right now, you may have to be creative as to how you’re going to meet this goal. Thankfully, there are currently a lot of online options for exercise classes. At the very least, put on some fun music and dance around your house! 4. Emotional wellness We are all dealing with a higher level of stress and anxiety right now. Don’t underestimate the impact our stress hormones have on impairing our immune system. Adding in strategies to help us offload stress while enhancing our feel-good pathways will also help to boost the immune system. As we mentioned above, exercise will help to decrease stress hormones and improve emotional wellness. Laughter is another wonderful strategy. Breathing exercises, like Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 Breath, will help. Meditation, journaling, yoga, tai chi, qi gong and spending time in nature can also benefit our immune response. Maintaining social connection and positive relationships—even though much of it has to be done virtually right now—is also incredibly important. Social isolation and loneliness have been shown to depress immune function. Each day, make it a habit to check in with yourself by asking the following questions:
What am I grateful for today?
Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?
What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
How am I getting outside today?
How am I moving my body today?
What beauty am I creating, cultivating or inviting in today?
Certain supplements can help to boost immune function while also helping to block viral entry if you are exposed. As always, be mindful that supplements only enhance health when all the other above strategies are in place.They are not strong enough to take the place of a good diet or getting enough sleep. If you want to add in some supplemental support, I would turn to these first for prevention:
Vitamin D3 (5000 IU, unless you’ve been told to take more because of a deficiency)
Vitamin C (1000 mg)
Quercitin (1000 mg, 2 x/day)
Astragalus (you can take as a supplement OR you can include this in your broth or food)
If you become infected with COVID-19, there are several points along its path where we can help support healing and try to prevent its progression.
The first point is to help decrease viral replication. At the very first sign of a cough or fever, continue with all the strategies above, plus add in the following:
Elderberry (500 mg/day)
Zinc (30-60 mg/day, in divided doses)
Mushrooms (take a whole mushroom extract like Host Defense Mycommunity blend; avoid isolated poly-saccharides like PSK, PSP, Lentinan or isolated Beta-Glucan as these can potentially over-stimulate the immune response)
Curcumin (500-1000 mg, 2 x/d)
Green tea (increase to 4 cups/day)
Vitamin C (increase to 1000 mg 2 x/day; there are some studies currently underway in China looking at IV Vitamin C to help improve recovery)
If the disease progresses into the lungs, continue with all the above, plus add breathing support with:
Essential Oil Facial Steam with thyme, eucalyptus and lemongrass essential oils
Orange Peel Tea for coughs and congestion
At this stage, I would also suggest removing the following supplements that may help in the initial response to being sick or be a part of your regimen, as they can inadvertently increase the immune response:
The rest of the supplements and lifestyle suggestions recommended above would be safe to continue. One of the reasons COVID-19 can be deadly if it progresses is its ability to over-stimulate a part of the innate immune response. This creates a situation where there is an uncontrolled release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, also known as a “cytokine storm.” When this happens, the whole body can be susceptible to injury, which can be irreversible and potentially life-threatening.
On the other side of infection, it’s equally important to take steps to support recovery. As symptoms begin to improve, it can be helpful to add in deep breathing exercises and the following supplements: Boswellia and Cordyceps Mushroom. Continue with all the other supplements and lifestyle strategies until you feel your health has improved and you’re back to normal.
The better we understand this virus, how it works and how our immune system plays a role, the more power we have to control the outcome. First and foremost, do what you can to prevent exposure and to bolster your health. If you do become infected, be empowered to take steps to support your healing and recovery. This does not mean you shouldn’t go to your doctor or go to the hospital if it’s needed. Integrative and functional medicine can be a helpful adjunct, but it’s not going to take the place of appropriate medical attention.
Once our current confinement ends and we are able to reintegrate into society, please continue to be mindful of your exposure risks and the strength of your immune system. Our current crisis will likely not be the end of our viral exposures. We need to stay vigilant in our efforts to remain healthy.
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Dionne Detraz, RDN
Dionne Detraz’s experience includes over 15 years of working in health education, wellness and nutrition. In addition to completing degrees in physiology and dietetics at San Francisco State University and meeting the requirements to become a registered dietitian from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, she has certifications in holistic nutrition and traditional western herbal therapies and oncology nutrition health coaching and integrative medicine to cover an array of options with her clients. Dionne worked at the University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, both as an integrative dietitian and research associate. She also spent over 10 years working at Kaiser Permanente as an outpatient dietitian and health educator. In 2016, she launched The Rustic Dietitian and a virtual private practice.
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