Nutritious Food During the Covid Era

by Dr. Daoshing Ni

It is no longer enough to be vaccinated in order to prevent infection with COVID-19. The Delta variant has higher transmissibility than the original virus, and future mutations of SARS-CoV2 might be even worse so it is important to review and assess our personal strategy for combatting this disease. I call my personal strategy PRD, which is akin to a car’s Park, Reverse, and Drive functions. PRD is a three-legged stool; we need all three legs in order to fight major pandemics like the one we are currently experiencing.

P stands for prevention—vaccination to prevent or reduce the severity of the disease. R stands for reduction of risk—masking, social distancing, avoiding groups, and utilizing good personal hygiene. D stands for defense—having a strong immune system so we can fight disease while minimizing harm and improving recovery if we do become ill. Today let’s talk about defense. Many patients that I see regularly have asked me what sorts of food to eat to build their immunity against viral diseases like COVID-19. A balanced diet with carbohydrates, proteins, and fats along with an ample amount of clean water is always a good foundation, to begin with. In general, studies have shown foods with an abundance of betacarotene, vitamins C, E, and D, along with Zinc improves the immune function of our body. Many of these foods are also rich in antioxidants that can help reduce oxidative stress and improve our general well-being.

Sweet potatoes, oranges, green leafy vegetables, carrots, tomatoes, cantaloupe, winter squash, and broccoli are rich in beta carotene and carotenoids that have been reported to have immunomodulatory actions that increase specific lymphocyte subsets in stimulating the production of various cytokines. Cytokines are small soluble proteins that relay instructions and communication within our immune system that help to mobilize non-immune and immune cells to convert to an adaptive fighting mode so that our body can fight infections in an action that is similar to mobilizing the National Guard to perform combat duties.

Oranges, green, red, yellow bell peppers, strawberries, black currants, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and potatoes are rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid is an essential micronutrient. It is a potent antioxidant and a cofactor for several enzymatic and biosynthesis activities in our body. It supports various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune systems. It also supports the health of our skin, our top layer cellular barrier, against pathogens and promotes the skin’s scavenging activities which reduce the opportunity for viruses to enter the body. Vitamin C also strengthens our immune cells, such as neutrophils, in enhancing chemotaxis, phagocytosis, generation of reactive oxygen species, and ultimately killing microbials. This is like equipping our combat troops with guns rather than arrows or giving them extra tools in order to do their jobs better.

Sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, avocados, spinach, Swiss chard, and butternut squash are all rich in vitamin E, another potent antioxidant that is fat-soluble called tocopherol which works with selenium to optimize our metabolism. Vitamin E is found in all cell membranes of the body and protects them from oxidative damage. This is like equipping our troops with extra shields and body armor, so they are more resilient and can better thwart a viral attack.

Sunlight, oily fish, milk, red meat, egg yolks, cheese, mushrooms, and some fortified foods are good sources of Vitamin D. Also referred to as calciferol, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin just like its cousin vitamin E. It is naturally present in some foods, and it is frequently added to fortified foods like soy milk. Vitamin D is also sold as a dietary supplement but is also produced inside of our body when sunlight, specifically ultraviolet rays, strike our skin and triggers the production of this important vitamin. We know that vitamin D influences calcium and bone metabolism which is important for bone and skeletal health but in the last decade, researchers have also discovered that vitamin D has excellent immunomodulatory abilities. Vitamin D receptors have been found in many different types of immune cells and it has been proposed that vitamin D’s immunomodulatory effect is similar to local active cytokines that can strengthen or improve immune and autoimmune functions. This vitamin can be likened to focusing our troops on precise missions to prevent collateral damage.

Whole grains, dairy products, oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, chickpeas, nuts, and shellfish are rich in zinc, an essential trace mineral. Our body must have access to zinc in order to function properly but the body does not produce it on its own. Zinc affects many aspects of our immune system; it is a crucial element in the normal development of our immune cells. Zinc deficiency has been implicated in a weakened immune response because the immune processes and the production of immune cells are intimately tied to the bioavailability of this mineral in the body. Zinc also has a role in the prevention of free radical-induced injury during inflammatory processes that can protect our body from a cytokine surge during battle with the virus. Zinc is important in smell and taste and it has been proposed that taking zinc supplements particularly during a fight with the virus can prevent or reduce the loss of our smell and taste. Zinc ensures that we have a sufficient number of combat troops for the battle. If you or your family members are unable to eat a large variety of foods as I mentioned, especially kids who are more vulnerable as they return to school, I recommend that you supplement with Immunity Lozenges which contains zinc, vitamin C, and other antiviral herbs.

In the arena of Chinese Medicine, there are many herbs that have antiviral properties which have been used for centuries for different types of epidemics. There are two distinct herbs, food-grade, or what we call “functional foods,” that may be helpful in strengthening our immune response during viral pandemics:

Pumpkin seed is the seed of Cucurbita moschata Duchesne. These seeds are densely packed with a variety of nutrients along with therapeutic components such as amino acids, phytosterols, unsaturated fatty acids, phenolic compounds, tocopherols, carotenoids, cucurbitacins, and valuable minerals including zinc. Pumpkin itself is widely used in many cultures and roasted salted pumpkin seeds are a good choice of snacks for their health benefits and bioactive functions. They are used in diseases such as diabetes, depression, and tumors as well as for parasite cleansing. In more recent research, pumpkin seeds have been shown to ameliorate microbiological infections, liver, and prostate disorders. Pumpkin seeds are so nutrient-dense that there is no need to take more than one or two tablespoons of roasted, unsalted, or lightly salted pumpkin seeds a day.

Wu Mei, is known as umeboshi, dark plum fruit, or Chinese plum. It is extremely sour and research has shown that it has many health benefits. Wu Mei is the main ingredient in a classical Chinese formulation whose use dates back to 220 AD; it is used for the last stage of febrile infectious disease as well as for parasitic infections. Current research has shown Wu Mei contains MK615, ursolic acid, and various organic acids that have anti-tumor, antiaging, and anti-bacterial effects and also speeds physical recovery from chronic illness and fatigue. Eating or sucking one Wu Mei plum per day is all that is required to enjoy its many health benefits.

Lastly, well-balanced mental health is also important for our immune defense. “Spiritual” nutrition is equally as important as physical nutrition in helping us endure long pandemics. Practicing meditation, qi gong, tai chi, yoga, and other calming and centering exercises regularly can be very helpful in managing stress and anxiety.