The role of nutrition in a pandemic
Once again, the world is gripped with fear as the battle against COVID-19 is seemingly nowhere near the end. Even as pharma companies are trying to outbid each other over the fastest production of an effective vaccine, new strains have been found, rendering doubts about the efficacy of current vaccinations on hand. Such is the nature of viruses. They mutate.
SARS-CoV-2 expert Dr. Robert Bollinger explained: “All viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a flu shot every year.”
While the world awaits how things will unfold, more and more research is continuously being conducted on how to totally eradicate this virulent virus that has taken so many lives and altered the way we live. One of the key aspects being studied is the nutritional management of infected patients.
According to a review conducted by Alfredo Fernande-Quintela et al. in “Key Aspects in Nutritional Management of Covid-19 Patients” published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine on Aug. 10, 2020, “nutritional therapy appears as first-line treatment and should be implemented into standard practice. Optimal intake of all nutrients, mainly those playing crucial roles in immune system, should be assured through a diverse and well-balanced diet.”
Furthermore, the review emphasizes the role of several natural bioactive compounds found in food that interact with an enzyme known as ACE2 or angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor. These natural bioactive compounds can influence immune system activity and reduce the inflammatory response induced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. These dietary nutrients or compounds are potential beneficial tools in the nutritional management of Covid-19 patients.
What is ACE2 receptor? ACE2 is protein found on the surface of cells in the human body. Its enzymatic role enables it to regulate cell functions in the lungs, heart, blood vessels, kidneys, liver, and the gastrointestinal tract or digestive system. Therefore, this small protein is vital to regulating blood pressure, wound healing, and inflammation. Unfortunately, the virus that causes Covid-19 binds to ACE2 receptor. This prevents ACE2 from doing its job in modulating biochemical pathways in the body, resulting in the injury of lungs and heart among patients.
Covid-19 is not a simple respiratory disease. Other organs in the body are affected. Comorbidities such as heart diseases and diabetes increase the risk of complications and even death.
Protein deficiency is likened to an impaired immune response. Intake of high biologic value protein from egg, fish, chicken, or lean meat can provide the essential amino acids the immune system requires to function. Plant proteins from soy, legumes, and vegetables can help nourish the body and have great potential in decreasing inflammation.
Intake of essential fatty acids like omega-3 from fatty fishes, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and fish oil supplements may be useful to reduce the severity and even improve recovery of patients. These fatty acids prevent blood clotting (thrombosis) and also plays a role in interfering with the replication of the virus.
Intake of high biologic value protein from egg, fish, chicken, or lean meat can provide the essential amino acids the immune system requires to function. Plant proteins from soy, legumes, and vegetables can help nourish the body and have great potential in decreasing inflammation.
When it comes to carbohydrate choices, refined sugars and highly processed ones must be avoided because they are pro-inflammatory. Consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables must be done to promote the growth of healthy gut microbiome. These beneficial microorganisms in the gut positively impacts metabolism and immune response. Let us not forget that Covid-19 affects the digestive system too. Probiotic drinks like water kefir or probiotic supplementation will help establish healthy gut flora that may have been altered due to stress and medications.
Phytochemicals or plant chemicals act as antioxidants. Resveratrol found in grapes, berries, nuts, and grapeseed promote healthy heart and efficient blood flow. Curcumin found in turmeric plays a role in attacking components necessary for viral replication.
According to Fernande-Quintela, “In order to reduce the risk and consequences of infections, the intakes for some micronutrients may exceed the recommended dietary allowances since infections and other stressors can reduce micronutrient status.”
If intake of nutrients and phytochemicals isn’t adequate to meet nutritional requirements, supplementation of trace elements such as zinc and other micronutrients like vitamin C must be given. Modified functional food in the form of liquid, capsules, or powder may also be given. Functional food has benefits beyond basic nutrition. Some examples are cordyceps mushroom, American ginseng, wheatgrass, grapeseed, cactus, which as over 10,000 phytochermicals, and the like. It is best, however, to consult a registered dietitian for proper assessment and guidance.
While we wait for vaccination and medications to treat Covid-19, let us all focus on our first line of defense, which is nutrition. What we eat impacts our immune system, our greatest defense against infection.