3 Ways to Decrease Your Risk of COVID Severity With Nutrition (And Be Healthier In General)
Updated: Jan 4
Most of us are familiar by now with how to reduce our risk of being infected with Coronavirus. But what is our contingency plan for if we do get it? How can we decrease our risk of developing a severe case?
The short answer: Lower overall inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a national health crisis. Almost every chronic illness you can think of from cancer to diabetes to arthritis has inflammation as a driving factor. Think of all the effort, money, and sacrifice countries have put into preventing covid deaths. Now consider that about 600,000 people die annually in the US from cancer alone, including many children. That's about twice as many as covid, yet society basically shrugs and hopes a magic "cure" will be invented next year. Factor in heart disease and diabetes and you are looking at millions of people dying needlessly every year, mostly due to preventable lifestyle issues. Where is the "Project Warp Speed" to develop a vaccine against unhealthy lifestyles?
Inflammation & COVID
Inflammation is a necessary part of your body, used to tear down and repair structures and to fight infections. But when it gets out of control and is chronic it does serious damage to your cellular machinery. Over years and decades, most people in an industrial economy eating a modern diet will develop chronic health issues due in large part to this constant background inflammation. And this is also partly why older people are more vulnerable to Coronavirus. As we age and collect more health issues, our risk of severe complications increases. Age alone does not seem to correlate that strongly with severe COVID reactions, but age plus chronic health issues does (and low Vitamin D levels).
But there is a more specific reason for this too. COVID enters the body by destroying the ACE2 receptor, which older people already have less of.
The ACE2 receptor is responsible for lowering the inflammatory response of the immune system. ACE1 has the opposite role, and ramps up the immune systems inflammatory weapons. ACE2 is like the brake pedal, and the ACE1 is the gas. To enter the body, Coronavirus attaches to and infiltrates through the ACE2 receptor, destroying it in the process. As more and more ACE2's are destroyed, the immune system is left with fewer brakes compared to gas pedals. Inflammation is activated to fight the virus, but nothing is left to slow it down. The immune system winds up destroying the body with collateral damage, a phenomenon you may by now be familiar with called the "Cytokine Storm" or "Sepsis".
(People have less ACE2 receptors as they age, making them more vulnerable to this issue. This is the most likely reason for the age skew in covid severity.)
Sepsis sounds awful, but for most modern people, it is happening at a low, chronic level all the time - Just without the ACE receptors as the mediators. Our modern diets and environments, created for function, profit, and expediency more than optimal biological suitability, are driving inflammation in a variety of ways - with or without a pandemic.
Below I will provide a few tips to lower the inflammation in your lifestyle. This may not increase your ACE2 receptor levels. It may not prevent you getting COVID. But it may decrease your overall inflammation and make your immune system a little harder to throw off of its delicate balance. Worst case scenario is you lower your risk of the even bigger killers: Heart disease, brain disease, cancer, and diabetes, and feel a whole lot better in the process. You may be surprised how much of your chronic pain, mental health issues, digestive issues, or low energy levels were being driven by inflammation too.
1. Check Your Oil
During the 20th century there was a major shift away from traditional cooking oils and fat sources, towards cheaper Industrial Age alternatives. These alternatives have been marketed as healthier, and many industry funded studies have "proven" this - And then decades later been debunked.
The fact is, oils are not all created equal, and you shouldn't be choosing which ones you put in your body based on what is the cheapest for industry do produce on mass scales.
The cheap oils that drive inflammation most are:
- Canola Oil
- Soybean Oil
- Cottonseed Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Margarine or any butter-replacements
- Anything labelled "vegetable" oil
What do these have in common? They are all predominantly Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega 6 is well understood to cause systemic inflammation, thus the widespread recommendations of Omega-3's which counteract some of this effect. Omega 3's are marketed as anti-inflammatories, but they should really just be called "Anti-Omega-6's" because that is the main way they lower inflammation.
These Omega-6's are everywhere in the modern diet, but were relatively lacking just 100 years ago. Most people (in the western world) ate traditional fats and oils high in saturated fat rather than the polyunsaturated Omega-6 related fatty acids. As we have changed away from this traditional diet, following the advice of health experts from the 1950's onwards, have we become healthier? Correlation doesn't equal causation but the differences are striking. Obesity in particular, which saturated fats supposedly cause, has skyrocketed since the anti-saturated fat campaign began decades ago. Here are a few examples of what Americans ate back when they were on average quite fit relative to today:
- Beef Tallow
- Red Meat
- Full Fat Milk
- Full Fat Yogurt
These all sound, to our modern ears, like foods that should make you obese and unhealthy. Yet why were the people who ate them not so? And why are more than half of people today obese or chronically ill?
Well, I think it is largely to do with our shift to an Omega-6 rich diet; the inflammatory processes sustained by Omega 6 and related fats attack the cellular machinery that drives metabolism. This inflammation can also attack specific parts of the body, such as the joints - causing arthritis - or the pancreas - causing diabetes. So replace that margarine with butter or Ghee, or if you don't want to or can't consume dairy or animal fats, try swapping for these healthy oils instead:
- Coconut Oil
- Olive Oil (monounsaturated Omega-9)
- Palm Oil (if sustainably sourced - Save the orangutans!)
You can also limit your intake of foods that naturally carry a lot of Omega 6's, including:
- Nuts and Seeds
- Fried Foods (usually cooked in "vegetable Oil")
- Most takeout, fast food, or even restaurants (which generally cook with the cheapest oils for business reasons, but ask your chef! I've found some Mediterranean and Middle Eastern places that only use olive oil because, well, they have pride it seems.)
Consume more foods that lean towards Saturated fat and/or Omega 3's:
- Coconut Products
Or simply eat less fat all together and eat more vegetarian meals with legumes and whole grains as you protein sources. Every body is unique so some people are going to function better with more fat and animal products, and some people will be better off with more carbohydrates and plant proteins. But it is unclear that anybody is healthier with massive doses of industrial seed oils.
2. Eliminate Irritating Foods
Food intolerances and allergies can be very hard to identify in people. Not every food allergy results in immediate anaphylactic shock, and food "intolerances" can have even more subtle and long-term effects, making it very hard to identify which foods are causing problems.
These problems can have a lot of different mechanisms too including:
- Actual allergies
- Inability to digest a certain food
- Gut bacteria fermenting the food (creating harmful byproducts like endotoxin)
- Leaky gut lining allowing the food into bloodstream before it is properly broken down
- Food "intolerance" where the body reacts to the proteins in the food with inflammation
One way or another, all of these issues lead to inflammation. Symptoms can vary widely, and basically any number of chronic illnesses can be directly or indirectly caused by this.
Your best bet for figuring this out for yourself is to work with a nutrition coach who can take you through it in an organized and diligent fashion. Your second best bet is to try an elimination diet on your own.
On this diet, you will simplify your foods down to the ones least likely to cause inflammation or immune responses. The foods that most commonly cause issues that should be avoided are:
- Dairy (with the exception of Ghee - Clarified Butter)
- Tree Nuts (almonds, cashews, etc)
Those foods are more related to intolerances and allergies. An easier elimination diet would eliminate mainly those. However, a thorough elimination diet might also eliminate anything that could be irritating the gut, such as plants that contain anti-nutrients, or large amounts of fiber that could be fermenting and feeding harmful gut bacteria. This thorough diet would eliminate:
- Nuts and seeds
- Cruciferous Vegetables (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, etc)
- Garlic and Onions
- Black Pepper
...Alongside the above mentioned common allergens/intolerances.
On this diet, some staples you might eat are:
- Organ Meats
- Squash (pumpkin, zucchini, etc)
- Cooked Mushrooms
- Easily Digested Veggies (Carrots, Celery, Spinach)
- Root Starches (Yams, Potatoes, Taro)
- Honey and Bee Products (Royal Jelly, Pollen)
- White Rice
- Coconut Oil, Beef Tallow, and Olive Oil (Get refined coconut oil if you don't want it to flavor your food)
- Coffee, Tea, or Herbal Brews
- Herbs for cooking
This wouldn't be the perfect diet for everyone; for instance someone with Gout who can't eat animal protein, or someone prone to kidney stones who would have to avoid the oxalates in spinach. But by and large this is a very simple, easily digested diet that is very unlikely to trigger any inflammatory reactions. It is also a very nutrient-dense diet that would probably do most people a lot of good regardless of the eliminations.
You might think of this like baby-food: Easily digested foods that give your gut and body some time to catch up on healing and repairs. Try this diet for 30 days and see how you feel. If you feel better, you can either just stick with it, or try adding back one food at a time slowly to see if something specific brings back unwanted symptoms. Try each new addition for 2 weeks before adding something else. If a food brings back symptoms, go another week or two without it before trying to add something else.
You can also make your body tolerant to some foods like dairy by reintroducing it at just one teaspoon a day, and increasing by one teaspoon a week, until the body gets used to it. This can work for some intolerances, but not allergies (so far). If you cut out dairy, I would recommend supplementing calcium, as it is not easily obtained in the diet, and is useful to balance the phosphorous in meat. If you are vegetarian, this is slightly less necessary, but could still be useful. My favorite form of calcium to supplement is Calcium Carbonate. If you prefer something more natural, you can get powdered eggshell capsules, but these might not be great if you have an issue with egg protein.
3. Check Your Vitamin D
There is a substantial correlation between severe COVID cases and low Vitamin D levels. Whether this is causation is still in question. However, it seems obvious that it would be prudent to ensure everyone had enough of it, considering the strong correlation and lack of downside.
Vitamin D plays many roles in the body; regulating hormones, maintaining bones and teeth, and helping the immune system.
Vitamin D also regulates the balance between ACE1 and ACE2 (gas and brakes of immune system), preventing either from outdoing the other. If vitamin D is protective against covid, this would be a likely reason for why.
Millions of Americans are deficient, but those most likely to be are:
- The elderly who can't absorb it from food as effectively
- Darker skinned people whose ancestors lived with more sunlight and whose melanin protects them from both the harms and benefits of sunlight
- People with chronic health issues whose bodies use up their vitamin D faster in order to combat their disease
- Overweight people, who have more total mass to dilute the vitamin
- Everyone during winter, especially further north
But the best way to find out if you need it is to get a blood test. You can go through your doctor, or order a home test online through a company like EverlyWell
If you want to simply find more Vitamin D in your diet, you can include more:
- Eggs (just eat the yolk if you are eliminating them or suspect an intolerance - the protein in the whites is where the issue usually is)
Do It Before You Get Sick
It takes time to build good habits, or identify what the right diet for you is. The best time to start would have been years ago, and maybe you already have, but the next best time is now. Build a solid foundation of overall health as your contingency plan against the virus.
If there were ever a pandemic that showed America's Achilles Heel, it is this one. Chronic health problems were already a figurative plague on our society. Now an actual plague is showing up adversely in those same people (and, fortunately, sparing children, unlike most plagues before).
Now, despite what many of my libertarian hippie friends say, I don't think good health will guarantee you don't react badly to covid. There are still cases of relatively healthy people suffering. In the Qigong and natural health world, I find a lot of people who seem to think viruses are powerless over people who take good care of themselves. I think this is a bit too black and white. For instance, the Natives of the Americas were extremely robust in their health and fitness. They lived a natural lifestyle with lots of sunshine, fresh air, no pollution, ate all organic wild produce, and exercised regularly. Yet MOST of them died after contracting Eurasian viruses. So novel viruses can still pose a threat to even the healthiest people. However, this doesn't mean our underlying health doesn't play any part, and there is good reason to believe that with this virus it actually may be the most important part alongside age.
So take care of yourself. Lower your stress, eat things suited to your unique body, check your vitamin D, and get rid of junk oils and foods as much as possible.
Maybe it will help with covid. Maybe it won't, and you'll just feel better anyways.
For personalized help with diet, lifestyle, movement, fitness, and more, consider reaching out about online private coaching with me, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
I can't promise I know everything, but I can help you make more sense out of your problems and find a solid plan to help you along.