More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, our understanding of how best to protect our health is still evolving. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been beating the drum of important preventive measures like wearing a mask, social distancing and frequent hand-washing, some studies also link the severity of COVID-19 cases to vitamin deficiency—particularly vitamin D, explains Donna Paulhamus, clinical director at the University of Delaware Nutrition Counseling, Research and Training Clinic in Newark. While vitamin C and zinc are go-tos for fighting off colds and flu, they’ve proved less effective in reducing symptoms of the current coronavirus.
The link between COVID-19 symptoms and supplements is still in early stages, but the link between nutrition and immune health is indisputable. What, then, should we know now about taking vitamin and mineral supplements for protecting our immune system?
“Firstly, it’s important to understand the function of those supplements, as well as the limits of what they can do for us,” Paulhamus says. “We know that certain vitamins and minerals are important to maintaining a healthy immune system, but you can’t really ‘boost’ your immune system by taking [them]. When it when it comes to vitamins and mineral supplements, enough is enough, and more is not better.”
As a dietitian, Paulhamus knows firsthand that the majority of American diets don’t meet basic guidelines for nutrients that help prevent chronic disease and promote overall health.
“The link between COVID-19 symptoms and supplements is still in early stages, but the link between nutrition and immune health is indisputable.”
So, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take multivitamin or mineral supplements if most of us are already working from a deficit, Paulhamus points out. “A healthy diet is really important to immune health functioning,” she says. “If our diets are less than ideal, it’s a reasonable safety net for people who aren’t necessarily able to follow a healthy diet.”
The CDC estimates that about 40 percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient. We get about 50 to 90 percent of our vitamin D intake through sunlight absorbed via the skin, but, as Paulhamus explains, with sunscreens (and weaker sunlight during the winter months), it’s harder for us to produce the amount we need. And while some vitamin D is consumed through foods—like fortified milk and cereals, as well as oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines—it’s not nearly enough to meet our daily needs.
For immune system support, it’s also important to maintain the right levels of vitamin B12. Found in animal products like eggs, meat and dairy, B12 in supplement form is especially essential for vegans and vegetarians who won’t derive enough from their diet.
Supplements can help where we are deficient, but don’t overdo it, Paulhamus warns. “Supplements are beneficial to get your levels up to where they need to be, but taking too much can be dangerous.” She advises getting your blood levels tested and supplementing as your doctor recommends.