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Media Bungles COVID-19 Prevention

Media Bungles COVID-19 Prevention
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…by once again telling us supplements are useless. This irresponsible reporting has to stop. Action Alert!

Mainstream media outlets have come out swinging at the idea that supplements can help you during the COVID-19 pandemic. The takeaway from these articles is that there isn’t anything we can do to protect ourselves until a pharmaceutical intervention is developed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

A BBC article makes much out of claims that cayenne pepper, green tea, kombucha, and, most bizarre of all, masturbation, can “boost” immunity” and provide protection against COVID-19. “Unfortunately,” the author concludes, “the idea that pills, trendy superfoods or wellness habits can provide a shortcut to a healthy immune system is a myth.” Similarly, a New York Times headline reads: Supplements for Coronavirus Probably Won’t Help, and May Harm.

A key contention made by the BBC article is that supplementing isn’t helpful unless you have a deficiency. The article asserts that most people in the “developed” world get most of the essential vitamins and minerals from their diet, but this is simply false. Consider that 92% of Americans have a vitamin deficiency. Large studies have confirmed that most Americans are lacking in important micronutrients. A national survey of over 16,000 people found high percentages of Americans were not meeting the estimated average requirements (EARs)– the intake level for a nutrient at which the needs of 50 percent of the population will be met. Crucially, the survey found that almost 95% of Americans did not meet the EAR for vitamin D.

Studies have shown that the immune system relies on micronutrients, and that supplements can help deliver these nutrients. One study compared supplementation consisting of multivitamins alone, vitamin A alone, or both with placebo in women in Tanzania, Africa who had HIV infection. The study found that women who received the multivitamin were less likely to progress to advanced stages of HIV disease. A review article found that micronutrient inadequacies can result in a reduced ability to fight infections and impaired cognitive function. Other research shows that micronutrient inadequacies may impact long-term health, increasing risk for chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes—which are comorbidities for COVID-19.

Practitioners of natural medicine understand this and advise patients to address their particular deficiencies with proper supplementation. This sensible advice runs against a pervasive media narrative that claims nutritional “silver bullets” don’t work, mock supplements, and tell us they’re useless.

There are a number of other points brought up by these articles that should be addressed:

  • The BBC article describes the vitamin C market as a “racket.” This view isn’t shared by the scientists and researchers who are studying the use of vitamin C in combination with other supplements for the treatment of COVID-19—there are in fact ten clinical trials looking at vitamin C’s efficacy as a treatment for COVID-19; intravenous vitamin C is also being used in New York hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.
  • The NYT article calls out colloidal silver, but there is evidence for silver’s effect on bacteria and even viruses.
  • The BBC article highlights green tea as an outlandish example of natural health advice. Yet a compound found in green tea, epigallocatechin-gallate (EGCG) enhances the entry of zinc into cells, much like the highly touted drug chloroquine. Quercetin is another natural compound that helps zinc enter cells. Experts say zinc has been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus replication.

Our COVID-19 page lists many other supplements that can be helpful for prevention and treatment during this pandemic.

The author of the BBC piece seems to fundamentally misunderstand—or be uninterested in understanding—a functional medicine approach to rejuvenating immunity, writing that you wouldn’t want to strengthen or “boost” certain immune responses, like a fever or mucus production. But the point made by functional medicine experts is that the immune systems of many people are not operating at full capacity because of a lack of micronutrients, environmental exposures, and many other factors. The point is to correct these many imbalances so the body’s natural defenses can do their work—not to send these processes into overdrive so we have more mucus or a higher fever. (Note though that some supplements do in fact support the activity of natural killer cells and T cells.)

Our environment, our diet, exercise, how much sleep we get, genetics, and many other factors help determine the strength of our body’s defense against viruses and other stressors. Ensuring that we have optimized our levels of a variety of vitamins and minerals is one aspect of shoring up our immune defenses against viral infection. To suggest otherwise is to compromise our health and keep us in a system that treats sick people rather than maintaining healthy people. Mainstream journalists have long made a punching bag out of supplements and natural health, but the stakes are much higher during this pandemic. It is irresponsible to tell people that supplements can’t help, particularly at a time when people should be empowered to take proactive steps to protect their health.

Action Alert! Write to the NYT and BBC editorial boards, telling them to issue corrections to these factually inaccurate articles. Please send your message immediately.

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