How to Stay Healthy During a Pandemic

Touro Pharmacy Professor Shares the Truth About Supplements and How to Keep Your Immune System in Top Shape

November 09, 2020
supplement bottle and loose supplement pills
Are supplements safe?

Vitamins. Exercise. Sunlight. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many people are desperate to boost their immune system in hopes of avoiding the illness or lessen its devastating impact. But supplements aren’t always safe and can have adverse side effects. Before you pop another Vitamin D, Touro College of Pharmacy professor Roman Fazylov, Pharm.D., BCPS, explains what you need to know about the immune system and how to keep yourself healthy.

Everyone is talking about the need to boost the immune system during the pandemic. How exactly does that work?

The immune system is complex and not yet fully understood by modern day science. It functions on a variety of levels to accomplish the ultimate function of protecting our body from physical foreign objects. The term “boost immune system” being used widely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is misleading and not based in science. In general, the best way to support your immune system is to live a healthy lifestyle, which provides your immune cells with the proper nutrients and environment for optimal function. Healthy ways to strengthen your immune system include:

  • No smoking
  • Limited alcohol
  • Lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Avoid saturated fats and starchy carbohydrates
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get adequate sleep (8 hours/night)
  • Minimize stress
  • Talk to your physician to ensure adequate levels of vitamin D, electrolytes and trace metals

Which vitamins/supplements would you recommend and at what dosage?

Unfortunately, there are no vitamins or supplements that can be recommended for the purposes of “boosting immune” function. In general, people should take vitamins only if they have a deficiency through their diet or other sources. Specifically, Vitamins A, E, D or K should be taken if patients have a proven deficiency or are preventing a deficiency from recurring. The reason being is that these vitamins have a risk of overdose with serious adverse effects; therefore, their levels should be monitored via blood level testing at pre-determined intervals and dosing should be patient-specific. On the other hand, B-Complex, Vitamin C or Omega-3 fatty acids can be taken if there is a deficiency from dietary sources. Patients can consult their specific case with a nutritionist, physician or pharmacist for solutions tailored to them with the goal of maintaining adequate amounts of necessary vitamins/minerals and trace elements for optimal immune function.

Do these vitamins help prevent COVID? Are they useful for people suffering from COVID? Can they prevent a secondary infection?

There are no vitamins or supplements that can prevent COVID-19. The best prevention methods are those that have been outlined by the CDC. Maintain social distancing; wash your hands frequently with soap and water; and cover your mouth and nose with a mask when around others. Some experts suggest taking Vitamin C 200 mg daily to prevent COVID-19 and other respiratory tract infections, or 1-2 grams daily at the onset of symptoms to improve recovery. These doses are likely safe in most adults, but there is no strong evidence to support the effectiveness of Vitamin C for COVID-19. There is also no strong evidence supporting other herbs and supplements for COVID-19 such as elderberry, echinacea or zinc.

Can supplements have adverse effects? Please explain.

Supplements are most definitely associated with adverse effects. Many herbs and supplements have potentially significant drug-drug or drug-food interactions that may cause harm to patients. To get specific information on herbs or supplements, be sure to seek counsel with a trained professional such as a physician or pharmacist or you can seek guidance from a reference known as the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.