Muna Kayalova is a Syrian-Czech clinical microbiologist who keeps up with the latest updates regarding COVID-19 as a part of her daily work. She’s also a registered nutritionist who promotes a healthy diet and lifestyle to prevent chronic diseases and age-related disabilities.
Who could have imagined that a microscopic virus would turn the world upside down and cause dramatic changes in our lives in ways that may not have crossed our minds before?
COVID-19, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is acquired by exposure to micro-droplets present in secretions eliminated by the lungs of infected individuals or by contact with viral particles present on contaminated surfaces. Therefore washing hands, social distancing, and wearing face masks are the most cogent procedures to prevent transmission of the virus and protect the population, including healthcare workers.
Health workers are at higher risk of being infected because of close contact with infected patients. Their death rate is also higher due to the high viral load and repeated exposure to the virus. They also face a high level of stress and burnout, impacting the immune system’s ability to fight against the virus.
The main target of this virus is the respiratory tract. The virus has protein spikes on its surface, which can get attached to the lungs’ cell receptors, invade lung cells, and use them to replicate and proliferate.
The human body’s response to the virus is known to involve all components of the immune system. Our innate immune systems begin by attacking invading agents with the help of macrophages (phagocytic white blood cells) — meanwhile, the adaptive immune system is more specific in its response, though it comes into action with a slight delay. T-cells attack the infected cells and destroy them. Meanwhile, antibodies produced by B-cells travel in the bloodstream to attack the virus itself directly and to neutralise it.
The virus can affect the immune system in high-risk patients and decrease the ability to eliminate it in the early stages. Also, the massive secretion of cytokines (cytokine storm) leads to a hyperimmune response which can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and in worst-case scenarios multi-system organ failure, especially of the heart and kidneys.
The severity of the disease has been associated with risk factors such as advanced age and underlying conditions (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, or compromised immunity).
A study conducted on 5,700 patients with COVID-19 whose condition required admission to New York City hospitals: 57% of patients suffered from hypertension, 42% of obesity, and 34% of diabetes. These risk factors can be adjusted through a healthier lifestyle and more balanced nutrition.
Strategies to stay healthy during the flu season
Keep your immune system in balance
Your immune system is the first line of defence against infectious diseases. But all you need to stay healthy is to keep your immune system in balance. Both an under- and overactive immune response can be harmful to your body. By keeping your body healthy, you prepare it to best fight its foes.
A healthy diet
Your immune system is incomprehensibly complicated; it uses many mechanisms to fight off disease and maintain balance. That is why there is no single vitamin or supplement that will boost your immunity magically. Nevertheless vitamin deficiency (especially vitamins C, D, B2, B6, and B12, as well as folic acid and zinc) can have negative consequences that leave your body vulnerable and unable to retaliate against even more minor invasions. Luckily for you, vitamins and minerals can be found in adequate amounts in a healthy balanced diet.
Eating more vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals, while limiting sugar intake and processed food, is a good way to start. Some studies suggest that processed oils can activate T cells, causing a more proinflammatory state, which can compromise proper immune responses.
Zinc is an anti-inflammatory agent that helps to optimise immune function and reduces the risk of infection. While zinc deficiency may impair your immune response, you can get enough zinc from your diet. Primary sources of zinc are red meat, fish, legumes, eggs and dairy. Zinc deficiency is most common amongst the elderly. The recommended daily intake of zinc is 11 mg/day for men and 8 mg/day for women.
Vitamin D is a vital component for maintaining a healthy immune system, particularly by enhancing T-cell function. We can get vitamin D from foods such as fish oil, eggs, butter, and red meats, but the majority of it is produced right underneath our skin when exposed to sunlight. People with diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure usually have less vitamin D than the rest of the population. Similarly, a recent study showed that the mortality rate among COVID-19 patients is higher in people with low levels of vitamin D. Daily intake of vitamin D should be at least 400 IU (or 10 ug), which you can get in about 15 min of sun exposure.
Although vitamin C is essential for immune function, there is no scientific evidence that its supplements can prevent COVID-19 or boost immunity against it. However, vitamin C is essential in stimulating the production and function of different types of white blood cells that help to fight off illness-causing bacteria and viruses. Furthermore, its powerful antioxidant properties play a role in protecting certain white blood cells from the toxic compounds which they produce when combating pathogens. The daily amount of vitamin C should be at least 75mg for women and 90mg for men. You can easily ingest that amount in fresh fruit and vegetables like peppers, kale, kiwis, lemons, and broccoli.
Our bodies rely heavily on protein to fight viral and bacterial infection and repair body tissue. The immune system requires proteins for antibody production, which helps to fight off viruses like COVID-19. Insufficient protein intake can result in fatigue, weakness, and poor immunity, so for a healthy body, it’s important to choose good sources of protein such as chicken and lean beef, nuts, beans, lentils, seeds, and peanut butter.
Probiotic and prebiotic food
Did you know our guts (also referred to as our “second brain”) have a lesser-known nervous system that communicates with the brain in our heads? Our two brains work together in what is known as the gut-brain connection, fighting against diseases and improving overall health. The gut hosts a society of trillions of microbes, known as microbiota, that live in harmony with our bodies. Probiotics are beneficial or “friendly” bacteria that can exert health boosting effects on the microbiota as they travel through the GI tract, and they play a vital role in immune system function. You can find them in foods like kefir, yoghurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha. In order to function, this bacteria requires foods rich in prebiotics, which are types of fibres that can be found in vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Stress can have various impacts on our bodies. Short-term stress, also known as the fight-or-flight response, actually stimulates immune activity to deal with immediate threats. However, chronic stress is a much different animal. It is associated with elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone that suppresses the immune system by lowering the number of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). In turn, this reduces the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens like chemicals, bacteria, viruses, or pollen. Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system too, with sufferers engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, drinking, and poor meal choices. Those who suffer from chronic stress can help to manage by practicing relaxation, meditation, and various breathing techniques.
Sleep plays an incredibly important role in maintaining strong health and skimping on it could make you far more susceptible to viruses. During sleep, your body both produces and releases cytokines, a type of protein that fights against infection and inflammation. It is recommended to get seven to eight hours sleep a night, which will help your immune system not only to combat colds and flu, but also to protect you from other health issues including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Furthermore, getting a good night’s sleep and taking naps has been proven to decrease stress and offset the negative resulting effects.
Moderate but regular exercise is one of the pillars of healthy living. Its benefits are immense, helping to improve cardiovascular health, control body weight, lower blood pressure, and protect against a wide array of diseases. Regular exercise is also important in regulating the immune system. Even just a 30-minute walk each day can help to promote better circulation, which in turn allows cells and substances of the immune system to pass through the body more freely and efficiently.
Taking your flu shots
Flu viruses and the coronavirus may both be spreading again this autumn. While the flu shot does not protect you from contracting COVID-19, it will reduce pressure on your health system and it is especially recommended for people above 65 and those with chronic pulmonary or cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, immune insufficiency, and most importantly for caregivers.
Even though the Czech Republic is well-prepared for the epidemiological development of COVID-19, experts anticipate a second wave this autumn.
Lars Schaade, the vice-president of the Robert Koch Institute, stated that, “At least until there’s a vaccine or a treatment, we will have to try to build this virus into our everyday lives, changing our behaviour to reduce its transmission. We find ourselves in a new normality.”
To live with the virus means to go out, to do one’s work, to have a social life, and to meet up with friends. At the same time it is imperative to keep up the practices that prevent the further spread of the virus and to practice the right lifestyle to stay fit and healthy.