CORVALLIS, Ore. — Supplements containing vitamins C and D, along with other micronutrients, can be a "safe, effective and low-cost" means to fight off COVID-19 and other acute respiratory tract diseases, according to an Oregon State University researcher.
Adrian Gombart of OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute, along with his collaborators at universities across the world, said public health officials should issue a clear set of nutritional guidelines to complement the existing advice about washing hands to prevent the spread of infections.
Findings were published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients.
“Around the world, acute respiratory tract infections kill more than 2.5 million people every year,” Gombart said. “Meanwhile, there’s a wealth of data that shows the role that good nutrition plays in supporting the immune system.
As a society, we need to be doing a better job of getting that message across along with the other important, more common messages.”
Because people are simply not getting enough of these vital nutrients through their diets, researchers are urging people to not only a take a daily multivitamin but doses of 200 milligrams or more of vitamin C — higher than the suggested federal guidelines of 75 milligrams for men and 50 for women — and 2,000 international units of vitamin D.
Gombart is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science and a principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute, a leader in the study of micronutrients and their role in promoting optimum health or preventing and treating disease.
He collaborated with nutritional experts and scientists at the University of Southampton in England, the University of Otago in New Zealand and University Medical Center in The Netherlands.
The role nutrition plays in supporting the immune system is well-established.
The panel of experts looked at clinical trials, human studies and research papers before reaching their findings.
Poor diet can mean less immunity
“The roles that vitamins C and D play in immunity are particularly well known,” Gombart said.
He explained that vitamin C has roles in several aspects of immunity, including the growth and function of immune cells and antibody production.
Vitamin D also profoundly influences a body's response to infections.
“The problem is that people simply aren’t eating enough of these nutrients," Gombart said. "This could destroy your resistance to infections. Consequently, we will see an increase in disease and all of the extra burdens that go along with that increase.”
He pointed out that the disease has been particularly detrimental to older people, those with pre-existing conditions and people with darker skin — all populations who tend to have lower vitamin D levels because they don't synthesize vitamin D as efficiently.
The stakes are huge, Gombart said.
Every year, influenza hospitalizes millions and kills several hundred thousand worldwide. So far, COVID-19 has killed tens of thousands of people in the United States. Eighty-three coronavirus-related deaths and 2,127 cases have been reported in Oregon.
Gombart said taking preventative supplements doesn't have to be expensive. A multivitamin and stand-alone vitamins C and D supplements with the USP seal to verify the dosage can be bought fairly cheaply — adding up to pennies a day in cost — at grocery stores and places like Costco.
"It's an investment that is worthwhile," he said.
COVID-19 prevention isn't the only possible benefit. The flu and other viral and bacterial infections can be kept at bay when immune cells are receiving proper micronutrients.
More prevention needed
Gombart said current public health practices stressing social distancing, hygiene and vaccinations are important and effective, but in need of complementary strategies. A nutritional focus on the immune system could help minimize the impact of many kinds of infections.
“The present situation with COVID-19 and the number of people dying from other respiratory infections make it clear that we are not doing enough,” he said. “We strongly encourage public health officials to include nutritional strategies in their arsenal.”
Oregon Health Authority officials said they do not have a position on the use of supplements to fight COVID-19.
"Certainly vitamins and minerals help boost the immune system, and OHA recommends a well-balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables," public health officials said in a statement. "Although some, but not all, studies have shown a benefit for supplemental zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D in fighting respiratory tract infections, there are no data on whether they can prevent COVID-19 or be used as treatment."
Marion County health officials did not respond to request for comment Thursday.
Gombart most people are fairly healthy even when they don't get enough micronutrients. They don't always see the deficiency until their immune system is tested.
This makes getting enough vitamin C or D so that an immune system is functioning at its fullest when it does encounter an infection a key part of disease prevention.
But despite their promise at preventing infections, these micronutrients are no "miracle cure."
"You're not going to take a bunch of vitamin D and all of a sudden you're cured of something when you have an infection," Gombart said.
For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth
This article was originally published by the Salem Statesman Journal, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.