As COVID-19 blasts its way across the globe, viral wellness videos, tweets and social media posts are springing up in its wake. Whatever the platform, these blitzes share the same underlying message: Certain supplements and natural remedies can prepare your immune system to do battle against the infection caused by the novel coronavirus.
Some online gurus advise downing mega quantities of vitamin C. Others recommend stacking zinc doses, prompting the swift clearing of pharmacy shelves. Others sing the praises of colloidal silver, a compound natural-health buffs have long touted, or boiling massive amounts of garlic and drinking the fragrant liquid straight.
Claims like these, however, generally fall into the too-good-to-be-true category. Immunologists say there’s no proof these regimens help your immune system fight COVID-19 — and warn that cobbling together your own natural treatment plan can do more harm than good.
“Anybody who’s making specific medical claims needs to supply a quality body of evidence,” says David Stukus, an immunologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “It’s really important to investigate before taking claims at face value.” So far, says John Mellors, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, no randomized clinical trials have shown vitamins or natural remedies to be effective in treating or preventing COVID-19.
A lack of scientific evidence, however, hasn’t prevented self-styled experts from rushing in. Online, high-dose vitamin C tops the list of most-touted coronavirus supplements — a frenzy that YouTube influencers have been feeding.
“Extra vitamin C makes the immune system work better,” claims Andrew Saul, who calls himself “The MegaVitamin Man.” To support his argument that the vitamin fends off COVID-19, he cites a doctor who has “never seen a virus yet that Vitamin C would not cure or ameliorate.” (Saul’s video has since been removed from YouTube.)
One reason pitches like Saul’s can seem so appealing is that they contain granules of truth. A China-based clinical trial, for instance, is now evaluating whether high doses of vitamin C — up to 24 grams a day — can help resolve COVID-19-related pneumonia.
However, the clinical trial will not produce results until the end of September. Beyond that, using vitamins to treat conditions like pneumonia is very different than using them to prevent COVID-19 in the first place. Supplement promoters, Stukus says, tend to seize on “little nuggets of data, and [they] gets extrapolated where [they] shouldn’t. There’s a lot of dots being connected that don’t connect in real life.”
Another confounding factor is that there’s ample evidence that nutrients from our diet — including vitamins B6, C, D and zinc — do ensure the immune system rests on a strong foundation. The vitamin C from foods like citrus fruits helps your skin cells keep bacteria and viruses out, and some immune cells deploy the vitamin as ammunition to kill harmful microbes. Your body uses vitamin B6 from meats and fish to make antibodies, defender proteins that keep pathogens contained until your immune system can finish them off. Garlic, meanwhile, contains a compound called allicin, which stimulates some immune cells to attack microbial invaders.
But while a strong immune foundation is important, building more stories on top doesn’t necessarily shore that structure up further. In other words, if you’re already eating a balanced diet with recommended amounts of nutrients, super-sized additional doses probably aren’t going to juice your COVID-19 immunity. “‘A little is good, a lot is better’ is too simplistic an approach,” Mellors says. “Vitamins were not meant to be loaded in excess of the conditions we evolved under.”
In fact, overdoing natural remedies may leave you sicker than you were when you began. High-dose vitamin C can cause diarrhea and upset stomach, and put you at risk of kidney stones. Over time, large doses of zinc can lead to numbness in your arms or legs. And when colloidal silver builds up in your system, it can cause harmful effects like seizures and kidney damage. The FDA recently warned several companies to stop selling colloidal silver as a coronavirus remedy.
Some people who try unproven treatments could end up putting others’ health at risk as well as their own. Seductive pitches can lull viewers into the false belief that supplement regimens shield them against the virus, Stukus says, which may dissuade them from following social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines.
For the time being, our best coronavirus defenses don’t lend themselves to sexy social media promos. Getting plenty of sleep, eating healthily, and managing your stress levels all help maximize your overall immune potential.
Mellors understands why people are frustrated they can’t do more to protect themselves. “It’s human nature to want to control your fate, and it’s very unsettling not to do anything,” he says. Yet he stresses that the ideal COVID-19 prescription, for now, is watchful waiting. “Biomedical science will conquer this. It just needs time.”