Covid is still here. Does nutrition matter? What can you do to beat it? You’ve probably heard about inflammatory cytokine storms that can trip a COVID-19 infection from mild and easily beaten, to prolonged, dangerous, complicated, or even fatal. Luckily, so far, it appears this happens to a only small percentage of those who get infected: Mortality (death) rates vary, hovering from less than 1 percent to 4-5%. The Americas were the worst place to be at the height of the pandemic, with higher than expected mortality for our population. And our promised shots have done little to actually eradicate covid. What else can you do? What are we doing wrong? The role of background inflammation in making COVID a riskier matter is clear. Persons with diabetes, coronary vascular disease, hypertension, or heart disease show significantly higher risk for hospitalization (asthma was at first thought to elevate risk for complications and death, but newer data have not borne this out). All these conditions have an inflammatory component. Many of us – kids included- have no idea that we may have background inflammation, or know about the nutrition problems that go with that. For example…
- It can take six to ten years to diagnose celiac disease, a debilitating sensitivity to gluten (wheat) that escalates to autoimmune disease with systemic inflammatory effects beyond the gut. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can end up as full blown celiac for some – and this goes undiagnosed more often. Either way, it too can cause systemic inflammation. Adding one more test for a deamidated gliadin antibody to celiac screening can save kids years of pain, poor growth or slow weight gain, and neurological or psychiatric impairments.
- Autoimmune thyroid disorders affect nearly 30 million people in the US, but these can go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years – creating another scenario of chronic inflammation, engaging the immune system fruitlessly for years.
- As a pediatric dietitian/nutritionist, I am often in the position of being the first clinician on a child’s team to capture elevated calprotectin on stool testing. Calprotectin is an inflammatory marker that typically attends extensive gut dysbiosis or inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or food allergies. It is a biomarker for colitis, enteritis, and even rheumatoid arthritis. Prior to my screening, no one knew these children – who were suffering and symptomatic – had background inflammation, and were sitting ducks for more infection, more illness, or poor tolerance for shots in general .
Undiagnosed background inflammatory conditions are part of why some die so quickly from covid, including children, or young strong adults. Was there an unknown background burden for inflammation or infection, that elevated that person’s risk? This circumstance will also drive poor tolerance to covid shots for some. Few kids in my pediatric nutrition practice have had screening for inflammatory markers, or for nutrition concerns, before working with me. This is a problem, because your immune system depends on nutrition to function. In kids, this is very important. The lower a child’s nutrition status, the more likely that child is to get sick more often, have more complicated and longer illnesses, or even die, from infectious diseases. In fact, the single most predictive measure of how a child will fare through an illness is nutrition status, a fact that has been understood for decades. This means that a lot of folks including kids and seemingly well young adults are walking around with the ticking-time-bomb, double-whammy set up of background inflammation plus a dearth of the nutrients you need to manage inflammation and infection! Besides finding weaknesses for critical immune-supporting nutrients (iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, protein ), nutrition screenings can pick up inflammation signals on routine bloodwork. I screen for this stuff and fix it in my pediatric nutrition practice. Parents are often pleasantly surprised when, after working with me, their kids rarely get sick (and they have more energy, sleep better, and are happier too). I believe that part of the variation we are seeing in covid infections and deaths is directly related to nutrition. Nutrition assessment is not part of routine pediatric care, and advising families on how to navigate nutrition concerns for kids certainly isn’t either! When was the last time your pediatrician told you what to make for dinner, or how to pack a lunch your picky eater would actually finish? Lol. Never. Here are five ways to build a strong immunity-foundation for your kids: 1 – Feed Your Kids – Lots! The one factor that most determines how a child weathers an illness or infection is nutrition status. And, the single most important nutrition parameter for a child is growth pattern. This is the single most important nutrition parameter for a child, period. Not whether they eat fermented food, follow a GAPS diet, or never eat sugar. Nope. In children, when it comes to fighting infection, it’s all about body resources and nutrient stores. So, make sure that your kids maintain a healthy weight before illness strikes. Underweight children as well as overweight kids are more likely to get sick more often, stay sick longer, and have more complications than children in normal weight status. This fact is based on decades of global data on childhood illness and child mortality. Because the immune system pulls on stored nutrient resources during illness, and because some of those resources are stored protein and energy in our own tissues, even slightly underweight children can have higher risk for infections and poor outcomes. Your child does not have to be visibly emaciated or even below the 5th percentile for weight for age, in order to be clinically underweight. Your doctor may not have noticed a growth impairment, so visit my blog on underweight in children to see if your child falls in this category.
- Don’t fear carbs or over-restrict them. Instead, load up on healthy vegetable source carbohydrates like sweet potato fries, plantain chips, squashes, chick peas, berries, apples, mango, carrot, pea pods, cassava tortillas (if corn is a fail), sprouted grains or seeds, or legumes; or allow whole grains and GF grains as tolerated. Carbs help kids gain and grow, and a healthy gut will readily and comfortably use them. Recipes from my blog that fit the bill: Portuguese Kale Soup, Spicy Chick Pea Curry, and Pumpkin and Lentil Dahl.
- Too much protein can be as ineffective as too little protein in a child’s diet. Generally, children need anywhere from 35 grams (toddlers) to 50-60 grams (bigger school age kids) or as much as 70-80 grams (big high school athletes with rigorous work outs) of protein daily, depending on their growth status and activity levels.
- During illness, protein losses can increase. Use two extra servings daily for protein rich foods like bone broth, collagen, fish, legumes, meats or poultry, any safe nuts/seeds or their butters.
- Immune (and lung) helpers like vitamins A and D need to be eaten with fats or oils, to be absorbed and stored. Let your kids eat plenty of healthy fats like olive oil, grass fed butter or ghee, organic grass fed meats, coconut milk or oil, egg yolks, avocado, nuts/seeds and their butters, or fish oils.
- Eat mineral rich foods for zinc and iron; both are immune-critical helpers that are often low in kids’ diets and are readily spent when we get sick. Go for nuts, seeds, vegetables, legumes, juiced greens, bone broth, egg yolks, pork, lamb, or beef; unsweetened cocoa or dark chocolate is zinc rich too! If some of these don’t go in your kids’ mouths every day, use a supplement. 30 mg zinc daily is a start; kids may need more depending on their status. Iron is toxic at high doses, so ask your doctor what dose to start with in your child’s case. Fun fact: A clinical sign of poor zinc status is losing your sense of taste and smell. Sound familiar? This is also a key feature of covid infection, indicating that the body is ripping through whatever zinc it has on hand to fight.
2 – Probiotics Help Lungs Too
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus reuteri, and Bifido lactis have been shown to help lung tissue protect itself from invading pathogens. If a probiotic isn’t in your child’s regular rotation, consider adding one that includes these strains, such as Allergy Research Group Lactobacillus or Klaire Labs Therbiotic Factor 6.
3 – Use Antioxidants During Illness
- Vitamin C as sodium ascorbate in high doses is a strong antioxidant that may help beat viruses. Use doses in the multi gram range, not milligrams, eg a 50 lb child can use 5 grams of Vitamin C daily if this doesn’t upset stomach. Split doses throughout the day for better tolerance.
- N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid we use to make glutathione, our body’s top go-to for detoxification and antioxidant actions – especially for lung tissue. NAC also helps break down mucus in lung tissue. In my practice, I have used 600-1200 mg NAC daily in school aged children. It can be used in multigram doses as well (a common support for anxiety or OCD).
4 – Use Immune Modulating and Virus-Killing Herbal Supports
- Houttuynia cordata herb (available as drops from Nutramedix) showed anti-corona virus activity in this animal study from 2016.
- Cilia are tiny hair like cells that beat debris and mucus up and out of our lung tissue. Corona viruses target these delicate structures, causing more fluid and debris to build up. Protective herbs for cilia include olive leaf extract and berberine. See Barlean’s Olive Leaf Extract liquid and Core Berberine from Energetix; you can also use a glycerite based goldenseal tincture as a berberine source.
- Corona viruses attack by attaching to a key protein on cell surfaces called ACE-2, which has the important job of regulating vascular constriction. Once ACE-2 is disrupted, fluid can enter the lungs more easily… and fast. The body responds with strong inflammatory cascades, but this can make the infection worse. Chinese Skullcap, horse chestnut, elderberry, cinnamon, and licoriceroot make it harder for the virus to attach. Resveratrol can reduce inflammatory cytokine response. All of these products are available in various formats easy to give to children (tinctures, drops, powders, and in some cases, chewables).
5 – Give Direct Immune Support
- Immunoglobulins are immune proteins that we make to protect ourselves. They are found in breast milk and in colostrum, and are quite effective at protecting newborns and babies! You can also now purchase a dairy free, hypoallergenic, bovine serum derived immunoglobulin supplement and use it daily to boost immunity. See Orthomolecular Research brand for SBI Protect. I use this often in my practice for children of all ages, with good results. This is a tasteless powder that mixes readily in soft foods or liquids.
There is no way to vaccinate our way out of covid. Viruses mutate, and mass vaccination gives them a ready reservoir to do so. Once in a host, the virus will handily reconfigure for its survival. Chasing this with new shots becomes a race to the bottom. As we learned before from the SARS virus, corona virus vaccines are exquisitely challenging to create.Two-thirds of those polled expressed that they would not take a covid vaccine, due to safety concerns. In the meantime, take action to support your kids’ immune systems so they can be as ready as possible. Bonus – they may breeze through winter with no colds or flu bugs at all!