At last year’s PlantFit Summit, 38 of the world’s leading health experts and doctors gave presentations on how to improve our health and wellbeing by adopting a more plant-based diet. As we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, many of the talks covered the Coronavirus and what can be done to boost our immune system, fight off the virus should we come into contact with it, and greatly reduce our chances of experiencing a serious case of the virus.
1. Get more vitamin D3
Covid-19 has a 0.4% mortality rate, with the high-risk groups identified as being those living in cold climates; people who are overweight; darker-skinned people; the elderly; and those with compromised immune systems i.e., with pre-existing medical conditions. Geoff Palmer is the founder and CEO of Clean Machine, Natural Sports Nutrition and a Masters Natural Physique Champion. He explains how every one of these high-risk groups can be linked with vitamin D3.
About 80% of our immune support system originates in our gut, living along the walls of our intestinal tract. “Vitamin D3 is known to up-regulate cathelicidin, antimicrobial peptides expressed in the intestinal epithelium that kill microorganisms by membrane disruption and are responsible for killing pathogens such as the Coronavirus,” Palmer explains.
Why colder climates? Influenza outbreaks are at their worst in the winter, when we have lower vitamin D3, which our skin creates from exposure to sunlight. Due to the curvature of the sun hitting the Earth in the winter, sunlight is either reflected or doesn’t get through. Even if you’re getting direct sunlight in the winter, you are not getting the vitamin D conversion, providing you with little to zero vitamin D3.
Palmer goes on to clarify why we are seeing many serious cases and deaths from Covid-19 in darker skinned people living in cold climates. “People with darker skin have more melanin in their skin,” Palmer explains. “But you take someone with a darker skin who has adapted to a lot of sun exposure, and you put them inside in a workplace or inside in a home, they need up to six times as much vitamin D to bring them to healthy status.”
This would be the equivalent of 30 minutes of sun at least three times a week in direct sunlight over two thirds of your body, which means down to shorts or a bikini.
“That’s why we’re seeing such a high rate of black people and Hispanics dying from this virus,” says Palmer. “Again, that low vitamin D is bringing down the cathelicidin, which is our defence system.”
Why are we seeing large incidences of serious cases in people who are overweight? Palmer explains that vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means fat soaks up the vitamin. “If you are overweight you would need two to three times as much vitamin D because it’s not getting into your system,” he explains.
And why are there higher death rates from Covid-19 in the elderly? “As we age, our bodies have less ability to convert vitamin D3,” Palmer says, “which means we actually need more vitamin D3 as we get older.”
Palmer goes on to share that there are higher rates of deaths in males, which he believes is because women are more likely to take vitamin D3 supplements on a regular basis. “Every single one of these groups can be correlated directly or indirectly with vitamin D status,” he says. “It’s really clear now and the studies are showing it.”
2. Reduce over-inflammatory states by eating more fibre
When the virus begins to attack our cells, our body creates cytokines, which are small pro-inflammatory proteins that signal the immune system to do its job and kill the pathogen that has entered our body. But in that inflammation, if there are more and more cytokines being delivered, it creates an over inflammatory state, referred to as a cytokine storm, or hypercytokinemia – a physiological reaction in which the innate immune system causes an uncontrolled and excessive release of cytokines. In Covid-19 patients, this storm can cause the lungs to fill with fluid, which is actually how a lot of people are dying from the virus.
Our body needs to bring down this inflammatory state as quickly as possible, so it doesn’t damage our healthy tissues, or even worse, cause death. We can actually die from our own inflammatory response, which is what happens with autoimmune disease. This is where butyrates come into the picture.
Butyrates are produced by our microbiome – our probiotics or gut flora – when we consume fibre, which comes only from plants. The microbiome actually digests the fibre and creates what is called post-biotics or metabolites created by butyrates.
Butyrates have a dual helpful function. The first one is upregulating cathelicidin, which as explained above kills the virus. The second is they have been shown to lower the inflammatory state of our bodies, and we need to be in low inflammatory conditions to be able to fight the virus healthily.
Dr. Stephan Esser is a physician specialising in lifestyle, sport medicine and nutrition. He spoke at the PlantFit Summit about how plant-based foods reduce inflammation. “When we’re consuming the standard Western diet (heavy in animal protein, dairy, processed foods), this results in the widening of the junctions of our intestinal mucosa, which means undigested proteins, viruses, and bacteria can quickly sneak through, inducing havoc and miseducating our immune system,” he explained.
Instead, Dr. Esser educates on filling our diet with nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory foods. “We need to skew our diets to all the berries, all the greens, to things like pineapple, which is loaded with bromelain, an anti-inflammatory enzyme. All of these should be appropriately selected with all the fresh herbs, which also have powerful anti-inflammatory effects,” he says.
If we’re consuming a plant-based, micronutrient-rich, fibre-rich diet, “our gut junctions are tight, resulting in only well-digested foods getting through, where they have appropriate immune results,” explains Dr. Esser.
This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Ron Weiss, who is dual board-certified in internal medicine and lifestyle medicine, and a primary care physician in New Jersey and New York. He is the founder of Ethos Primary Care and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and offers evidence-based, food-as-medicine approach to healing from chronic illness and optimising wellness.
Dr. Weiss explains how eating foods that come from animals and eating processed foods that lack a rich intake of fibre are highly inflammatory. “When we eat an egg, it has one of the highest sources of cholin on the planet. Cholin is turned by gut bacteria into a molecule which is very inflammatory and is absorbed into our bloodstream, and it ends up being metabolised into its final form, which is called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO).
Dr. Weiss believes that TMAO is the “Darth Vader” of vascular damage, which can lead to blood clots in arteries and eventually to heart attacks.
“When TMAO is floating around in our arteries, it excoriates the life jacket of our arteries – which damages it,” he explains. “Then your bad cholesterol goes and deposits its poison inside the lining, creating atherosclerotic sclerotic plaques that build up and block the artery, allowing a blood clot to come along and give you a heart attack.”
The same trimethylamine oxide is produced in vast amounts when we eat a piece of meat.
3. Get more exercise
People who exercise have a much more complex microbiome. Palmer explains how a healthy microbiome with lots of different bacteria “specialize in producing different metabolites that can be very beneficial to our health”.
Regular exercise suppresses pro-inflammatory cytokines and increases anti-inflammatory modulators. These effects have also been noted in intestinal lymphocytes of mice and may contribute to a reduction in oxidative insult in the gut, creating an environment that favours healthy microbes.
Exercise also reduces stress, which plays a large role in keeping our inflammatory states low. Regular, moderate exercise also reduces stress-induced intestinal barrier dysfunction, which balances the microbiome. The more richly complex microbiome you have, usually the healthier state of the diet.