Doctor’s Tip: Immunity versus COVID-19 is complex
Dr. Michael Greger is known for his nonprofit, nutritionfacts.org, and his books including “How Not to Die” and “How Not to Diet.” Early in his career he worked in public health and wrote a book about pandemics about a decade ago. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, he just came out with a book called “How to Survive a Pandemic,” and many of his recent daily blogs and videos have been based on his research for that book.
In a recent video, Dr. Greger talks about the complexity of the human immune system in relation to COVID-19. As we all know, this virus is new (“novel”) to humans, reacts differently from other viruses in many ways, and scientists are still learning about it. Here’s what we know at this point:
• People with weakened immune systems are more apt to become infected with other viruses, but we don’t know if that applies to SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. However, it’s clear that if people with diminished immune function are infected with SARS-CoV-2, they are more apt to die. Causes of weakened immune system include conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease; steroids or other immunosuppressive treatment (including prednisone/cortisone) for inflammatory conditions such as asthma or rheumatoid arthritis; chemotherapy or radiation for cancer; and older age (60 and above).
• Younger people including young children are less apt to have severe COVID infection, even though young children don’t have a fully developed immune system.
• The typical course of COVID-19 in people who die from it is to have relatively mild symptoms for the first two weeks, such as fever, cough and loss of taste and smell. Then they suddenly become short of breath and crash.
• What causes severe COVID disease is an over-reaction of the immune system, which attacks the cells in the lungs. This scenario results in ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) — which often is fatal. Severe COVID disease is now being treated — somewhat successfully — by an immune-suppressing steroid called Decadron.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about immunity and our ability to fight off SARS-CoV-2 infection. We know that the following help immunity against other viral infections: adequate sleep; regular physical activity; stress reduction; staying connected (even remotely) to friends and family; and a diet high in plant-based whole foods and low in animal products, salt and sugar.
Both Dr. Greger and the WHO are recommending healthy lifestyle to avoid COVID-19, although there’s no proof yet that this prevents infection or serious disease. It’s possible that an optimal immune system might even be a factor in the overactive immune/inflammatory response associated with severe, life-threatening disease. There is, however, proof that a healthy lifestyle can prevent and even reverse the underlying conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease that predispose to serious/often fatal COVID-19 disease.
Dr. Greger points out that we have no effective treatment for COVID yet, and that although scientists are working at “pandemic speed” to create an effective vaccine, the average time it takes to develop a vaccine is 10 years and the failure rate is 94 percent. As Dr. Greger notes, the best approach is to avoid coming in contact with the COVID virus, by measures such as avoiding large gatherings, frequent hand washing, avoiding touching your face, social distancing and wearing a mask (mainly to avoid spreading virus particles to others, but a mask also helps protect you somewhat). It’s unfortunate that in the U.S., universally accepted public health measures such as wearing a mask have become politicized.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D. is a retired family physician who has a nonprofit: Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He gives a free presentation at 7 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Third Street Center in Carbondale; is available by appointment for free consultations (379-5718).
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