For most of the past two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’d been relatively fortunate in Hong Kong compared to many other cities in the world, without full lockdowns, mass testings, and most importantly, significant numbers of severely sick and dying people.
Unfortunately, this has all changed these past two months, with almost 500,000 cases and 2,000 deaths. While most of these have been amongst the unvaccinated, elderly or chronically ill, some younger people and even children have been affected. Even though most of my friends are already vaccinated, they wanted to know if there was anything else they could do to improve their chances if infected. So after a chat with some LifeClinic doctors, I’ve summarized some suggested biohacks below – all of which are backed by peer-reviewed scientific research (links to the research papers are at the end).
Before I begin, it might be useful to understand how my medical philosophy differs from that of regular doctors. Most “conventional” doctors were taught, like I was over 30 years ago, that there are essentially only two states of health – either you are sick, or you are not sick. “Functional” medicine doctors, however, who are conventional doctors with extra related training, believe that it is possible to achieve an even better, “optimal” level of health – essentially a super-powered state that will allow you to function better than the average person at both work and play (potentially more energy, better memory, better sex, look younger), and to possibly live longer.
While media attention has focused on Hollywood and Hong Kong movie stars and Silicon Valley billionaires who see functional medicine doctors reverse both their internal and external ageing with advanced treatments like intravenous NAD+, peptides, exosomes, or cytokines, I personally believe that much of the benefits of functional medicine – especially with regards to improving your body’s immune functions to potentially reduce the severity of a COVID-19 infection – can be achieved with relatively inexpensive micronutrients you can purchase yourself.
Read on to find out how biohacking can improve your overall health and improve your chances with Covid-19 infections.
What causes severe Covid-19 disease and death
As we have now seen over the past 2 years, about 80 percent of people who get COVID-19 have no symptoms or only mild symptoms, 14 percent get severe symptoms like pneumonia, and 5 percent get critical symptoms like respiratory distress or multi-organ failure, and about 2 percent die. The mechanism for these bad outcomes is still being investigated, but much of the research points to abnormal immune responses (culminating in what has come to be called a “cytokine storm”) and the presence of chronic inflammation. We believe this is probably why the outcomes are often worse for older people, (who typically have aged immune systems), and for those with some pre-existing illnesses that cause systemic inflammation (like diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease).
So, the question then becomes – what are some simple things we do ourselves to reduce the chronic inflammation in our bodies, and to rejuvenate our immune systems?
The best Covid-19 diets: Plant-based and clean keto
An unhealthy diet could increase your risk factors for a severe COVID-19 infection. Over the past year, there have been a few very large research studies that have demonstrated quite clearly that what you eat can affect how your body reacts to COVID-19.
One of the most important was a study conducted amongst almost 3,000 front-line health care workers (doctors and nurses) across 6 countries, which showed that those who followed a largely plant-based diet (mostly vegetables and plant proteins, and less red and processed meats and sweetened beverages and alcohol), had a 73 percent lower likelihood of developing moderate-to-severe COVID-19 infections! This is possibly because a plant-based diet often has more micronutrients that are essential for the proper functioning of the body’s immune system, such as polyphenols, carotenoids, dietary fibre, vitamins A, C, E, and folate, and minerals like iron, potassium, and magnesium. Or because the virus itself is weakened in a nutrient-dense environment! Also, in this same study, those who ate a plant-based diet together with fish had a 59 percent lower chance of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 infection. In this case, it is thought that the mechanism of action might be a reduction of chronic systemic inflammation. Fish is an important source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
An even larger study, this time of almost 600,000 people, also showed that those who ate diets characterized by more healthy plant-based foods correlated with a 41 percent lower chance of severe COVID-19 infections.
Separately, there has also been a lot of interest in investigating if ketogenic diets could be beneficial in COVID-19 patients. One study conducted in Italy on 102 hospitalized patients showed that those fed with a low-calorie ketogenic diet had a lower admission to the ICU and a lower death rate than those fed on a low-calorie standard (Mediterranean) diet. This could be because a ketogenic diet can better regulate glucose metabolism and reduce systemic inflammation, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to grow more quickly in a high glucose environment and maybe why many diabetics have a severe COVID-19 infection. Additionally, the ketone bodies generated when a body is in ketosis appear to not only serve as fuel but also to promote resistance to oxidative and inflammatory stress which can contribute to severe symptoms. Lastly, over time, ketogenic diets can reduce obesity and hypertension, which could also help improve COVID-19 outcomes.
So what are the key takeaways from this section? To increase your chances of a good outcome in case of infection, try to have a mostly plant-based diet or a “clean” ketogenic diet – that is to say, one that uses mostly plant fats, and fewer animal fats which of course can themselves be very inflammatory.
Biohacking: Your micronutrient heroes
Dietary insufficiency of vitamins and minerals has been observed in high-risk COVID-19 patients, which may account for the increased risk of severe infections. It is also noted that much of the evidence surrounding supportive micronutrient use in COVID-19 utilize doses too high to come just from diet. This is why, given the simplicity, relatively low cost and low risk, supplementation during this period might make sense for many people. The doctors at LifeClinic usually make customized supplement recommendations based on the results of some specialized blood tests and track your micronutrient levels over time. This is because everyone’s biology and needs are different. However, since not everybody will have the opportunity to have this done, I am sharing with you what many functional doctors recommend, and what I take myself! By the way – several of these supplements can also increase sex drive and the ability to achieve orgasm, so think of this as an additional benefit if you are in quarantine with your significant other.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, that is both ingested via foods, as well as made by our bodies in the presence of sunlight – another reason my family loves to go hiking! Vitamin D insufficiency could affect almost 50% of the population worldwide. Essential for a healthy lining in our throats to protect against the initial viral entry into our bodies, vitamin D is also critical for a healthy immune system. The primary effects of vitamin D in COVID-19 infections are to reduce the viability of the virus and the excessive inflammatory response. In a study conducted on 212 COVID-19 cases, the probability of having a mild disease was correlated to high levels of vitamin D, and, as the vitamin D levels decreased, the risk of severe disease increased. In fact, in COVID-19 hospitalizations with vitamin D deficiencies, treatment with vitamin D shortened the hospital stays and decreased the death rate by more than twice! Yulia and I take 5,000 IU of D3, and we give our son a few drops of D3 liquid every day. You might need more if your levels are low.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that cannot be made by humans, which means that it is not well stored in our bodies and must be taken regularly through food or supplements. In addition to being necessary for the body’s outer protective layers (skin and mucosa) and being a powerful antioxidant, it also has critical roles in immunity, including proper white cell movement and antibody production. While most conventional family doctors believe that just 90-120 mg daily of vitamin C is sufficient, I would recommend higher doses to potentially help improve infection recovery times, as has been seen with the common cold and even pneumonia. There is even documentation of more than 10,000 mg a day of vitamin C given intravenously (IV) as part of a successful COVID-19 hospital treatment programme. Given that, at home, we can only use oral Vitamin C, Yulia and I take about 1,000 to 2,000 mg a day, and we give our son about 200 mg.
Zinc is a key trace mineral that has many potential health benefits against COVID-19 infections, via improving the immune response, minimizing the inflammation, preventing lung injury, and inhibiting viral growth through the interference of the viral genome transcription, protein translation, and attachment. It has been shown that zinc supplementation can increase the number of T cells and NK (natural killer) cells in your body – important parts of the immune system, and conversely zinc deficiency can lower the number of white blood cells that fight infections. Several studies are currently ongoing to further investigate the effects of zinc on COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes. We take between 30-50mg of zinc a day.
Quercetin is a natural substance known as a polyphenol. Its main natural sources in food are vegetables like onions and broccoli; fruits like apples, berry crops, and grapes; and some herbs; tea; and wine. It is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, can affect human immune functions, and also has antiviral properties. In a recent randomized study with 152 COVID-19 patients, it was found that in those who received quercetin 500 mg twice a day as supportive therapy, there were statistically significant improvements in all the clinical outcomes measured (the length of hospitalization, the need for oxygen therapy, progression to intensive care units, and death). The results also confirmed the very high safety profile of quercetin and its possible anti-fatigue and pro-appetite properties. Yulia and I are currently following this protocol – 500 mg twice a day.
Omega-3 Fish Oil
Omega-3 fish oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids and include both eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) fatty acids, and are known to have immunity and anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties, and may even improve oxygenation in COVID-19 patients. In a double-blind, randomized clinical trial conducted on 128 critically ill COVID-19 patients, omega-3 supplementation improved the levels of several parameters of respiratory and renal function. However, on the negative side, there is also a possibility that they can make cell membranes more susceptible to non-enzymatic oxidation, so it is best to not overdo it. Yulia and I take 1,000 mg a day.
Maintaining good gut health is critical for a strong immune system. Our gastrointestinal system has trillions of microorganisms that live in harmony with us (this is known as your “gut biome”). They not only protect against harmful pathogens like the virus causing COVID-19 but also are a major “training ground” for our immune system. With modern living characterized by too much stress, refined carbohydrates, pollutants, medications and antibiotics, this protective lining can be severely weakened. Probiotics strengthen this barrier and can activate various protective immune factors such as IgA antibodies, cytotoxic T-cells and antimicrobial proteins. Recently a research study done right here in Hong Kong showed that there was a distinct correlation between the amount of certain healthy gut bacteria and the level of COVID-19 antibodies that developed after vaccinations. I would recommend including a decent probiotic in your supplementation regime.
Of course, if you suspect your micronutrient levels are very low and you want a quick boost to your immunity, it might not be a bad time to get a consult with a functional medicine doctor or practitioner to evaluate if you might benefit from IV micronutrient therapy. However, if you’ve already been vaccinated and don’t have any major chronic illnesses, the above diet and supplements, in combination with some physical activity, would probably be enough to sufficiently improve your and your family’s chances of having just mild or no symptoms if you were to get COVID-19 infection – which for most of us will inevitably happen at some point! There are a few other micronutrients that you could consider adding, for example, selenium, magnesium and liposomal glutathione, but they’re not as easy to obtain locally. In any case, the very fact that you’ve actually read through this article means that you’re probably already doing all the right things. The very best wishes from our family to yours during this challenging time in Hong Kong!
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