It is not over yet. Last week, daily confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK reached a new high of 33,470 people – and not even the stars of Strictly are safe. So although we’ve been basking in vaccine euphoria, the Prime Minister’s recent warning that “we are not out of the woods yet” seems worth heeding.
While it’s good to know the most vulnerable could soon be inoculated, the rest of us need to make sure our Covid prep is up-to-date.
The most important advice is to follow the Hands, Face, Space guidance, but as research continues into how coronavirus spreads, there’s no shortage of other suggestions. So what else can you do to protect yourself?
Make vitamin D a daily habit
Evidence suggests that vitamin D can reduce the severity of coronavirus if you catch it and may even protect against infection. The connection is partly due to an overlap between risk factors for severe Covid-19 and severe vitamin D deficiency, but there’s also something in the way that vitamin D works which may improve our bodies’ reaction to viruses. One study in The Lancet found that vitamin D could inhibit viral activity of Covid in nasal cells.
Pharmacologist Joe Halstead, of fitness experts Ultimate Performance, believes we should all be taking additional vitamin D due to the risk of Covid. He points to an Israeli study which not only showed a significant association between low vitamin D levels and Covid-19, but also showed a protective effect for those who had been given vitamin D supplements in the previous four months.
“There is no downside to speak of, and good reason to think there might be a benefit,” he says.
Public Health England recommends taking 10mg of vitamin D every day in winter. The vitamin is also found in foods such as oily fish or shiitake mushrooms.
Regular walks can lower your ‘immune age’
The biggest risk factor for Covid is age. Elderly people are less able to fight off infections because natural immunity weakens as you get older, a process known as immunesenescence.
Interest is growing in ways to lower your “immune age” – and one of the best ways to achieve it seems to be exercise. Scientists from the Appalachian State College in North Carolina, writing in the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Sport and Health Science, report that regular bouts of moderate exercise lasting under 60 minutes could help to keep the immune system healthy. Longer sessions of vigorous activity were associated with higher rates of infection.
Studies with older adults by Prof Janet Lord, the director of Birmingham University’s Institute for Inflammation and Ageing, have found that walking can make immune function more efficient.
In particular, exercise improves the action of neutrophils – cells that work against bacteria associated with respiratory disease like Covid. Prof Lord has found older adults who did 10,000 daily steps had neutrophils that behaved like those of young adults.
Feed your gut
To give your immune system the best chance of fighting infections such as coronavirus, it is crucial to foster a healthy gut microbiome, says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and co-founder of the Covid Symptom Study. The easiest way to do this is by eating a varied diet – so switch up your breakfasts and stop having the same sandwich. “You need to consume a diversity of plants – 30 different types of plant – including nuts, seeds and herbs as well as fruit and veg every week,” says Prof Spector.
Fermented food such as good quality yogurt, kefir and kombucha, sauerkraut and pickles are useful too. Prof Spector also suggests reducing the amount of ultra-processed food and artificial sweeteners you eat as these interfere with gut microbiota.
Try a fast diet
One of the most important things we can do to protect against Covid is to keep a healthy weight, says Prof Spector.
Intermittent fasting is highly effective for weight loss and, crucially, seems to maintain it in the long term, suggests Prof Spector. The most famous fasting diet is the 5:2 method, which requires fasting two days a week for 24 hours. Other regimes involve only eating in a specific time window such as 2pm to 8pm. It works by giving the body the chance to start burning fat as well as meaning you simply eat fewer calories (without counting).
And there is increasing evidence that fasting has beneficial effects on your microbiome too, vital for immune function. “Microbes seem to like a rest,” says Prof Spector.
Could mouthwash help?
Last week came the eye-catching suggestion that iodine mouthwash could help protect against coronavirus. A string of small studies have found that exposure to a weak solution of povidone-iodine destroys the virus, prompting Stephen Challacombe, a professor of oral medicine at King’s College London, to speculate that a gargle with it or quick spritz up the nose might be a low-cost weapon against Covid-19.
The problem is it’s not clear how long the effect would last – Prof Challacombe admits that more research is needed.
Prof Spector, however, is doubtful. “Even if this did keep the mouth clear, the virus can easily get into us via our eyes and nose. And in fact, existing evidence suggests that mouthwash kills off the normal bacteria and helpful viruses that are found in the mouth and are part of our natural defence mechanism. Don’t wipe out these microbes with a sterilising spray.”
Don’t forget vitamin C
We already know that it is an antioxidant. Vitamin C also helps key defence proteins in our body called type-1 interferons work better. These are the proteins that Covid-19 attacks.
“The body can’t store vitamin C, therefore you need a ‘new’ intake of the nutrient every day,” says LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Anshu Kaura. The recommended daily amount 40mg can be achieved by eating one medium orange (70mg) or two medium tomatoes (20mg each). Peppers, berries, and broccoli, brussels sprouts and potatoes are other good sources – just don’t overcook them.
Relax – and sleep
“Doing things every day that are fun – especially during lockdown – matters. By getting out of the stress- anxiety-depression cycle you can improve your microbiome and immune system,” says Jennifer Heisz, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada. Anxiety about the unknown can hyperactivate the fear centre in the brain called the amygdala, leading to chronic stress and cell damage.
Finally, sleep is important for immunity too – so go to bed earlier, says Prof Spector.