Fighting COVID-19 by boosting immune system through nutrition

Carefully controlled laboratory studies are suggesting that under the right indoor conditions, the virus that causes COVID-19, can float in the air and, to a certain degree, spread that way. This new development unveiled recently by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is raising new concern about how far the virus can spread among people, but medical experts have advocated fighting off the disease with strong immune system through adequate nutrition, reports APPOLONIA ADEYEMI

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said 16 COVID-19 related deaths were recorded within 24 hours in four states: Lagos has 12, Abuja two, while Enugu and Gombe recorded one death each. The NCDC disclosure in its COVID-19 Situation Report for July 12, was not surprising. It’s actually in line with the pattern of deaths being recorded in the country in this era of coronavirus pandemic.

Almost daily, reported cases of prominent persons, the not so prominent, the lowincome that died from COVID-19 are widely publicised, raising concern about the continued spread COVID-19 infection. The roll call is quite scary: the late Senator Abiola Ajimobi and former governor of Oyo; the former Chief of Staff to the president, the late Abba Kyari; wife of Rtd. Lt.

Gen Oladipo Diya, Chief (Mrs) Rebecca Folashade Diya also died from COVID-19 related causes last month. These are among the reported cases. Many cases go unreported. According to the latest figures published by Johns Hopkins University as at 14 July, 2020, 13,127,006 cases of coronavirus have been detected worldwide, with 573,664 deaths and 7,280,515 people recovered.

In Nigeria, as at 13 July, the total confirmed cases that tested positive to coronavirus are 33,153. While the total number discharged is 13,671, the number of deaths is 744. It’s known that among people who are infected with COVID-19 about two per cent will die, according to Dr. Aliyu Sokomba, a Public Health Physician. Among this category are the elderly, persons with co-morbidity, especially those suffering from hypertension, diabetes, heart diseases, among others. While the country continues to record low mortality from the pandemic, medical experts now advocate boosting the immunity of vulnerable persons as a key strategy to curb the disease which is already at the level of community spread.

Explaining the role of immunity in either curbing or tackling the infection, Sokomba said immunity was a great asset that could protect humans from developing coronavirus infection. Immunity is the balanced state of multicellular organisms having adequate biological defenses to fight infection, disease, or other unwanted biological invasion, while having adequate tolerance to avoid allergy, and autoimmune diseases. Even if one becomes infected with the virus, a strong immune system could help the body overcome the disease and shortly the person would test negative, said Sokomba. According to experts, the immune system provides three levels of defenses against disease-causing organisms: these are prevalent in the skin and mucous membranes, stomach and digestive enzymes and the beneficial bacteria that live in the colon (the gut microbiota).

Explaining this, the public health physician said as much as 80 per cent that has COVID-19 has no symptoms at all or has mild symptoms. Ordinarily those 80 per cent wouldn’t have been a problem but in order to prevent them spreading the infection “we have to isolate them from other citizens without the disease.”

He said there are persons that are taken to isolation centres and all they are given while there are immune boosters and they are discharged afterwards. Sokomba noted that these are people who have COVID-19 and they will be going about their normal business; nobody will test them and they will be well on their own because their body’s immunity has taken care of the virus. Such persons, Sokomba said, fall within the group of the 80 per cent COVID-19 cases that have either no symptoms at all or have mild symptoms.

What is noteworthy, according to medical experts, is that once the immunity of an individual is strong it could help the fellow to shed the virus, consequently relocalsulting in the person testing negative. This is a natural process: the immune system is constantly producing cells, chemicals, and proteins to carry out it’s functions and when it encounters a foreign invader in the form of an infection, for instance, it ramps up production to respond as needed. While highlighting the importance of a strong immune system in sustaining health, a Nutritionist, Dr. Chioma Emma- Nwachukwu who is also the Manager, Nestlé Nutrition Institute, Central and West Africa, said, “To ensure that we remain healthy, our first duty is to improve our immune system.” Speaking on the ‘The Role of Nutrition in Pandemics,’ she said nutritional status arising from an individual’s nutritional intake and metabolism are key constituents and determinants of the person’s immune function. She said some important micronutrients: vitamin A, vitamin D, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, iron, zinc, selenium and proteins, have essential roles in the production and development of new cells in the body, including immune cells important nutrients. However, given the unprecedented impact of the new coronavirus in all aspects of life including health and the economy, undoubtedly COVID-19, has brought the importance of nutrition in supporting the immune system, with specific reference to this virus to the limelight.

“Nutrition has an important role in supporting the immune system and maintaining proper immune function,” said Emma-Nwachukwu. The idea being advocated here is that adequate nutrition is a key factor in supporting the immune system relative to tackling coronavirus.

Nutrition is the science that interprets the nutrients and other substances in food in relation to maintenance, growth, reproduction, health and disease of an organism. It includes ingestion, absorption, assimilation, biosynthesis, catabolism and excretion. However, in achieving this objective, Emma-Nwachukwu noted that, “There’s no particular food or nutrient alone that is sufficient to boost the immune system.” She recommended the consumption of local foods, contrary to the trends of eating foreign foods that are loaded with calories and unhealthy fats.

In combining the foods, it is important to ensure that various food groups must be included. There are seven main classes of nutrients that the body needs: carbohydrates, which includes starchy foods such as tubers, cocoyam, pototo, cassava, cereals; and proteins such as eggs, meat, fish, dairy legumes, soybeans, groundnuts, among others. Other food groups are fats such as heart healthy oils including avocados; vitamins and minerals: fresh, dark, green leafy vegetables, cabbages and fruits that are rich in vitamins; fibre and water.

To get the best out of diet, experts said the idea of eating carbohydrates alone may not achieve the objective of using nutrition to improve immunity. Consequently, ensuring that the day’s diet includes a variety of the different food groups will help people to achieve that goal. Apart from ensuring that a variety of different food groups are included in daily meals, other measures that should be applied so as to get maximum benefit from diet, include eating optimal meal portions and taking the food at appropriate time. A good example is when foods are consumed late and close to bedtime.

In improving immunity, other factors that should be considered, according to the nutritionist, are engaging in regular exercise, which could similarly improve health, maintain fitness and sustain the muscle mass affected persons. Emma-Nwachukwu said individuals must maintain personal hygiene to avoid infection, saying hand washing must be practiced in line with standard protocol, cooking food properly while maintaining social distancing. Also, she said maintaining healthy hydration and a healthy weight are key components of achieving a strong immune system. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a body mass index (BMI) of between 18.5 and 25 kg indicates a normal weight. While a BMI of less than 18.5 kg is considered underweight and a BMI of between 25 kg and 29.9 kg is considered overweight.

However, a BMI of 30 kg or higher is considered obese. The nutritionist said, “Go easy on the frozen dinners as most are high in sodium, fat, and calories. “Limiting purchases of tempting foods like chips, sodas, cookies, and ice cream as they are high in empty calories. “Practice positive stress management, going by what works for you as a stress buster.” Emma-Nwachukwu noted that boosting immunity even in the period of pandemic is all encompassing including thinking nutrition for all ages, planning ahead, thinking right and shopping right to include varieties of food groups.

If these are followed accordingly with a view to achieve strong immune system, the nutritionist stressed that it could help vulnerable persons such as the elderly, persons managing some underlying health conditions, children, pregnant women, most of who have low immunity, to either prevent or fight COVID-19.


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