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Can a Vegan Diet Supercharge Your Immune System?

There’s no cure for COVID-19. But eating healthy certainly won’t hurt.

I have heard the question on social media: does anyone know someone eating a clean whole food vegan diet that had a complicated or fatal case of COVID19? I have personally not seen or heard of such a case. But it would be bold and brash to claim that a diet of all plants is truly protective. It is an interesting question to be addressed as more data becomes available. There is already quite a bit of data on the topic of diet and immune health. But what about plant-based vegan diets specifically?

Plant Diets and Immune Function

There are few studies to answer the questions about immune function and plant diets. It would seem intuitive that any diet that reduces or eliminates processed foods, excess salt and sugar, industrial seed oils, antibiotic and hormone residues, and excess saturated fats would offer an advantage in terms of immune health. Here are a few scientific tidbits.

Researchers in Italy studied fecal samples of 155 healthy volunteers divided by diet into omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diet categories. The stool samples were analyzed for their anti-inflammatory capacity in a model of mouse cells. No significant differences were reported.

An international team of scientists studied the impact of three months on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet for immune health. The volunteers were all omnivores at the onset of the study. The diet change did result in changes in the diversity of the bacteria in stool samples. This included the appearance of bacteria producing IgA, an immunoglobulin felt to protect the GI system. The balance of pro vs anti-inflammatory factors measured favored the plant-strong diet.

Australian researchers performed a review of literature regarding vegetarian diets and inflammatory and immune health. They reported that inflammation markers like CRP were lower in vegetarian-based dietary patterns. So were white blood counts and fibrinogen levels (an inflammatory and clotting marker). They called for more studies to further evaluate these findings.

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Micronutrients and Immune Function

Beyond food patterns, science also exists about the role of specific micronutrients and well-functioning immune systems.

A new review article on the topic detailed the role of some of these nutrients and the specific pathways of immune defense — particularly in regard to defending against viral illnesses.

The nutrients highlighted are vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D E, as well as folate, along with trace elements zinc, iron, selenium magnesium, and copper. Finally, omega -3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA were analyzed.

Inadequate intakes of these nutrients is widespread among all types of diets. They can lead to a decrease in resistance to infections. The authors concluded that supplementation with these nutrients was safe, effective, and a low-cost strategy to support optimal immune function. Recommendations for specific doses and types of supplements were included in the article.

What Do I Do?

I have eaten a whole food plant diet for over 40 years.

Although my plate is covered with fresh (often organic) rainbow-colored plants, some cooked and some raw, I have upped my game even further. Recently I have begun sprouting at home and eat fresh sprouts every day.

I have added more colors with purple cabbage, red bell peppers, and daily servings of garlic and onions. Mushrooms of every type are part of the menu.

In addition, I take a multivitamin developed for vegans. It contains algae omega-3, zinc, iodine, B12, vitamin D3, selenium, and magnesium. I add to this supplemental vitamin C. I also re-mineralize my home water filter by reverse osmosis. This helps to return to the water a broad range of trace minerals.

A healthy diet can boost immunity, give us more energy, help us sleep better, and enjoy life more fully. Will that prevent me from a severe reaction to COVID-19 or any other illness? There’s never any guarantee. But eating healthy keeps me better equipped to fight illness. And that’s reason enough to keep with it.

Joel Kahn, MD, FACC of Detroit, Michigan, is a practicing cardiologist, and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine.  He graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Michigan Medical School. Known as “America’s Healthy Heart Doc”, Dr. Kahn has triple board certification in Internal Medicine, Cardiovascular Medicine, and Interventional Cardiology. He owns GreenSpace & Go, a health restaurant in suburban Detroit. Dr. Kahn can be found at www.drjoelkahn.com.

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