This is a potential strategy noted by the European Food Safety Authority and supported by leading nutrition experts. And it is not without merit given that small scale trails on other vaccines have shown that nutritional deficiency can reduce the effectiveness of inoculations, particularly in the elderly. This is partly due to increased frailty and reduced immune response, but has also been linked to general malnutrition and deficiencies in essential micronutrients, such as vitamins A, the B vitamins, C, D, zinc, selenium and iron, which are all required for effective immune function. Older individuals who consume more fruits and vegetables have also shown more positive responses to vaccinations than those consuming less fresh produce.
However, it may not just be undernutrition that impacts vaccine efficacy. In the past decade our love of high fat and sugar processed foods, alongside reduced physical activity have helped drive an obesity epidemic responsible for a frightening increase in cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. During the pandemic, people with obesity and underlying conditions have been more prone to serious, life-threatening, side effects from the condition. A real concern is that those same individuals may find the Covid vaccine to be less effective too.
What can you do?
Luckily, the nutrients listed above are available in many different foods and can be consumed in abundance on a varied, highly coloured (red, yellow, orange, green, purple and white) whole food diet. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and high quality animal produce. Also try to include specific foods daily known to support the immune system including:
- Garlic and Onions: each contain sulphur compounds and allicin which give them strong anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. Raw is best so try rubbing it on toast with a little olive oil, use it in salad dressings or add to your favourite dishes at the end of cooking. Chop garlic 5-10 mins before use as this stimulates allicin production.
- Herbs and Spices: contain an abundance of immune supporting properties. They are antibacterial, anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and decongestant. The phytonutrients that give them their vivid colours also give them their health boosting properties, so choose a variety of herbs and spices including turmeric, cinnamon, chilli, rosemary, thyme, ginger, cloves, oregano……
- Mushrooms: All mushrooms contain beta glucans, which help fight inflammation and aid the immune system. There are many well researched ‘medicinal’ mushrooms including Reishi, Shiitake, and Cordyceps but even the common button mushroom contains immune boosting properties. Berries: Berries are full of antioxidants. Some berries are touted as ‘super foods’ but tend to be very expensive when more common types such as raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries will also pack an immune boosting punch.
- Citrus Fruits: Citrus fruits contain high levels of vitamin C, however – they contain so much more! There are over 170 phytochemicals in an orange alone. All citrus fruit contain powerful immune supportive phytochemicals with the majority of these being found in the pith and zest. The bitter flavour associated with these is due to the high levels of phytochemicals they contain. Find unwaxed and organic products if you are using the peel. Store in the fridge in a sealed container once sliced as vitamin C levels decline once cut.
- Fermented Foods: We are only just beginning to understand the power of our microbiome, however we do know that it is a major part of our immune system. Our ‘good’ bacteria have numerous roles in supporting immunity. Variety is key so choose from yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh… start with small amounts and work up to at least 2 portions of fermented foods daily.
- Lifestyle: A review of nearly 50 vaccine trials dating back over 30 years also suggests that lifestyle has an impact on the effectiveness of vaccines. Stress and anxiety can increase the amount of time it takes to develop an antibody response after being inoculated, so stress relieving activities such as deep breathing, meditation, moderate exercise and chatting with friends may be beneficial before and after your vaccine. Experts also recommend getting plenty of sleep around this time, some even suggesting taking a day off after your jab to rest as this can improve symptoms of fever.
To Supplement or Not to Supplement?
Whilst there is very limited evidence that supplementing essential nutrients is associated with improved vaccine outcomes we do know that deficiency of nutrients known to support immunity is rife in Western countries, particularly in those over 60. Therefore there may well be an argument for those at risk of deficiency to supplement their diet with a multivitamin and mineral for a period of weeks before and after they receive the vaccine. Of particular concern is vitamin D. Scientists in Letterkenny have found 75% of vitamin D tests taken from individuals living in Donegal are deficient in this essential immune supporting nutrient. As most of our vitamin D comes from sun exposure, and we’re only just slowly creeping out of a long cold winter. You can request a vitamin D test from your GP and decide whether to supplement based on the results.