WE’RE ONE YEAR INTO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC. There are virus mutations floating around with no answers yet on how contagious they are. Some of us could be months from getting vaccinated. Beyond a healthy diet, good sleep and exercise, are vitamin and mineral supplements or products that contain natural ingredients like elderberries a good line of defense? Many Americans thought the answer was yes, upping their intake of supplements: Multivitamin supplements were expected to top $7.5 billion in the U.S. in 2020, a 17-percent increase over 2019.
Government agencies tasked with focusing on health are cautious in their answers to the best ways to boost immunity, emphasizing diet, sleep and exercise. They draw a hard line when it comes to promises that a product will prevent or cure Covid-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has sent out at least 150 warning letters to companies touting their products since March 2020. “There is no scientific evidence that any vitamin, mineral, or other dietary supplement can prevent or cure Covid-19,” both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health warn on their websites.
The government’s strict control over claims for any product with potential health benefits is why Carmel Berry Company founder Katie Reneker, a former Monterey Peninsula Unified School District teacher-turned-elderberry evangelist, is careful when talking about the general health benefits of elderberries, the chief ingredient in the company’s syrup.
“It’s a very challenging line to walk,” Reneker says. “I rely on the science and what has been shown, and I’m very careful to say, ‘I’m not saying our products prevent the flu, but what I can say is this is what the research says.’” She points to peer-reviewed research about the antioxidant and immune-boosting benefits of the tiny purple fruit that’s no bigger than the tip of a pinkie finger. (Carmel Berry’s products are labeled as nutritional products, and none have been researched as immunity supplements.)
One study published in the Journal of Functional Food in 2019 showed that the phytochemicals in elderberries not only blocked influenza virus from entering cells, it prevented the virus from multiplying in cells already infected. Another 2014 study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine showed elderberries inhibited a strain of avian coronavirus. A 2004 study published on NIH’s National Library of Medicine found that influenza-type symptoms were reduced, on average, four days earlier in people given 15 milliliters of elderberry syrup four times a day, compared to a group that received a placebo.
When it comes to Covid-19, the NIH states plainly: “Don’t rely on elderberry or other supplements for the prevention or treatment of Covid-19. They have not been shown to be effective.” A medical trial in England using black elderberry liquid as a treatment for Covid-19 began last month.
Jennifer Devilliers, a nutrition and wellness coach in Carmel, is a fan of Carmel Berry’s elderberry syrup. Elderberries are one of the immune boosters she suggests to clients, along with the herbs echinacea and astragalus. (She recommends clients always check with their health care providers before taking any supplement.)
Devilliers also suggests Vitamin C in liposomal form, which is easier for the body to digest and absorb. “I call it the immune system vitamin,” she says, adding that it’s tough to get enough through food. Enzyme activated zinc is another supplement Devilliers suggests.
Vitamin C has been used for centuries to keep people healthy and treat illness. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and research shows our bodies have a greater need for it when sick or injured. There’s current research being done on high doses of Vitamin C delivered intravenously, combined with other agents during Covid treatment to lessen symptoms, according to the NIH.
The NIH doesn’t tell people to not take supplements like Vitamin C and zinc, but the agency advises people to get recommendations from health care providers and warns against taking too much of any supplement. Too much zinc can cause nausea and vomiting, for example. Too much of some vitamins is unnecessary.
“It’s like baking bread that needs one packet of yeast. Adding more yeast won’t do any good,” NIH states.
Vitamin D has been shown to aid in optimal immune function, but it’s best to be tested to see if one is deficient before turning to supplementing. The NIH states there is insufficient data to recommend either for or against using Vitamin D to prevent Covid-19.
Before Devilliers discusses supplements with clients, she always starts with the basics that government health agencies recommend: diet, sleep and exercise. She adds stress management and quality of water to the list, for the “top five” things she evaluates with clients.