For months, health professionals have been scrambling to understand the new coronavirus (SARS-Cov2), which emerged in Wuhan, China, sparking a pandemic of acute respiratory syndrome in humans (COVID-19). During a time when a potential infection feels heightened, the idea of “boosting immunity” sounds enticing. But what is the magic formula for producing an ideal immune response to a novel virus? And should that even be the focus?
The immune system is a complex network including cells, tissues, bone marrow, antibodies, the spleen, the thymus and the lymphatic system. It is a “system” requiring balance and harmony to function well. Humans are constantly infected with multiple endogenous and exogenous viral agents, with an estimated generation of up to 1012 new virus particles per day. A healthy immune system functions around the clock to protect us from illness and even death.
Pre-existing chronic illnesses can lead to a higher risk of death and health complications from the novel coronavirus. However, those illnesses can be prevented and even reversed with nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle.
A Chronic, Ongoing Issue
One in two Americans struggle with chronic disease. A wide range of reasons and factors are involved, including food insecurity, smoking, excess alcohol intake, physical inactivity and the consumption of ultra-processed food. All of these issues can be compounded by racial disparities from decades of systematic inequality in American economic, housing, and health care systems.
It’s important to keep in mind that a significant portion of the population is diagnosed with autoimmune disease. So, while the concept of “immune boosting” sounds good, a more active immune system does not always correlate to better health outcomes. For example, a hyperactive immune response is responsible for allergic reactions to ordinary nontoxic substances.
More than 20 million Americans take various drugs that intentionally suppress the immune system, altering the way the body responds to viral and bacterial infections. When chronic diseases are treated with medications that are targeted to alleviate the symptoms without tending to the underlying causes, patients may be left in an even more vulnerable position.
Good health and immunity depend on a peaceful coexistence among the symbiotic bacteria in the gastrointestinal and respiratory tract. Those include the cells, tissues and other microorganisms that live there and have the ability to recognize dangerous intruders. Quality food nourishes the diversity of the body’s inner ecosystem by feeding gut microbes. These microbes are in constant communication with the immune system, working in partnership to protect us and reducing the susceptibility to a wide range of viral infections. This prompts an important question: What is disturbing this communication and making Americans so vulnerable?
Year after year, client health history questionnaires, as well as data gathered from group discussion forums, reflect the same obstacle —consumers are trying to make healthier choices, but they remain unaware of what’s hidden in the food they’re eating every day. The problem? There simply is no label for glyphosate.
The Enemy Hidden in Plain Sight
Glyphosate is the primary ingredient in Roundup herbicides and other generic equivalents, which are the most widely used weed killers in the United States and the world. More than 250 million pounds of glyphosate is sprayed annually on crops in the United States. It’s in the water supply, food, yards, the local parks and on conventional farms with treated fields. That quantity means the chemical ends up nearly everywhere.
A 2009 study, published in Toxicology, used human liver cells in vitro and showed that even in low doses, glyphosate is toxic to human cells and can cause genetic mutations and disrupts endocrine function. In 2003, Monsanto filed for a patent on glyphosate as an antibiotic. This patent was granted in 2010.
Glyphosate based herbicides may act as an antibiotic, preferentially killing many of the body’s good gut bacteria, including lactobacillus, which manufactures nutrients and neurotransmitters that keep the digestive and nervous systems healthy. When the commensal (“good”) microbes become compromised, harmful pathogens have the chance to overgrow, causing inflammation in the gut. Inflammation in the gut has been linked to many health issues, including autoimmune disease, allergies, irritable bowel diseases and even antibiotic resistance.
Studies and clinical data also show that nutrient deficiencies, which affect an estimated 3 billion people, may be linked to inflammation in the gut.
A new round of food testing commissioned by GMO Free USA (“Eating Out: A Date with Glyphosate”) found that glyphosate and its breakdown product or metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), are pervasive in foods served by major restaurants and fast food chains in the United States. Notably, the highest levels of glyphosate were detected in “whole grain” or “multigrain” items that consumers often perceive as a healthier choice. Studies have linked harmful health effects to the levels of glyphosate detected in a single serving of tested restaurant foods.
According to dining trend surveys, restaurants are aware that consumers are seeking healthy choices free from synthetic chemicals. Many restaurant chains are using terms like “natural,” and “clean food” to exploit the general public.
Glyphosate Linked to Health Issues
Glyphosate has been linked to cancer by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Recently, a California jury ordered Bayer-Monsanto to pay $289 million to DeWayne “Lee” Johnson, who is terminally ill with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. While the judge subsequently reduced the award to $78 million, the verdict stands. Currently, over 11,200 people diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after environmental exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides are also suing Bayer-Monsanto.
It would be remiss to focus solely on the cancer risks associated with glyphosate. A nine-year study, published in Nature, involving 300 French volunteers revealed that a low genetic diversity of intestinal bacteria in participants translated into a tendency to gain weight. It also caused higher inflammation and greater insulin resistance.
Recently obesity was identified as a major risk factor for COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions. The chart (below) reflects the records from 5,700 people with COVID-19 who were admitted to hospitals in New York City. Ninety four percent of them had at least one co-morbidity, most commonly hypertension, obesity or diabetes.
Chronic conditions do not on their own increase a person’s chance of catching coronavirus. Underlying health conditions do, however, appear to increase the risk of serious illness and complications across all age groups. It should be alarming that more than half of U.S. adults have at least one condition that increases their risk of becoming seriously ill if infected.
Metabolic dysregulation can compromise the immune system to increase the risk of infections and chronic respiratory diseases. Studies show that excess adipose tissue promotes chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and many downstream chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, liver and kidney disease and cancer.
Chronic disease prevention is not glamorous. People are not highly motivated to give their attention to solutions that prevent a disease they didn’t think they were susceptible to getting in the first place. We are currently experiencing an epidemic of a population that is undernourished — characterized by excessive intake of processed food, hidden pesticides in the food supply, and inadequate access to nutrient-dense foods.
While it seems simple to preach “food as medicine” as the solution, many people are not aware that glyphosate, hidden in so much of the food supply, is an acute threat that should not be ignored. Glyphosate makes other chemicals even more toxic by blocking the enzyme pathways in the liver that help the body detoxify. These enzymes are also used to make bile acids and when bile acids don’t flow, a cascade of health issues arise downstream, including mineral imbalance. Glyphosate was first patented in 1964 as a metal chelator that was used to clean or descale commercial boilers and pipes. Glyphosate binds to and removes minerals such as manganese, zinc, and cobalt that are vital to human health.
As more glyphosate is used on crops, there has been a 500% average increase over 23 years in the level of glyphosate found in human urine. A 2018 study published in Environmental Health found that higher urinary glyphosate levels in pregnant women were associated with a shortened gestational length, potentially reducing a child’s lifetime cognitive achievement. Another study, published in 2014, in the Journal of Environmental & Analytical Toxicology, observed that chronically-ill humans had significantly higher glyphosate residues in their urine than their healthy counterparts.
The graph below shows my glyphosate levels after switching to an organic diet. My test was taken one year after removing genetically modified foods and glyphosate from my diet.
Glyphosate goes hand-in-hand with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified crops such as corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and cotton (for cottonseed oil). The GMO crops are sprayed multiple times during the growing season to control weeds.
It is also used as a desiccant, a ripening or drying agent, on non-GMO grains and other crops including wheat, barley, oats and other grains, sugar cane, lentils, beans, edible peas and chickpeas, sunflowers, mint, potatoes and cantaloupe. One way to combat or forgo high exposure to this chemical is by choosing to support organic and regenerative farmers who do not spray glyphosate-based herbicides.
When it comes to infectious diseases, many people don’t realize that the overall health of a community matters greatly. Public health measures and policies that target lifestyle habits and aim to build resilience and longevity also fortify a collective immunity against any infectious disease.
A Vital Network vs. a Pandemic
Lasting change will require a deliberate and sustained effort to address social determinants of health, such as poverty, racial discrimination, and environmental degradation. Regenerating health will start when the burden of toxic chemicals begins to lift. Without addressing this underlying burden on the body, the effort to consume nutrient-rich food is simply a way to plug the holes of vitamin and mineral deficiencies caused by glyphosate.
When we look at the human body as an interconnected network of vital communication pathways, we understand that everything is connected. A breakdown in one system—immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive, and so forth—will adversely affect the strength of the others.
A virus works by gaining access to the cells of its host and then hijacking a receptor on the cell. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, access is obtained via the ACE-2 receptor, which is why the virus gains access readily through the lungs and small intestine, where the tissues have ample amounts of ACE-2 receptors. The vascular system also abounds in these receptors, and they are upregulated (increased) in conditions such as hypertension. The lungs, digestive, vascular system, and heart can be vulnerable to the attack. The human body is like an interconnected network of vital communication pathways, where everything is connected.
Modifiable factors (like nutrition, movement, sleep and a connection to nature) can be used as powerful levers that influence the body’s resilience. The principles targeted to prevent and reverse chronic disease can also serve people well during an infectious disease pandemic.
Without minimizing the health and financial hardship that most are currently facing, quarantine has given many people time to re-examine their lives, both physically and mentally. For many, it has become clear where the blind spots are in the food system and the importance of local food and food quality.
In the near future, as the economy comes back online, people will need to choose what to bring back into their lives, what they are willing to accept and what they want to improve for themselves and for others. Some will get the luxury of deciding how to carry out most daily activities — how to source and cook food, spend time, educate children and prioritize work. Others will not experience this privilege. Now is the time to take a deep breath, honor this global pause and take inventory of what is and is not working for communities. This is a rare and sacred opportunity to recreate a new version and better version of “normal,” perhaps one that honors innate harmony and alignment with Nature.
The body depends on six groups of essential nutrients – vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates and water – to maintain vitality and health. A truly healthy immune system depends on a balanced mix of these essential nutrients, plus normal sleep patterns and frequent bouts of movement throughout the day.
It’s been understood for some time that many foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has dropped measurably over the past 50 to 70 years. Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.
In 2004, a landmark study of 43 different vegetables and fruits found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C across most garden crops since 1950. This team of researchers concluded that this decline could mostly be explained by the agricultural practices designed to change traits and varieties that grow. Although not studied, declines in other nutrients like magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E were also likely.
A 2002 experiment with zooplankton revealed other details about why nutrients levels may be declining. Irakli Loladze, while studying for his Ph.D., observed that rising CO2 levels rev up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. It also, however, leads the plants to pack in more carbohydrates, like glucose, at the expense of other nutrients like protein, iron and zinc. Greater volume and better quality might be inversely linked.
Zinc is needed for normal growth in humans, development and sexual maturation, and helps regulate appetite, stress level and sense of taste and smell. It also has antioxidant properties and plays an essential role in the immune system. A 2017 review on zinc in Nutrients, summarized that: “Nearly 30% of the elderly population is considered to be zinc deficient. It went on to say that “since zinc homeostasis is known to be important in immunological reactions such as the inflammatory response, and the oxidative stress response, multiple chronic diseases observed in the elderly are probably related to zinc deficiency.” Dietary sources of zinc can be found in a variety of beans, nuts, seeds, oysters (including canned), crab, lobster, beef, pork chop, dark meat poultry and yogurt.
Iron, although needed in very small amounts, is crucial for normal body functions. Without enough iron, the body cannot make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells, potentially leading to anemia.
Diets that are deficient in minerals (in particular zinc and iron) and other nutrients can cause malnutrition and lead to reduced growth in childhood, to a reduced ability to fight off infections, and to higher rates of maternal and child deaths. This type of malnutrition is common around the world because many people eat only a limited number of staple crops, without enough foods rich in minerals, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats.
Researchers are finding that these changes might contribute to the rise in obesity as people eat increasingly starchy plant-based foods and eat more to compensate for the lower mineral levels found in crops.
Every part of the body functions better when reinforced by proper levels of protein and other key nutrients. There is a synergistic effect to consuming nutrients through a diverse diet of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, beef, nuts, legumes and dairy. Those foods contain a wide range and balance of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that supplementation doesn’t provide.
Eating foods rich in vitamin C – like citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, and bell peppers helps the body absorb iron. These foods also serve as “food” for the microbes in the gut which need to eat to thrive. Kiwifruit, for example, contains high amounts of pectic polysaccharides and fiber, which has been found to improve the immune system through its prebiotic effects on intestinal microbiota. Beneficial quantitative microbial changes were observed at the group level for bifidobacteria, bacteroides and lactic acid bacteria.
These friendly gut bacteria consume the fiber and produce butyric acid as a byproduct. Butyric acid is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFAs) that repairs the gut lining encouraging the production of feel-good neurotransmitters. SCFAs also influence another important immune cell — regulatory T cells. T cells tell the body how to respond to invading pathogens and germs.
Research on vitamin C has a long history, showing some protection against pneumonia and reducing the risk and severity of infections. A deficiency in vitamin C can lead to impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections because our bodies don’t produce it naturally.
However, healthy individuals need just adequate intake of vitamin C of 100 to 200 mg/day to support optimal cell and tissue levels. In contrast, treatment of established infections requires significantly higher doses of the vitamin to compensate for the increased inflammatory response and metabolic demand.
Maintaining adequate vitamin D levels is also important for immune health but most people are not getting sufficient amounts of the cofactors, like magnesium, in their diet. Supplementing with vitamin D became popular after some trials showed it helped lower the risk of contracting the cold and flu. But the effect is mainly seen in people who have very low or deficient levels and most people are not tracking their Vitamin D levels. Vitamin K2, as well as vitamin A and D, and most minerals, are best consumed through food. Vitamin K is fat soluble, so it should be eaten with fat for best absorption. Vitamins A and D are both activated by vitamin K2, allowing them to bind to calcium to do their jobs.
Vitamins A plays an important role in promoting proper immune function in response to viral exposures. Broad population studies suggest that people who eat foods rich in vitamin A and beta carotene (which converts to vitamin A in the body) are less likely to develop many types of cancer, especially lung cancer. However, when researchers tested beta carotene supplements in smokers, they found that people who took the supplements were more likely to develop lung cancer, while non-smokers presented neither benefit nor risk. Supplementation with vitamin A can be dangerous if not monitored, as this nutrient gets stored in the liver and can cause damage.
There is solid evidence that certain micronutrient deficiencies — for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, A, C, D, K2, and E — can alter immune responses but it’s important to focus on a diet that includes these key nutrients as much as possible, before attempting to take large doses of single vitamins and minerals which may carry risks for you.
Let Quality Food be thy Medicine
The importance of eating nutrient-rich food has been reinforced by the current pandemic, which is devastating to individuals with underlying health conditions that can be traced to nutrition and lifestyle habits. By consuming foods that are locally sourced, nutrient-rich, and devoid of pesticides and herbicides, people can shift healthcare in their communities from a disease-centered approach to one that reinforces health regeneration and disease prevention. Implementing immune resiliency at home is a critical step toward building resilient communities.
Kathleen DiChiara is a practitioner of Functional Nutrition, founder of Rhode to Health, Inc., and author of End Chronic Disease: The Healing Power of Beliefs, Behaviors, and Bacteria (2020). Her personal journey back to health was the main feature in the award-winning documentary film Secret Ingredients.