Although natural immune booster supplements are in continual demand, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an explosion of sales as people seek out products that will aid in the protection from viral infections, according to Golden, Colorado-based Panacea Life Sciences. Last year the estimated global dietary supplement market generated $39.6 billion USD and is anticipated to grow at a 6 percent combined annual growth rate (CAGR). Global sales of dietary supplements to improve immune function were estimated at $15.5 billion USD and is projected to achieve a 7.5 percent combined annual growth rate (CAGR) (Grandview Research, Research Nester).
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for these products as in the U.S. alone during the six-week pandemic shut down dietary supplement sales increased 44 percent over the same six week period in 2019. Past Global Market projections for immune boosters generated $1.52 billion in revenue with a projected 9.5 percent CAGR growth (Euromonitor International).
But how can consumers increase their ability to eliminate viral infections such as the common cold, flu or even COVID-19? Are there ingredients that are clinically shown to support or increase immune function? How will the endocannabinoid system help with viral defense? Unfortunately, as with most nutritional health supplements, understanding which supplements are credible and which are hyperbole isn’t always clear cut.
Each day, our body is under constant attack by foreign agents, including a multitude of viruses the body must defend against. Our skin and mucous membranes provide a physical barrier that stops infectious agents from entering the body or traps them in fluids that are then expelled. However, if the skin is damaged through a cut or if mucous is not effectively cleared from the nose or lungs, then the virus will be attacked by our innate and adaptive immune system which reacts quickly to eliminate and isolate the infection.
If the innate immune system is not able to eradicate the infection, then the adaptive immune system will mount an attack on the invader through specific T cells and antibody generation.
The best way to keep the immune system strong is by eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins and antioxidants, getting sufficient rest and exercising regularly. Maintaining immune strength can also depend on stress levels and alcohol and tobacco consumption. People become most vulnerable to viral infections when they are not eating well, lacking sufficient sleep and experiencing high volumes of daily stress. Luckily, in these situations, dietary supplements may help support and strengthen the immune system while a healthy lifestyle is reinstituted.
What to look for in a health supplement
There are numerous supplements that reportedly boost and strengthen the health of the immune system. The basic infection-fighting vitamins include Vitamin A, B6, B12, C, D and E. Vitamin C affects several aspects of immunity, and those deficient in this vitamin are susceptible to severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia [1.2]. Likewise, Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk for respiratory infection [29.30], and Vitamin E enhances T cell-mediated immune function in the face of age-related decline .
Other important ingredients to look for when choosing an immune-boosting supplement include:
Zinc: Important for the maintenance and development of cells in both the innate and adaptive immune system. Zn deficiency results in impaired formation, activation and maturation of immune cells weakening innate host defense [3,4].
Echinacea: A genus of flowering plants in the daisy family that is a common naturopathic ingredient found in cold remedies. Promoters of the use of this plant believe that the supplement boosts the immune system to reduce symptoms of infections including the common cold and flu. Researchers have yet to confirm that echinacea extract provides these benefits.
Garlic Oil: Garlic has shown promise for preventing colds and the flu and speeding recovery. Healthy volunteers taking garlic supplements verses placebo had a 63 percent lower risk of getting a cold, and those that did catch a cold recovered much 70 percent faster . Garlic oil supplements should be rich in alliin, the active immune booster in garlic.
Oregano Oil: Commonly used to treat cold and flu symptoms. Oregano oil clearly has anti-microbial and antioxidant properties. When tested in vitro, oregano oil, and its main compound carvacrol, inhibits human viruses .
Astaxanthin: A carotenoid, typically isolated from algae, is an antioxidant that has been shown to reduce inflammation and strengthen the health of immune cells by increasing lymphocyte proliferation and increasing T cell activity .
Cannabidiol: Through the endocannabinoid system, Cannabidiol (CBD) has a wide variety of biological effects including analgesia, anti-microbial and anti-inflammation, which will be described in more detail below. Recently, researchers have found that CBD containing cannabis extracts may inhibit up to 70 percent of viral infection .
It’s important to recognize the role of immune modulation in helping the body effectively fight off infection. However, in the case of the Coronavirus, it is important to maintain balance in the immune system where the body reacts appropriately to the invading virus to allow the infection to be eliminated and not over-reacting, which can cause normal tissue destruction. Overproduction of two cytokines (in particular Interleukin-6 and Tumor Necrosis Factor-a) creates a vicious cycle, referred to as a cytokine storm, where macrophages become hyperactive and start to destroy cells needed to maintain several body functions, causing anemia, death of endothelial cells lining blood vessels, as well as vasodilation leading to low blood pressure .
The endocannabinoid system, consisting of a multitude of enzymes and receptors, serves to help maintain homeostasis in the body. This includes initiating anti-inflammatory activity that may allow the immune system to properly fight viral infections without leading to overreaction .
The bottom line
Based on the evidence for immune boosters, the optimal products for enhancing the ability to fight a viral infection are ones that contain a mixture of zinc, garlic oil, oregano oil, astaxanthin and cannabidiol. The addition of cannabidiol will assist with the aches and pains that accompany a viral infection, help prevent secondary infections and can potentially inhibit the ability of the virus to further infect the body. Furthermore, cannabidiol can help regulate the immune system’s response to potentially avoid overreaction.
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Panacea Life Sciences, unpublished results