Vitamins and supplements won't protect you from the coronavirus despite immune-boosting claims

  • Despite the popularity of supplements and vitamins to help ward off illness, particularly with fears of the coronavirus, there's little evidence these products will actually do anything to prevent the virus. 
  • In some cases, high doses of vitamins can be bad for your health, and unregulated supplements make it difficult to know what you're getting, experts say. 
  • No amount of vitamins can replace current best practices like washing your hands often and avoiding touching your face. 
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As hand sanitizer, soap, and other disinfectants fly off the shelves, people are looking for more innovative ways to help protect themselves against the coronavirus, including remedies in pill, powder, or smoothie form. 

Sales of supplements like zinc and vitamin C have skyrocketed since the spread of coronavirus began dominating the news cycle, according to LabDoor, a company that tests supplement purity. 

But these aren't actually the best way to prevent the illness, according to Dr. Caroline Apovian, Director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center.

"It's much more important to wash your hands than take zinc lozenges," Apovian told Insider.  

Some supplements aren't harmful and may provide a small benefit, although they're often expensive. Others, however, can be actively dangerous for your health, including massive doses of vitamins. Here's why it may be a better idea to save your money and stick to good old fashioned soap and water to protect your immune system. 

You don't actually need supplements to fight off illness if you're otherwise healthy, experts say

Despite the wealth of commercial claims that you can boost your immune system with everything from vitamin C to garlic, the actual evidence on the effectiveness of herbal and vitamin supplements is mixed. 

Unless you have a nutritional deficiency, experts say no amount of green juice, lemon, or wheatgrass shots will prevent you from getting sick if you come into contact with a pathogen like the coronavirus. 

"People have this idea that the immune system is some kind of internal force field that can be boosted or patched up," says Charles Bangham, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Imperial College London, previously told Insider. "They [manufacturers of supplements] might not say anything untrue but what they are doing is implying that if someone on a normal diet takes them they will improve their immune function, which is plain wrong."

In many cases, though, supplements aren't necessarily a bad thing. There's some data that zinc and vitamin C may help shorten the duration of a cold, for instance, if you do get sick. That cup of echinacea tea is unlikely to cause harm so if you enjoy it and feel like it benefits you, you can stock up, Apovian said.

"I always think it's a good idea to take a multivitamin. It's not going to prevent the coronavirus but I think it's a good idea in general," she said, to make sure you have sufficient levels of nutrients that you may be deficient in. 

However, many supplement products can quickly become expensive, she added, so it's not worth breaking the bank for a bulk order of elderberry extract or oregano oil. 

And it should never be a replacement for other healthy habits like personal hygiene. Wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, and keep high-touch surfaces like door handles and your cell phone as clean as possible.

"People can't take supplements and think they're immune and don't need other precautions," Apovian said. 

Supplements are also unregulated, and taking too much can be risky

Recently, so-called wellness gurus have been recommending extremely high levels of vitamin supplements, enough to potentially become a health hazard. 

Some popular Youtube naturopath have recommended IV doses of vitamins A and C that are up to 15,000 milligrams a day, 166 times the recommended daily amount for men, and shots of vitamin D3 up to 160 times the recommended daily dose, Insider previously reported.

These extremely high doses can cause serious side effects like dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Even more alarming consequences include damage to organs like the kidneys and liver, possible coma, and even death. 

One supplement you probably should take is Vitamin D

There is an exception to the general rule that supplements won't really help prevent illness, and that's vitamin D (in moderate doses). Research has shown that the immune system needs vitamin D to fight off viruses — while it won't protect your from getting the virus if you're exposed, it could reduce the severity of the illness and help make recovery easier.

It's also a common cause of nutrient deficiency. You can get vitamin D naturally through sunlight, which many people have less access to during darker, colder months of flu season. It's also found in some foods, including fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, and in small amounts in beef liver, eggs, cheese, and mushrooms. 

Aside from that, however, you're better off saving your money. Whether you're looking to avoid the coronavirus or just dodge the typical pathogen parade of a normal flu season, it's best to simply eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and avoid stress wherever possible.

And please, wash your hands. 

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