Do Natural Remedies Really Boost Immunity and Protect Us From Viruses?

A Sarasota Memorial Hospital nutritionist answers common questions about natural remedies like vitamin C, zinc, elderberry syrup and more.

By Allison Forsyth April 2, 2020

Image: Shutterstock

There are many articles floating around touting the benefits of natural remedies like elderberry syrup, vitamin C and zinc in boosting immunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. But do these remedies really benefit us? Sarasota Memorial Hospital diabetes and outpatient nutritionist Linh Gordon answered some of our questions about these popular natural remedies, and how effective they can be at protecting us against viruses:

Is Vitamin C really boosting immunity enough to protect from viruses?

"Vitamin C, D and all the natural vitamins and minerals we need should be coming from food first. Taking a high dose of supplements can actually cause adverse health effects like kidney stones. So to get vitamin C, definitely turn to lots of fruits and vegetables, not necessarily supplements. Supplements will not have the same effect as the best source, which is actual food. However, vitamin C does not have a specific antiviral effect."

What about zinc?

"Zinc is a supplement that people try to take before catching a cold, because they think it can reduce symptoms and help you recover faster. It is definitely not antiviral, and will in no way help you with something like COVID-19 or flu virus. But it may have some benefits for a common cold. The studies on zinc are mixed, and the mineral can be quite expensive."

What is elderberry syrup and is it effective?

"Elderberry is a popular plant that herbalists have turned to for centuries, however, there is no research that 100 percent guarantees it would prevent a cold or virus. I think in most studies it provides a placebo effect, and I think it does nothing when taken on a regular basis. This is not a substance that you should just be taking.

"Natural remedies can be more harmful for some people than not. They are powerful and you have to use discretion when taking them. On top of being sick, our body has to absorb these substances and filter them through the liver and kidneys. You don't want to overwhelm your body with things it doesn't need.

"If you have access to nutritious foods, natural remedies should be a last resort. This is why substances like elderberry are popular in other parts of the world, where nutritious food supply is low."

What about old standbys like lemon in hot water?

"Hot liquids and soups do help people calm and relax the body. The steam opens up your sinuses and helps with congestion. If you're already feeling sick, hot liquids are going to make you feel better and alleviate symptoms, but cannot cure anything."

If you already feel symptoms and take a supplement, will you see benefits?

"There's no proven research that you will see benefits. There's little research showing health benefits from things like garlic, ginger and echinacea. They won't hurt or harm you, but it's not going to stave off something like a virus. The secondary health benefits you receive may help improve overall health, but not directly target a virus. For example, ginger can help with nausea, but that's usually a symptom of feeling ill."

What can we do to improve our immunity?

"The number one thing to fight off illness is sleep. Sleep and stress reduction are the home remedies people need, because they help your body recover. When your body is under stress, you make a bunch of hormones that can't fight off illness. Stress-reducing practices like yoga, meditation, prayer or even simply taking a hot bath are helpful.

"Getting fresh air and walking outside will also work as a natural diffuser and humidifier. You get circulation going, reduce stress and practice aromatherapy, without having to purchase anything.

"Even though it's a stressful time, try to incorporate these practices to feel better. Now, more than ever, we are realizing the importance of taking care of ourselves every day."

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