Recovering from Illness? Consider Antioxidant Therapy
With the Easter long weekend approaching, many of us are considering how we can use the extra time for some self-care, especially if we’ve been feeling less than 100%!
When you’re unwell, your body needs your help to get back on track. Every type of virus works a little differently, but if you’re recovering from a viral infection, your antioxidants are being used up fast! If you’re not repleting those stores, you’re likely to feel worse, be sick for longer, and be at risk for more serious or chronic symptoms.
We dive into the role of antioxidants in illness recovery and look at some of the latest COVID-19 research as we discuss infection response.
The Role of Antioxidants
When our cells are fighting a foreign invader, like a virus, they produce reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are like little grenades thrown at viral cells to induce cell death. They are very helpful in pathogen elimination, although, as you might guess, they can also result in a lot of friendly fire to our own cells.1 One function of antioxidants is they work to protect our cells by neutralizing damage by free radicals like ROS.2
Antioxidants aren’t only for protection; they are fighters too. Antioxidants like glutathione (and its precursor NAC) exhibit antiviral effects to hinder viral replication. A review on COVID-19 remarked, “Notably, only the patient with severe illness and a marked glutathione decrease is still severely sick, whereas the other patients with high/moderate levels of GSH have recovered.”3 It has been suggested that the natural decline of antioxidant levels as we age, could be a key factor in the severity of COVID-19 in elderly patients.4
In the short term, antioxidants prevent damage to stop us from feeling so bad when we’re sick. This is in part because a lot of symptoms of illness like pain, swelling, fever, runny nose etc. are attributed more to the body’s defences to the effects of the virus itself. Conversely, in the long term, protection against ROS has been linked to protection against various chronic and degenerative diseases such as cancer, respiratory, neurodegenerative, and digestive diseases.2
Sources of Antioxidants
Antioxidants can be made internally, or they can be supplied externally. Here are 3 routes to boost your antioxidant levels:
- Eat a balanced diet with healthy fats and colourful fruits and vegetables to boost your intake of antioxidant vitamins C and E, as well as potent plant compounds called polyphenols.2 A high-quality diet characterized by healthy plant-based foods was associated with lower risk and severity of COVID-19.5
- Supplement your diet with oral antioxidants, especially if you aren’t eating as often or as healthily. For example, high doses of vitamin D supplementation (100,000IU) can strengthen respiratory function in ill patients,2 while 525 mg of oral curcumin with 2.5mg of piperine (a.k.a. turmeric plus black pepper) helped COVID-19 patients maintain oxygen saturation above 94%!6
- Antioxidants can be administered intravenously to help patients recover faster. For example, the antioxidant properties of IV Vitamin C are used in respiratory infections to combat the cytokine storm, a status of life-threatening systemic inflammation.7 The cytokine storm is a serious concern for COVID-19 patients, which is part of the reason why high-dose IV vitamin C might support treatment.8
Antioxidant function is so versatile and wide-spread that there are a long list of strong antioxidant compounds: vitamins, amino acids, phytochemicals (like polyphenols and carotenoids), even hormones like melatonin! We’ve rounded up some of the top antioxidants and how to incorporate them into your routine:
As our body’s master antioxidant, glutathione is an essential player during recovery from respiratory illnesses. While we have the machinery to make our own glutathione, glutathione depletion is very common when you’re sick and keeping levels high is crucial to reducing viral replication. COVID-19 patients that had glutathione depletion exhibited worse disease outcomes than those with normal levels. Incorporating weekly IV glutathione can help replenish lost glutathione as well as help eliminate lingering virus activity and symptoms.
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)11
NAC, a derivative of the amino acid L-cysteine, is the precursor to glutathione and is another great way of boosting antioxidant function to combat viral infection. As stated in this 2020 scientific review, “NAC is inexpensive, has very low toxicity, has been FDA approved for many years, and has the potential to improve therapeutic strategies for COVID-19.” NAC can be safely administered intravenously, orally, or inhaled.
- High-Dose Vitamin C 7,8,12
If you want to avoid serious vitamin C deficiency like scurvy, most adults should aim for 75-90 mg per day. However, if you want to reduce ROS-induced inflammation, protect lung tissue from damage, and reduce the risk of widespread infection, higher doses are needed. For high-dose vitamin C, intravenous methods are preferred because your gut system can’t absorb therapeutic levels. High doses of intravenous Vitamin C is being used in certain countries as part of the treatment protocol for hospitalized COVID-19 patients and on-going trials are taking place to evaluate the role of high-dose IV vitamin C in COVID-19 treatment.
We hope this article opened your eyes to the incredible healing powers of antioxidants – both to protect yourself from damage, and to kill off viral invaders. Take advantage of the long weekend to help your body recover from lingering illnesses.
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Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only. Learn more about COVID-19 in Hong Kong.
- Martinvalet, Denis & Michael, Walch. (2022). Editorial: The Role of Reactive Oxygen Species in Protective Immunity. Frontiers in Immunology. 12. 10.3389/fimmu.2021.832946.
- Liu Z, Ren Z, Zhang J, et al. Role of ROS and Nutritional Antioxidants in Human Diseases. Front Physiol. 2018;9:477. Published 2018 May 17. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00477
- Polonikov A. Endogenous Deficiency of Glutathione as the Most Likely Cause of Serious Manifestations and Death in COVID-19 Patients. ACS Infect Dis. 2020;6(7):1558-1562. doi:10.1021/acsinfecdis.0c00288
- Golubev A. G. (2020). COVID-19: A Challenge to Physiology of Aging. Frontiers in physiology, 11, 584248. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.584248
- Merino J, Joshi AD, Nguyen LH, et al. Diet quality and risk and severity of COVID-19: a prospective cohort study. 腸胃護理 2021;70:2096-2104.
- Kirti S Pawar, Rahul N Mastud and Satheesh K Pawar et al. Oral Curcumin With Piperine as Adjuvant Therapy for the Treatment of COVID-19: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Front Pharmacol. 12. DOI: 10.3389/fphar.2021.669362
- Boretti A, Banik BK. Intravenous vitamin C for reduction of cytokines storm in acute respiratory distress syndrome. PharmaNutrition. 2020;12:100190. doi:10.1016/j.phanu.2020.100190
- gov. Vitamin C Infusion for the Treatment of Severe 2019-nCoV Infected Pneumonia. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04264533.
- Ghezzi P. Role of glutathione in immunity and inflammation in the lung. Int J Gen Med. 2011;4:105-113. Published 2011 Jan 25. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S15618
- Premranjan Kumar, Ob Osahon, David B. Vides, Nicola Hanania, Charles G. Minard, Rajagopal V. Sekhar. Severe Glutathione Deficiency, Oxidative Stress and Oxidant Damage in Adults Hospitalized with COVID-19: Implications for GlyNAC (Glycine and N-Acetylcysteine) Supplementation. Antioxidants, 2021; 11 (1): 50 DOI: 3390/antiox11010050
- Shi Z, Puyo CA. N-Acetylcysteine to Combat COVID-19: An Evidence Review. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2020;16:1047-1055. Published 2020 Nov 2. doi:10.2147/TCRM.S273700
- Maxfield L, Crane JS. Vitamin C Deficiency. [Updated 2021 Jul 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493187/