The COVID-19 pandemic has provoked no shortage of anxiety about health and wellness, as well as innumerable rumors on how to beat the respiratory virus.
Some have suggested that heat will kill the virus once summer comes, regardless of the fact that the virus has spread readily in countries with tropical climates and in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is currently summer.
Along similar lines, a meme that spread on social media before being flagged as false suggested that, because the virus first takes hold in the throat before moving to the lungs, the disease can be stopped by drinking hot water.
As health officials around the world work to find a vaccine for this novel virus, what considerations could everyday people make about their diets to help the immune system fight viral infection?
Hint: It’s not toilet paper.
Dr. Evron Helland, a Buena Vista chiropractor and nutritionist with a background in cellular biology, recommends calcium to his patients.
The element is best known in nutrition for its role in building strong bones. But in its ionic form, calcium plays an important role in fortifying the cell membrane against unwanted intruders like viruses.
“This is even the first line of defense, even before antibody production,” Helland said.
Viruses are simple things, basically just a capsule of DNA. For a virus to successfully infect a cell, virions, as they’re called in their complete form, break through the rigid wall (in plants) or more flexible membrane (in animals) to force viral proteins into the interior cytoplasm.
In coronaviruses, the spherical virion uses protein spikes to fuse with a specific protein on the membrane of cells found in the throat and act as a doorway for the virus to gain entry.
The virus then has to break through to the nucleus, where DNA is stored. DNA can be thought of as a list of blueprints for the proteins the cell builds that carry out the cell’s functions.
The virus inserts its own genetic material into the cell’s genome, changing the cell’s instructions so that it builds more copies of the virus. This is how replication and infection occurs.
Where does calcium come in to all of this? Right at the beginning.
“The cell maintains a concentration gradient of calcium ions (Ca+2) of 10,000 to 1 across its membrane,” Helland said. “This gradient causes a strong (in the microscopic world) electromagnetic force around the cell. When this concentration gradient is maintained, it is very difficult for the virus to break into the cell. If anything disrupts this crucial balance, viruses can break in easily.”
If the virus has a difficult time breaking into a cell, it can’t replicate as easily, and the body has more time to develop antibodies against the virus before its numbers become overwhelming.
After the cell membrane, another calcium ion barrier protects the nucleus in the Endoplasmic Reticulum, where DNA and RNA from the nucleus are translated into proteins.
“If that gradient is well maintained, the virus again has a difficult time breaking in,” Helland said.
In 1988, the American Journal of Medicine published a study of acutely ill patients admitted to the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the Detroit Receiving Hospital.
Irrespective of the illness, the study found that 70 percent were hypocalcemic – they had decreased levels of both total and ionized calcium.
Additionally, the mortality rate of the hypocalcemic patients was significantly higher than the mortality rate of those with normal calcium levels.
This doesn’t mean that the key to fighting viral infection is as simple as drinking milk by the gallon. As with everything in the human body, the key concept is homeostasis – balance.
“The most important vitamin is the one you’re lowest in,” Helland said. “What a nutritionist tries to do is find a deficiency and then fill that hole.”
With calcium, one also needs to consider the intake of vitamin D, which regulates calcium’s movement from the cells into the blood stream.
“Vitamin D, at higher doses, has the tendency to steal the much needed calcium ions away from the cell walls making it easier for viruses to infect the cells,” Helland said.
Vitamin D3 is synthesized in the body’s skin cells in response to exposure to ultraviolet B light from the sun.
Overexposure to sunlight has been known to cause outbreaks of cold sores, caused by the herpes virus, although why this happens is unknown. A 2004 Japanese study published by the National Institute of Health suggested that it may be related to “UVR-induced immunosuppression or direct reactivation of HSV-1 in the neural ganglia.”
‘Too much sunlight and getting a sunburn, or getting too much Vitamin D in supplement form is going to reduce our cells’ ability to resist viral infection,” Helland said.
Helland said that, in his practice, calcium deficiency is “pretty common, is the quick answer, but more common with age for various reasons.
“When people bring the blood work in, most of the people I see with calcium imbalances are the elderly,” Helland said. “They just tend to have osteoporosis and poor digestive function as far as absorbing (calcium). I would say in Chaffee County we have a lot of elderly. I would say nearly half of everybody I see is 65 or older … sure hasn’t been in the last couple weeks, because they’ve gone into hiding, which I encourage. We need to protect them.”
Giving an extreme example, Helland said he’s seen elderly patients who have more calcium in the walls of their aorta than in their spine.
So, how do you get more calcium in your diet?
“What I’m seeing consistently is that it’s easiest from dairy,” Helland said.
The element can also be found in leafy greens, but nowhere is it more abundant and more bioavailable than in milk and cheese.
“As important as it is, I would not get picky with anybody’s choice of where they get their calcium at this point … I prefer the fermented dairy over just plain milk, such as cheese or yogurts, and the reason for that is it’s so concentrated.”
Calcium is also available in supplement form, but “bottom line is, we’re mammals,” Helland said. “We’re going to absorb calcium lactate, which is what’s in fermented dairy because the bacteria broke down the lactose into lactic acid, which re-reacts with the calcium and you get calcium lactate. So that’s a very bioavailable form for us.”
The Food and Drug Administration lists 593 mg of calcium in every 2 ounces of processed American cheese.
As far as how much to take, Helland defers to the recommended daily value set by the FDA, which is 1000 mg for calcium.