12 questions from “garlic” to “cold shower”

While politics, administration, business and scientific advisors are still busy trying everything so that fewer people get infected, “the Internet” is always a step ahead. Here it is more and more about how one can perhaps get along well despite being infected with the virus.

“Strengthening the immune system” is the catchphrase. There are also advertisements for products or books that are said to help. “Right now” it is said that this trick or article is particularly valuable. Social media and its users ensure that the particularly fun tips below spread particularly well.

Copper, cabbage, cold showers, garlic and coffee enemas against Corona? We once tried to separate facts, fiction and “maybe”.

1. Can not people who have a strong immune system seriously make the new coronavirus seriously ill?

An important word is here, like so often currently, the word “new”. According to what is known, Sars-CoV-2 is new for humans and thus also for their immune system. The body's defenses are able to defend themselves. Otherwise virtually all infected people would die from the virus.

This is also the case with viruses, such as the one that triggers rabies. However, because of the fact that it is new, little is known about the very specific reaction of the immune system to Sars-CoV-2. Even people with an immune system that works well per se can potentially become seriously ill, namely when many viruses get directly into the lungs instead of first multiplying in the throat and triggering a reaction of the immune cells there.

At least that is what virologist Christian Drosten thinks is one of the conceivable reasons why young people and people who are considered healthy also have a hard time with Covid – 19 can get sick. The fact is, however, that older people in particular are threatened by severe courses. This may be due to the fact that the immune system is generally no longer as active as that of younger people.

It is a phenomenon that is called immune senescence and is also responsible for the fact that, for example, tumor diseases occur more frequently in older age. However, it also applies that regardless of age, people with pre-existing conditions, especially the cardiovascular system, are particularly at risk because pneumonia places a great strain on this system. This also means that two people with a comparatively well-functioning immune system can experience completely different consequences of the disease, solely because of factors largely independent of their immune systems.

2. Can anyone strengthen their immune system in a way that prevents serious consequences of coronavirus infection?

Some people have congenital or acquired weaknesses in their body's defenses. For example, they do not produce sufficient amounts of certain immune cells. Or their reaction to pathogens is delayed. With milder forms, it is possible that the affected person will not know about it because it has never been diagnosed. In addition, there is the aforementioned immune senescence in older people.

Here it is in principle possible to exert a certain influence through diet, lifestyle and correct treatment of accompanying ailments such as sleep disorders. Basically, however, one has to assume that immune responses in seniors weaken and slow down with age. Added to this are the possible circumstances mentioned in the previous section, in which factors other than the immune response can be decisive for the course of the disease.

3rd Is it never wrong to try to stimulate your own immune system?

Caution is advised here, because this is only true if

1.) Such a stimulation really succeeds if

2.) It is not tried at the wrong time if

3.) It is not tried too hard and if

4.) Such stimulation has no other negative consequences.

The latter can trigger an overreaction. This can result in immune cells turning against the body's own tissue (autoimmune reaction). Although one does not yet know very much about corona diseases, one thing is known: in the case of severe courses, it is a problem that is often observed that the excessive immune response is fatal to the patient. Inflammatory messengers and immune cells are then so massively released by an immune system that is desperately using everything that they only make things worse, such as triggering multiple organ failure.

«Stärkt eure Immunabwehr durch gesunde Ernährung» steht auf dem Schild vor einem Straßenverkauf im Stadtzentrum. Um die Ausbreitung des Coronavirus zu verlangsamen hat die Bundesregierung das öffentliche Leben erheblich eingeschränkt.

“Strengthens your immune system through healthy eating” is written on the sign in front of you Street sales in the city center. Um die … Photo: Martin Schutt / dpa

In addition, sticking to popular tips does not necessarily mean that the immune system is really stimulated. More on this in the following paragraphs. If you also try to stimulate your immune system at a time when it is already fully challenged, you will achieve the opposite and can therefore also help to damage entire organs such as the heart. This is one of the reasons why those who have cold symptoms should preferably not exercise.

The same applies to overly ambitious attempts to get the defense up to speed. Those who have never done anything in this direction before and then do sport to exhaustion in one day, take a cold shower for minutes, consume huge amounts of yogurt with living cultures and maybe also dietary supplements, overwhelms their system and can weaken it at a crucial point in time instead of strengthening. See below for more information.

4. Is it, as is often claimed, “very easy” to strengthen the immune system?

Some of this has already been mentioned in the previous sections . It has been proven that sufficient restful sleep, avoidance of permanent physical and psychological stress, adequate hydration, a balanced diet and regular physical activity are important factors for a normally functioning immune system. Everyone has to assess for themselves how “simple” it is.

But here the certainties almost stop. For example, it is by no means clear that additional vitamin C, which is popular as the vitamin of the immune system, always has positive effects. There are even indications that it can also harm under certain conditions because its external intake dampens the production of the body's own defense molecules.

Nahrungsergänzungsmittel sind nicht immer gesund.

Dietary supplements are not always healthy. Photo: Matthias Hiekel / dpa-Zentralbild / dpa

Even the general medical advice that you shouldn't smoke may not always be correct. Because in low doses even cigarette smoke can stimulate the immune system and other tissues in the body in a ultimately positive way, precisely because of its toxic ingredients.

5. Are there individual foods or food ingredients that have been proven to strengthen the immune system without side effects?

This is often claimed. However, the scientific evidence for this is rare. Effects that have been observed in cell cultures in the laboratory are often interpreted lightly in such a way that they can also be applied to the whole person. This applies, for example, to the vitamin C already mentioned. The effects that have been demonstrated in humans are also rather marginal for zinc. In addition, evidence that zinc supplements can shorten the duration of a cold by a day or two does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the effects of severe pneumonia caused by a new pathogen.

The same applies to garlic, the spice whose supposedly so magical effect is currently spreading even more intensely on the net than its smell in a tight office. The World Health Organization, for example, explains that garlic is “a healthy food with some antimicrobial properties”. However, there is no evidence that eating garlic can protect people from the new corona virus.

Even enemas with coffee are currently being promoted as protection against the coronavirus, because they are supposed to be able to use a “detoxification of the liver” indirectly to better adjust the body to the fight against the virus. Of course, this is not proven.

Overall, there is certainly nothing to be said against the increased use of healthy vegetables and vegetables, such as garlic, onions, cabbage, fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and phytochemicals, in the kitchen. The dandelion, which is not quite wrongly recommended, at least in terms of overall health effects, can also belong here. However, you should be careful not to collect and eat leaves and roots of other plants that look similar. They can be very unhealthy or fatal, for example in ragwort. And overall, the same applies here: An overdose can have the opposite effect – even if such a risk is mostly low from food alone and not from food supplements.

But that's only because you usually can't eat that much. However, some foods and their ingredients can also be dangerous with certain previous illnesses or medications taken. For example, cabbage vegetables contain a lot of vitamin K, which limits the effects of certain anticoagulant drugs such as Marcumar. Especially people with previous illnesses should, if they want to change their diet clearly and quickly, get advice from specially trained medical professionals or take special nutritional advice.

Knoblauch auf einem Markt in Jakarta.

garlic on a market in Jakarta. Photo: Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana / REUTERS

6. Are there minerals that precede the corona virus, the Covid – 19 triggers, protect?

An agent that is said to (and of course not proven) can also cure cancer is currently being used as protection against Covid – 19. “MMS”, short for “Miracle Mineral Supplement” (“miracle mineral nutritional supplement”) contains mainly the bleach chlorine dioxide. Bleaching agents can kill microorganisms, for example on a resistant table surface or as a laundry additive. But this does not apply if you drink it, unless you drink so much that the person dies at the same time.

No health-promoting effects have been demonstrated for MMS, especially not against the new corona virus. In general, many minerals, or their ions, are vital. Some of them also have proven or at least very likely functions in the immune system, such as copper, molybdenum or selenium. They are usually sufficient in very small amounts, which enter the body through a balanced diet.

This also applies to ions of calcium, magnesium and sodium required in higher concentrations. Taking magnesium supplements, for example – but only in moderation here – cannot harm, except in exceptional cases. It is different with potassium, for example, which can strain the cardiovascular system and the kidneys.

The following generally applies: Dietary supplements are usually unnecessary in a normal diet. There are also some studies that even show negative health effects, which may be due to the suppression of the body's production of defense molecules or the flushing out of other minerals. They make sense if there is a specific shortage of individual substances. Water enriched with silver ions is also propagated against the corona virus. It has no proven positive effect and can have serious side effects, such as kidney damage.

7. Is it advisable to avoid alcohol?

Alcohol, especially in higher doses, can have a negative impact on immune function. Especially if you already feel sick, you should avoid it if possible. Otherwise, the following applies: For whom alcoholic beverages are important in terms of quality of life, they should at least only be enjoyed in moderation. It is unlikely that there will be any disadvantages to not doing so, even if there are indications of positive effects in certain contexts.

8. Does vitamin D help the immune system?

Ein Rentnerpaar sitzt auf einer Bank vor dem Reichstag und sonnt sich.

A couple of pensioners sits on a bench in front of the Reichstag and basks in the sun. Photo: Stephan Scheuer / dpa

Vitamin D has proven functions in many areas of human physiology, including for the immune function. There are scientific hypotheses that support the mostly falling vitamin D levels in winter for the high rates of colds and flu diseases during this time.

The most effective is vitamin D, which is actually a hormone and not a vitamin when it is formed in the skin under the influence of UV rays from the sun. Preparations taken by tablet or drop are also recommended, especially if blood tests show a low level. The influence of vitamin D in infections with Sars-CoV-2 is unknown.

Regularly starting in May and in summer, but only for a few minutes at a time, without exposure to the midday sun is usually sufficient. In March, the variant of the UV rays required for the production of vitamin D is usually not yet sufficiently reached.

9. Do fermented foods, yogurt, for example, have a positive effect? ​​

Overall, it is true that, although individual germs such as the coronavirus humans very dangerous, we live with many microorganisms – especially bacteria – in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. These can also help protect against pathogenic germs. This applies to intestinal bacteria, bacteria on the skin, but also to microorganisms that normally colonize the respiratory organs.

Little is known about the latter, especially about how it can possibly be promoted. Intestinal bacteria are essential because they not only help to open up food, but also help to make it difficult for dangerous germs to overcome the intestinal wall.

In addition, the intestine is full of immune cells and these are always kept on alert by the presence of the bacteria and transmit immune signals to other parts of the body. Yoghurt, if it contains living cultures, and other fermented foods such as real sauerkraut or kimchi, as well as fiber-rich, plant-rich food, promote the positive-acting microorganisms in the intestine – and probably also indirectly on the skin and elsewhere on the mucous membranes.

For probiotics, the evidence is rather mixed. They can have a positive effect, even influences on the duration and extent of colds have been measured in a few studies. However, caution is advised with them, especially when used during existing serious illnesses. Applied to acute inflammation of the pancreas, for example, patients who received the treatment died even more frequently than those treated purely conventionally.

Background on the coronavirus:

  • Virologist Drosten: “Maybe we have to assume that we will be in a state of emergency for a year”
  • The Covid – 19 – Map of Germany: See all coronavirus infections by counties and federal states
  • What you need to know about the corona virus: The 66 most important questions and answers
  • With face masks against the corona virus? What really protects against the transmission of germs
  • Cashier about the corona lockdown: “Today was worse than ever!”
  • Follow the events of the corona virus in Berlin in a separate live blog

10. Does “hardening” help against the coronavirus?

Again, there are no studies because the virus is so new. Experts are far from in agreement about the effect of both cold and heat applications on immune function. There are individual examples, such as the “Ice Man” Wim Hof, who is regularly exposed to extreme cold and is said to have never been sick since he did this. However, a study called “Cold Challenge”, in which the participants had to take a cold shower regularly, did not produce the data they had hoped for.

This hardening seemed to help a little, but it did not show that the users would not have gotten sick at all. Nevertheless, there are increasing indications of the effects of cold shower, ice bucket, ice bathing and the like, which are effective against infections, and also from scientific studies – which, however, have a very variable quality.

Even heat applications can obviously have positive effects, such as the Japanese onsen baths. Here, however, the threshold for dangerous consequences is exceeded very quickly, for example for the cardiovascular system. In addition, the temperature of such baths is ideal for Legionella bacteria, which can cause severe pneumonia and have often been detected in such baths.

Basically, it can be assumed that cold and heat applications can help the immune system. It is important not to overdo it. Who is 75 and now to protect himself from the virus protect, for the first time in his life bravely jumping into a cold lake, risks circulatory problems and possibly also a severe cold.

Der Marathon-Läufer Arne Gabius ist auf einer seiner Trainingsstrecken unterwegs. Hochleistungssportler müssen durch die Coronavirus-Pandemie auch beim Training vorsichtig sein.

The marathon runner Arne Gabius is on one of his training courses. High-performance athletes have to go through … Photo: picture alliance / dpa

11. Which mechanisms are used to strengthen the immune system, insofar as this is possible at all?

On the one hand, it needs the necessary building blocks. To be able to produce immune cells, a lot of protein is required. A quick immune response also consumes a lot of sugar. In addition, the necessary trace elements must be sufficiently present in the body's blood or storage tissues. All of this is usually guaranteed with a normal lifestyle and diet.

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The second decisive factor is stimulation: The immune system must be exposed to stimuli that make it active. Heat and cold can contribute to this, but also food ingredients. In most cases, these are substances that are actually harmful, but in small doses simply keep the immune system and other important systems in the body – such as those for detoxification – on alert.

This phenomenon is called “hormesis”. However, the latter means that it is particularly important to find the right dose here – and to avoid the wrong time. An additional immune system and a body that is just beginning to fight a germ with an hour of jogging in the morning is usually not a good idea. Using substances or foods that are supposed to be “healthy” according to the “a lot helps a lot” principle can also result in exactly the opposite of what you actually want.

12. What about homeopathic remedies?

Many homeopathic “medicines” contain no active ingredient due to extremely high dilution factors. It is scientifically completely implausible that they can have an effect assigned to the active ingredient. All serious studies attempting to demonstrate such an effect beyond a placebo effect did not produce any of these.

The alleged “stimulation of water molecules” with transfer of the mechanisms of action to them is nowhere scientifically proven and is also not plausible. However, there are means in which the dilution is comparatively low. They contain active ingredient that could also have an effect.

“Could” is the key word here. Nothing has been reliably proven in sufficiently large and rigid studies – and certainly not with regard to the new virus. One should focus on homeopathy when it comes to dealing with Covid – 19 to protect, never leave.

What does all this mean?

People belonging to risk groups should do one thing above all at the moment: try not to become infected. People who do not belong to risk groups, too, because there are sometimes difficult courses with them – and they can infect sensitive people. It doesn't hurt to think about a balanced diet, adequate sleep, stress reduction, moderate alcohol and daily exercise.

There may be miracle cures for immune stimulation, but probably not. In any case, such miracles have not been documented scientifically. Wanting too much too quickly, such as changing your diet, exercising intensely, taking cold showers and taking supplements from one day to the next, is likely to stress your body so that the consequences can be negative. The immune system could then be “just now” and even badly positioned at the crucial moment.

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