Covid-19 Immunity

In this current coronavirus climate Clinical Nutritionist BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSc Nut Med) shares her tips on how you can bolster your immune system while doing your bit to flatten the curve…

Flashback to 1918. The Spanish flu came into Australia via returning World War 1 soldiers. The precise source of first known infection – in Melbourne 1918 – was never discovered. However, once in Australia, the flu rapidly escaped a quarantine system whose efficacy relied on the honesty of ship medical officers and captains to volunteer past or present cases on board and the willingness of returned soldiers to self-report and voluntarily isolate themselves.

Now, flashforward to the returning Ruby Princess cruise ship that docked in Sydney on March 19, following an exemption made by the Australian government allowing them to disembark without testing or health monitoring. In this case, an email from the ship’s master on March 8 had stated there were “no ill passengers or crew on board” even though to date there have been over 160 cases of COVID-19 in returned passengers logged onboard. Also take into account those willingly self-isolating over the last few weeks on crowded beaches and in restaurants and bars.

In 1918 there were too few doctors and nurses to deal with the crisis. Health facilities were overrun. Schools were shut down at various times in various states. Individual states did their own thing as a national argument fell apart. There were shortages of food and essential goods. It was compulsory to wear a mask in the street. Places of entertainment such as theatres, cinemas and dance halls were closed, as were churches (sound familiar?). The Sydney Easter show was called off in 1919, as it has been for 2020. In Sydney alone 40% of residents caught the Spanish flu and ultimately between 13,000 and 15,000 Australians died; almost two-thirds of deaths were in adults between 25-34.

In 1918, the world was a very different place. Doctors knew viruses existed but had never seen one – there were no electron microscopes and the genetic material of viruses had not yet been discovered. Accessibility to information was limited and a lack of internet connection meant that working from home in self-isolation was not an option. Yet, the common link between the experience of 1918 and that of today’s COVID-19 pandemic remains: human psychology.

Humans have evolved to react poorly to uncertainty and unpredictability because both make us feel a perceived lack of control. Add to this mix the fact that COVID-19 makes assessing risk difficult because our objective knowledge of the disease is still evolving. Yet, now, more than ever, common-sense precautionary measures are especially important given the high likelihood of contracting this coronavirus. There are important basic things that we, collectively, can do to take back the power here and control (to some extent) our degree of vulnerability to this illness.

While as a population, we may be anxious, fearful and discouraged, we do have the power to minimise our susceptibility through hygiene measures such as self-isolation, monitoring of temperature, washing hands regularly with soap and avoiding facial contact; note: these measures do NOT include hoarding canned food and toilet paper which only contributes to mass hysteria and a further lack of perceived control (and scientific study proves that a lack of control appears to be the human psyche’s Kryptonite, led by a mixture of miscalibrated emotion and limited knowledge).

And it’s not just hygiene measures that put that health ball back in our court. We also have an opportunity to bolster our immune system through nutrients and herbs that have clinical efficacy in viral control (research they had very limited access to in 1918), so in between you’re dusting off those old-school board games and trying to flip tortillas into a bowl above your head with a flipper (trust me – it’s a thing), take a few minutes to stock up on these real essentials:


A recent study by a group of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering researchers from University of Sydney found that compounds from elderberries can directly inhibit viral influenza entry and replication in human cells and can help strengthen a person’s immune response to the virus. In fact, the immunomodulatory effects of Elderberry (S.nigra) have been investigated and appear to show that an extract of the plant would also be likely to stimulate the immune systems of the weak or immune-compromised. Two further clinical trials using a liquid elderberry extract showed a reduction in symptoms and duration of influenza infection, and another pilot trial with Elderberry extract lozenges also confirmed a beneficial effect on severity and duration of cold and flu-like symptoms, making Elderberry a tasty and efficacious natural immune support. Take it daily for best results – and remember, it’s family friendly, so kids can enjoy the benefits too!


This is an important medicinal plant in traditional Chinese medicine, and extracts are commonly used for both treatment and prevention of cold and flu. Astragalus is both an anti-viral and immunomodulatory herb, and several studies have reported the effects of astragalus on the immune system, from enhanced immunoglobulin production to restoration of lost T-Cell activity; in other words, Astragalus boosts the immune system to fight viruses. Interestingly, Astragalus root appears especially effective when immune function is stressed by environmental or endogenous challenges, like stress or anxiety – and let’s be honest, who isn’t stressed or anxious over this whole COVID-19 development?!


Andrographis is a plant native to South and Southeast Asia that is revered in many medical traditions, including Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. It contains andrographolide which is a bitter-tasting compound that has been shown to improve the function of the immune system. It can boost numbers of white blood cells and medical studies have reported that taking Andrographis daily may prevent symptoms of upper respiratory infection. Already have the sniffles? Andrographis is also used to shorten the duration of symptoms from cold or flu. Research shows that taking this herb can reduce severity of symptoms within three days and a 2007 study found that people who took Andrographis when they had a cold or flu experienced significantly less severe symptoms than those who didn’t take it. This is one for the first-aid cupboard.


A member of the daisy family, echinacea contains compounds called ‘alkamides’ which have a strong effect on the immune system Lab tests have shown that these alkamides boost the number of immune cells in the body and improve the way that the immune system fights off infection. A 2007 study found that people who took echinacea during the winter were 58% less likely to develop a respiratory illness than those who took a placebo. Those who did develop a respiratory illness experienced less severe symptoms, showing that echinacea can help to fight the seven symptoms of cold and flu: coughing, runny nose, sore throat, earache, headache, fever and fatigue. A one-stop cold and flu-fighting shop!

And if that’s not enough, go back to basics to bolster immunity:

* Get plenty of sleep: Sleep deprivation increases the stress hormone cortisol, which then works to supress immune function. The less sleep you get – the lower your immune system’s capability to fight off a virus or flu, so make sure to prioritise those Zzzzz’s.

* Ferment away: Some of the most important nutritional players in immune health include probiotics and prebiotics, both found in food sources like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, yoghurt and kefir. These foods have been shown in clinical studies to reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infection and support a stronger immune response.

* Keep moving: Regular exercise helps to improve immune function and decreases the risk of respiratory infections like the common cold. Regular exercise helps to reduce inflammation and accelerates the circulation of disease-fighting white blood cells, so whether you’re outdoors or in the comfort of your living room, keep that training regime flowing.

Above all, please remember that we can maintain a level of power and control through this uncertainty, as long as we continue to be compassionate, thoughtful, generous and empathetic towards others. Share knowledge and emotional support. Be immune strong. Maintain routine (our human psyche loves that). Know that today may be scary, unpredictable, and anxiety-inducing, but our health (both physical and mental) and our futures remain bright if we can focus on these true essentials.

Your daily guide to keep your immune system healthy and happy…

7.15amRise and shine. Stick to your routine even through you may be house-bound to alleviate stress and anxiety. Begin the day with 10 minutes of daily journaling – studies show that scheduling ‘think time’ to go through any worries, concerns or  ‘to-dos’ boosts productivity and mental health (and we all need to look after our mental health in isolation. Cortisol, our stress hormone, lowers the immune system and causes us issues like weight gain and insomnia, so take 10 minutes out of your day to look after your head, and reap the rewards. At this time, have a big glass of water: most of us don’t drink nearly enough H20 throughout the day, and dehydration reduces the overall amounts of blood and lymphatic fluids that are integral to a healthy immune system, so start first thing! Oh, and by the way, once you’re thirsty, you are already dehydrated, so get ahead of the thirst.  
7.30amBreakfast and your first chance to boost those virus-fighting nutrients. In a bowl, add natural yoghurt (Greek or coconut if you’re dairy free), strawberries and blueberries, chia seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds (otherwise known as pepitas). Remember: a well-balanced gut bacteria is essential to a healthy immune system, so add an extra dollop of yoghurt (and sprinkle on a probiotic capsule if you’ve got one handy). Berries are high in Vitamin C to ward off colds and flu, while pepitas are high in zinc to boost immune function. Protein is high in chia seeds and nuts so you’ll be protecting your muscles as well as your respiratory system with this one. At this point, take your immune support supplements, too. I love a combo supplement of echinacea, olive leaf, Andrographis, C and Zinc, but if you’re happy to stick with plain old Vitamin C, remember – your body can only absorb 1000mg of C per hour, so instead of taking a handful at once, try to spread them out through the day for best effect.  
8.00amIf you are working from home, welcome to the office! Remember to sip water throughout the day to maintain hydration and take a short break every few hours. Break up the day with 60 seconds of push-ups/sit-ups/burpees, etc every two hours to boost fitness and immune function. Ease up on the coffee this morning, too – research shows that excess caffeine consumption lowers immunity.  
12noonLunch-time. You may be indoors, but there’s no need to go without essential Vitamin D. Whip up some Paleo Salmon patties and serve with leafy green spinach (for an extra Vit C boost). Mix together mashed sweet potato, canned salmon, two eggs, almond meal and season with a little garlic powder, onion powder, lemon juice and/or chilli flakes. Shape into balls and fry in a pan with a little olive oil. Sweet potato is high in Vitamin A – in fact one cup of the orange stuff has a whopping 377% of the recommended daily intake of Vit A, important for healthy mucous membranes (think nasal cavities and sinuses). Almond meal is also high in Vit E, and vitamin E deficiency is associated with increased infectious diseases, so up that nut intake to fight infection!  
3pm3pm is the time most workers have a noticeable slump in productivity so instead of battling against human nature, use that time for an hour of power. Studies show that moderate exercise has been linked to positive immune system response and a temporary boost in the production of macrophages (the cells that attack bacteria and viruses), so whether you’re downloading a workout or heading to the backyard for some TRX, now is the time to move your body – and if you haven’t already got one, invest in a TRX when you get back to your desk. It is perfect for apartments and courtyards and will give you a full body workout in no time at all. And don’t forget, post-exercise – add water! Have a protein-filled snack here to boost energy levels and muscle building: an apple with nut butter, a couple of hard-boiled eggs, or some hummus and carrot sticks are all good options.  
5.30pmThe work day may be over but your immune-boosting is not. It’s time to train your brain to boost your body’s defences. A recent and ground-breaking review looked at 20 randomised control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system, and found that it reduced markers of inflammation (high levels of which are associated with decreased immune function),it increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells (involved in sending signals to other cells directing them to destroy infections) and boosted telomerase activity to promote stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration – this deterioration is linked to premature aging and some cancers, so download a mindfulness meditation App and breathe through the isolation.  
7pmDinner is served. A great steak served with ratatouille will not only impress your housemates or significant other, but will be the final daily boost of immune bliss. Red meat is high in Zinc for immune support, while a slow-cooked mixture of tomato, red capsicum, garlic, onion, basil, eggplant and zucchini will provide a last hurrah of vegelicious nutrients: Vit C, B6 and magnesium all contribute to a healthy defence system and as a whole ratatouille is low in carbs and without most starchy vegetables – making it a perfect complement to a protein-rich meal. Go easy on the alcohol here, too – like coffee, it dampens the immune response.  
9.30pmI know, I know – it’s an ask – but sleep is essential for repair and rejuvenation (and to allow the body quiet time to fight any viruses or bacteria it may have come into contact with that day). The hours before midnight are twice as beneficial as the hours afterwards, so try to get as many of those precious ones in as possible. To rest and relax before your head hits the pillow, take a powdered magnesium supplement to switch off that brain and calm those COVID-19 nerves half an hour before you hit the hay, or alternatively take an Epsom Salt bath for the same magnesium lift. If you are reading before sleep, try Tim Ferris’ Tools of Titans – this book gives productivity tips and a whole lot of perspective to keep motivation high and determination strong.  

For the full article grab the May 2020 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

Lexi Woloshchuk

Katie Postl