Doctors remain focused on finding a treatment to slow or stop the deadly immune overreaction to COVID-19 known as a “cytokine storm.” As they do, experts in the nutrition world are aiming to find ways to stop it before it begins. Early on in the pandemic, these recommendations from health experts focused on vitamin C and vitamin D, both of which can significantly strengthen the immune system.
But now, in a new study published in the international peer-reviewed journal Maturitas, researchers suggest that another, equally important vitamin is being overlooked: vitamin B.
The study, a joint collaboration between researchers at the University of Oxford, United Arab Emirates University and the University of Melbourne, called for more analysis of its effects on patients with COVID-19. “Vitamin B … plays a pivotal role in cell functioning, energy metabolism and proper immune function,” the authors write. “Vitamin B assists in proper activation of both the innate and adaptive immune responses, reduces pro-inflammatory cytokine levels, improves respiratory function, maintains endothelial integrity, prevents hypercoagulability and can reduce the length of stay in hospital.”
While the study itself did not analyze the effects of vitamin B on COVID-19 patients, the authors say existing evidence on how it functions suggests that it would be extremely beneficial. “Vitamin B not only helps to build and maintain a healthy immune system, but it could potentially prevent or reduce COVID-19 symptoms or treat SARS-CoV-2 infection,” they write. “Poor nutritional status predisposes people to infections more easily; therefore, a balanced diet is necessary for immuno-competence.”
Overall, they conclude that vitamin B “should be assessed” in COVID-19 patients as a potential nonpharmaceutical “adjunct to current treatments.”
So what is vitamin B exactly?
Vitamin B complex — made up of eight different essential types, including B-2 (riboflavin), B-6 and B-12 — affects many parts of the body, assisting with critical functions such as eyesight, red blood cell growth, proper digestion, energy levels, heart health, and brain and nerve function. B vitamins can be found in a variety of foods including red meat, beans, milk, cheese, broccoli, spinach, avocados and brown rice.
Despite the availability of vitamin B-rich foods, many Americans may be deficient in this nutrient — and not even know it. According to a blog post from Harvard University, using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, “3.2 percent of adults over age 50 have a seriously low B12 level” and “up to 20 percent may have a borderline vitamin B12 deficiency.”
A deficiency in certain strains, such as vitamin B12, can be serious, resulting in an insufficient number of healthy red blood cells, which are used to fight off infection. Symptoms of vitamin B deficiency can range from fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness to personality changes, muscle weakness and unsteady movements.
Do other experts agree that vitamin B could be helpful?
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutrition expert at Harvard Medical School and director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, urges caution when interpreting the results — which are not meant to suggest that vitamin B can either prevent or treat COVID-19. But still, she agrees that it may have major benefits.
“You can think of the immune system as an army. Its job is to protect the body. But if the immune system army isn’t well-regulated, it can overreact and actually cause more damage — this overreaction is what often happens in COVID-19 and is referred to as the cytokine storm,” Naidoo tells Yahoo Life. “Cytokines are inflammatory molecules released by immune cells. They are like the weapons of the immune system army. So if immune cells are soldiers, cytokines are guns and grenades. And in a poorly regulated immune system, the body’s cytokine storm induced by COVID cause lots of inflammation in the body, just as if little grenades were being tossed around. This is what causes the worst outcomes and death in COVID.”
Naidoo — along with her co-researcher, Nicholas Norwitz, a PhD candidate at Oxford University — does think that vitamin B may have an effect. “It follows that anything that improves immune system function and decreases the chances that an infected person will have a catastrophic cytokine storm may improve the outcome of COVID-19 cases and decrease the overall death rate,” Naidoo says. “Therefore, it’s quite feasible that B-vitamin supplementation could contribute to preventing the worst COVID outcomes.”
Although the news is promising, more research on the topic is needed — and individuals should consult their doctor before adding supplements to their diet. But until then, Naidoo hopes that the research will be a reminder of how important it is to have a balanced diet. “All Americans should be focusing on their overall metabolic health to improve their individual chances of coping well with the virus…,” she says. “To this end, our everyday basics on nutrition are critical.”
Author: Abby Haglage