Vitamins are an essential part of overall health, but new research suggests they may not play as large of a role in COVID-19 outcomes as many people think—and experts emphasize solely relying on them for protection can be harmful.
For a recent meta-analysis published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the University of Toledo examined data from 26 different studies focusing on the role of vitamins—specifically vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc—in treating COVID-19. Ultimately, they found that the vitamins did not lessen patients' chances of dying from the disease.
"A lot of people have this misconception that if you load up on zinc, vitamin D, or vitamin C, it can help the clinical outcome of COVID-19," Azizullah Beran, MD, an internal medicine resident at The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences said in a press release. "That hasn't been shown to be true."
That's not to say that vitamins are bad or unnecessary, according to researchers—just that, unless they're indicated by a physician due to deficiencies, the micronutrients aren't going to be helpful in preventing or treating COVID-19. Here's what you need to know about the newest research—and how to determine if you're using these vitamins the right way.
What the research says about vitamins and COVID-19 mortality risk
Micronutrients like vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc have long been touted for their immune-boosting properties—which is why, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers looked to them as potential therapies.
For the new analysis, researchers sought to determine just how helpful those vitamins are in preventing COVID-19, and protecting against severe illness and death. To do this, they combed through 26 different peer-reviewed studies that involved more than 5,600 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Though the researchers didn't set out to look at vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc specifically, those were the micronutrients that the accepted studies focused on.
Across all 26 studies, none of the patients who received supplementation with vitamin C, vitamin D, or zinc saw any mortality benefits—meaning they were no less likely to die—as compared to patients who did not receive supplementation.
"Vitamins won't prevent death from Covid-19," Dr. Behran told Health. "That's the biggest take-home message."
Out of all three micronutrients, vitamin D showed some benefit for COVID-19 patients: According to researchers, vitamin D supplementation was linked to a lower intubation rate and a shortened hospital stay among patients with COVID-19—but researchers say more evidence is needed to support those findings.
Instead of trying to supplement with micronutrients, researchers say it's better to focus on a therapy we already have that's been proven to drastically reduce incidences of severe illness and death from COVID-19: the vaccine.
"It's important for people to understand that taking a lot of these supplements does not translate into better outcomes," Ragheb Assaly, MD, senior author and professor of medicine at the University of Toledo said in a press release. "The other important message is that the answer to this disease is the vaccine. Micronutrient supplements will not offset the lack of vaccination or make you not need the vaccine."
Dr. Beran takes it a step further, sharing that we currently have three well-documented ways to prevent COVID-19: "The key in fighting COVID-19 is prevention rather than treatment," he said. "The only three things we can do are get vaccinated, practice physical distancing, and wear a mask."
Are vitamins ever helpful for COVID-19?
While it's clear vitamins aren't associated with reduced mortality risk from COVID-19, you still need many essential nutrients to function—and a deficiency in any of them could certainly negatively impact your immune system's ability to fight off infection.
"In some ways, the body and its immune system is like a car," said Walter Willett, MD, DPH, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "You need all the parts running and in good repair, and if you take out one critical part, it doesn't work very well."
But how supplementation for a vitamin deficiency impacts COVID-19 and clinical outcomes isn't entirely clear yet. One recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that people with a vitamin D deficiency were more likely to experience severe illness or death from COVID-19. But researchers from that study concluded that further studies were needed to determine if and when vitamin D supplementation in those who are deficient could impact clinical outcomes.
"We know people with low vitamin D levels do much worse with COVID-19, but we don't know whether taking D at the time you get exposed is going to make a difference or not," Gerard Mullin, MD, gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Health.
What this research means for you
Taking vitamins or supplements isn't a reliable or evidence-based way to protect yourself from getting COVID-19—or dying from it. And if you end up taking supplements that aren't needed or aren't recommended by a doctor, you increase your risk of side effects or even vitamin toxicity, said Dr. Willett.
If you are deficient in any vitamins—something your doctor can diagnose from a simple blood test—your health care provider might recommend supplementation. Supplementing with vitamin D specifically, if you're deficient, can help your bone, muscle, heart, and immune health. "But if you don't have a medical indication for vitamins, then they're not going to affect your clinical outcome if you get COVID-19," says Dr. Beran.
If you suspect you're deficient in any vitamins—and while you're waiting for the go-ahead from your doctor—you can consider upping your intake of fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods, according to Dr. Willett. That's because "supplements can't take the place of a healthy diet," he said.
When it comes to COVID-19, researchers encourage people to focus on science-backed methods of preventing severe disease and death from COVID-19—namely, getting vaccinated and staying up to date on those vaccinations, along with wearing a face mask and social distancing in areas of high transmission.
But ultimately, vitamins aren't a reliable method of protection or treatment. "What we're saying is this: If you don't medically need these supplements, don't take them thinking they're protective against COVID-19," Dr. Beran said in the press release. "They're not going to prevent you from getting it and they're not going to prevent you from dying."
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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