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Comorbidity, Health & Nutrition in the Age of COVID-19

Jul 20, 2020 | Blog, Health+

Wearing masks, washing hands regularly and adequately, avoiding touching your face, and staying six feet away from others in public places is essential to help decrease the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. These precautions are immediate and beneficial, but there are long-term concerns that need to be addressed, especially when associated with comorbidity and ways to create long-term health to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. Research has shown that food should be a crucial focus in preventing comorbidity and is beneficial to long-term recovery.

Comorbidity & Nutrition

The most common definition of comorbidity is one person who has multiple, coexisting diseases. In the U.S., comorbidity is more the norm rather than the exception. The CDC explains strong and consistent evidence that chronic heart conditions, kidney disease, COPD, obesity, and type-2 diabetes all contribute to the severity of how people react to COVID-19. In many cases, lifestyle, poor food choices, and malnutrition further contribute to illnesses that make it harder to fight viral infections.

According to Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, Ph.D., Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University dean and professor, diet can help alleviate the public health crisis in the following ways:

  1. Higher intakes of specific nutrients appear to boost the immune system, while low intakes lead to less effective immune responses and higher infection susceptibility.

  2. Nutrients that may help the immune response include micronutrients like zinc, selenium, iron, and vitamins A, C, D, E, B-6, and folate, with additional potentially promising effects of whole foods like goji berry, broccoli, green tea, and turmeric.

  3. Malnourished individuals have a higher risk of becoming ill, a more prolonged illness duration, and a higher risk of death.

  4. Risk of severe Covid-19 illness and death are highest among people who have other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are regularly associated with diet. These conditions weaken the heart’s ability to handle stress, while diabetes reduces the body’s immune response.

A peer-reviewed article in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism further explains that micronutrient deficiency suppresses immune functions, which increases the susceptibility to infections, with increased morbidity and mortality. Researchers found that, “In turn, infections aggravate micronutrient deficiencies by reducing nutrient intake, increasing losses, and interfering with utilization by altering metabolic pathways.”

Prevention & Recovery

Increasing the consumption of healthy foods is among the priorities for reducing cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the U.S. With the growing concerns of how COVID-19 contributes to comorbidity, long-term prevention and post-recovery are more critical than ever. One area where everyone can start to combat these concerns is through diet. According to researchers and physicians, creating a healthier food system through government, business, healthcare, and consumer actions must be a top priority.

Christian Bime, MD, Medical Intensive Care Unit Director at Banner–University Medical Center, explains how COVID-19 affects the lungs and other organ functions:

  • Lung tissue swells with fluid, making the lungs less elastic.

  • The immune system goes into overdrive, sometimes at the expense of other organs.

  • As your body fights one infection, it is more susceptible to additional infections.

  • There seems to be a more significant trend of blood clots becoming more common in COVID-19 patients. The cause of this is still uncertain.

Someone with limited lung function because of asthma or COPD has a harder time fighting the virus’s issues. If other pre-existing ailments are associated with the kidneys or the heart, the virus makes the body work that much harder to function under these conditions. Comorbidity only creates more struggle. If one survives the virus, the fight is not over.

Bime also explains that people who have recovered from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) associated with COVID-19 may deal with:

  • Limited lung capacity compared to their peers.

  • Psychiatric issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, cognitive impairment, and anxiety due to the trauma of the illness and treatment.

  • Kidney complications which could lead to a need for long-term dialysis.

  • Poor conditioning due to limited lung and/or organ function.

Such findings further reinforce the need for prevention and long-term recovery plans. Healthier diets, access to better foods, and exercise are vital to reducing comorbidity, boosting the immune system, and aiding in recovery.

In a recent CNN interview, Mozaffarian and other experts explain that even a small decrease in risk from healthier eating could make a difference on a national scale.

Current nutritional research has found that by increasing food quality, the U.S. could alleviate many issues during a global health crisis with access to better nutrition. It not only increases illness prevention, but it also allows for healthcare facilities to treat those who are most vulnerable. The recent introduction of Legislation to leverage nutrition for disease prevention and treatment reflects the growing public awareness of the importance of food for human health.