The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has hit the world hard, with nearly one hundred thousand people infected and thousands already dead due to COVID-19, the disease it causes. There is no beating around the bush here — the coronavirus is a scary thing. People are worried, and while we can debate if that’s reasonable or not, the reality is that across the globe people are terrified of what’s happening and what’s going to come.
And as I’ve written before, that fear isn’t going away any time soon.
And with the fear of coronavirus has come the an outbreak of a different kind: dodgy health advice. Whenever there is a major health issue anywhere in the world, we see dozens if not hundreds of people jumping up to tell you that they have the perfect remedy that will make the problem go away, for a price. Alongside the enormous amount of legitimate medical research that is going on to try and find a cure for the disease, there are numerous people trying to make a quick buck selling unproven, potentially harmful things to desperate people scared of getting sick.
So here’s a short list of things that are almost certain not to work for the new coronavirus, no matter how flashy the internet ad is.
5. Changing Your Diet
Something that astounds me is the number of people who’ve taken the outbreak of a terrifying infection as yet another opportunity to push their favorite dietary fad. From keto to the vegan option, everyone and his horse has decided that a pandemic of infectious disease is the right time to tell us that we can be healed if only we follow their prescriptive dietary choices.
Can diets prevent or cure the coronavirus? The short answer is, of course, no. The longer answer is that, while there is some indication from preclinical research that certain diets may have some effects on biomarkers of disease, there isn’t even good evidence in people for viruses that we have been testing for years, like influenza, never mind the new coronavirus. Obesity may raise your risk of death from many infectious diseases, but there’s not much evidence for a specific diet there either.
Eat whatever you want, but don’t change your diet because of the coronavirus. It’s unlikely that eating an entire bulb of raw garlic, or going keto, will do much for your risk of disease*.
4. Having Sex
By far the best recommendation on this list is to go out and get laid. Almost certainly ineffective for your risk of coronavirus, but of everything in this list it’s probably the most likely to make you feel better anyway.
This myth comes about because there is some, relatively limited, evidence that having more regular sex is associated with a stronger immune system. However, it’s hard to know if this is causal or not — does sex make your immune system stronger or is it just that people who bang more are healthier in other ways? — and so it’s difficult to know if there’s any truth to the idea. This is especially true for the coronavirus, which is an emerging infection that we know very little about.
3. Avoiding Nasty Chemicals
Because the world is ridiculous, a number of people are saying that the best thing you can do to prevent coronavirus is to go natural and get rid of all the horrible chemicals in your life. And while it’s easy to be glib and quote Tim Minchin’s “everything is chemicals”, it’s worth pointing out that nature can destroy your immune system — viruses are, after all, natural — while the main way to boost your immunity to disease is completely artificial.
Nature is fabulous, but it’s not going to reduce your risk of infectious disease.
2. Get Some Sleep
One piece of advice that’s flying around everywhere is that if you don’t get a good night’s kip you’ll end up dying of coronavirus. Now, don’t get me wrong, sleep is important, but there are a few issues with this idea. Firstly, the evidence that sleep causally impacts your immune system is quite complex — a bit like sex, it’s hard to know what’s causing what. It may be that sleep itself isn’t causing you to have a better immune system, but that people who have bad immune systems are also worse at sleeping.
And perhaps more importantly, we just don’t know enough about he coronavirus yet to make this sort of assessment. Maybe sleep helps, but it’s really too early to make that call with any sort of certainty.
So absolutely try to sleep more. It’s always good to get enough sleep, because otherwise you’ll have to rely on coffee to get you through panic-refreshing the coronavirus dashboard, but don’t worry too much about your nightly slumber. The evidence is, at best, somewhat mixed.
1. “Immune-Boosting” Supplements
Last, and perhaps most importantly, are so-called “immune-boosting” supplements. The thing to remember about supplements, whether they be herbs, vitamins, or something more obscure, is that it’s hard to sum them all up in one blanket statement. You can’t necessarily compare fish oil tablets to apple cider vinegar pills, because they’re very different things that have diverse impacts on your body.
That being said, there’s one thing we can say that’s almost certainly true: supplements won’t boost your immune system.
The thing is, your immune system is fiendishly complex. There are thousands of different mechanisms working together to combat disease all the time throughout your body, and the simple fact is that a supplement is unlikely to improve that action. Moreover, if you could somehow put your immune system into overdrive, it would probably be an issue since that’s essentially what autoimmune disease is.
There is some evidence for a single supplement — high dose zinc — for treating the common cold, but we have absolutely no idea if it will do anything for this new disease. And even then, it’s not a preventative, just a treatment, and it definitely doesn’t boost your immune system per se.
How Not To Get Sick
The best people to listen to for health advice are the experts, in particular the World Health Organization, and the message from them across the world is simple — wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Stay home if you’re sick. Try not to infect others, and stay safe yourself.
That’s pretty much it.
Yes, the coronavirus is scary. As I’ve said, we’ll have to live with that fear for a while, as this disease makes its way across the globe. It’s worth keeping up with the news, because this is an emerging situation and there may be new things that you can do to help yourself in the future.
Just don’t go out and buy a trolley full of nonsense.
You probably can’t boost your immune system like that anyway.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast for your weekly dose of scientific shenanigans and media muddling:
*Note: Technically, this is untrue. An entire bulb of garlic may prevent anyone from coming within 10 metres of you, which is far enough away that you might be a bit safer from droplets that people cough and sneeze out.