March 9, 2020
As efforts at containment of the new coronavirus seem less likely to be effective in the longterm, it’s squarely time to focus on what we can do for ourselves, families, clients, neighbors, and everyone to protect health all around. Although all cases should be taken very seriously, we should know that all but a fraction of people infected will survive. Beyond hand washing and avoidance, here are dietary things we can do to ensure that more of us join vast majority who come through infection well, even if we are to be exposed.
Covid-19 is reported to present as a very particular type of pneumonia. The virus seems to attack the lungs almost exclusively. The pneumonia is characterized as extremely sticky phlegm, like a “road block” in the chest; many patients don’t even cough much, the quickly-forming thick phlegm is beyond our ability to expel through coughing. Chinese medicine has taught for millennia that there is a deep energetic connection between the lungs and large intestine, a yin-yang pair connection, and that conditions that overwhelm the capacity of the lungs will impact (and can possibly be resolved) through the large intestine. Reports from China do include this characteristic road block lung scenario coupled with relative constipation or incomplete elimination from the bowels. Together this information gives us a concrete approach to dietary protection.
1) Avoid foods that promote stickiness and phlegm. The key sticky foods are sugar, dairy, and breads. This means drastically reducing all sweets, most dairy (yogurt with little or no sugar is the safest dairy to consume), pizza, pastries, bagels, and so forth. Grains themselves are not bad, but avoid sticky breads like pizza and bagels (they are very high in gluten, which is named by using the Latin word for glue). Instead, have rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, oats, barley, and rye.
2) Avoid cold food and drinks. The lungs don’t like cold, and they don’t like cold drinks passing by on their way to the stomach. Cold drinks quickly raise mucus and phlegm. This is tolerable for healthy people, but for the time being cold drinks and food should be avoided by all. Ask for water without ice, avoid iced coffee or iced tea, and drink plenty of water at room temperature or warmed above that. Ice cream, which includes sugar, dairy, and cold, is a terrible food at the current time and should be fully avoided. According to reports from hospital wards, people suffering from Covid-19 disease lose their ability to move or otherwise resolve phlegm. And, the infection moves very quickly, not permitting time to adjust our diets and clear previous phlegm. To do what you can to ensure a spot in the 96-99.5% who can survive exposure, live for the next few months on a diet that protects against mucus, phlegm, and what is called dampness in Chinese medicine.
3) Smoking tobacco seems to be a high risk factor. Reports are that 40% of the world’s cigarettes are consumed in China, a country already suffering from severe air pollution. Not-smoking is in itself protective. However, the time immediately after quitting can be a dangerous time as well, as the lungs get the message that they can finally begin clearing heavy toxins, via mucus expectoration. So, ironically, although smokers should definitely quit the habit for longterm health, this may not be the best time. Instead, anyone who smokes should reduce smoking to a minimum, with a certain urgency. A rule of thumb might be 2-4 cigarettes daily, if your habit is 1-2 packs per day. Idealists may find this offensive, but this is not the time to challenge lung health with either continued smoking or sudden quitting.
4) There are foods that can help us clear phlegm and improve peristalsis, providing some real protection for a person becoming a serious case, even if exposed and infected with coronavirus.
- Oats, barley, brown rice, millet, buckwheat, whole wheat or rye bread—all these promote peristalsis and protect against constipation. Most don’t like to discuss these things, but pre-existing constipation is a dangerous scenario when a lung-congesting virus is going around. Protect yourself with whole grains.
- Morning water is also very important. Drink one or two glasses of room temperature water first thing in the morning, with no flavoring whatsoever. This passes through the stomach and irrigates the intestines.
- Breakfast porridges, soups, stews. Porridge is wet-cooked grain, including oatmeal and congee (rice porridge). Immunity requires plenty of fluids and plenty of internal energy. Wet-cooked foods (porridges, soups, stews) provide time-released hydration that supports immunity better than just drinking water (which is also important, of course). Healthy oils are also important; be sure to include olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, even eggs and butter are good for staying strong with necessary internal moistness.
- Avoid foods that overstimulate heat in the stomach. Covid-19 often includes fever, and both dryness and heat in the stomach will diminish the effectiveness of a fever, and therefore functional immunity. Foods that dry or heat the stomach include hot peppers, alcohol, garlic, onions, fried foods, and a few others. These are very popular foods, and garlic is said to boost immunity, but prolonged use will raise heat which is the opposite of what we want now. Reduce or temporarily eliminate these foods.
- Foods that cut or help resolve phlegm can be added. These are the seed spices (not the hot spices mentioned above). Seed spices include mustard seed, cumin, coriander, cardamom, and star anise (the main source for the attempted anti-flu medication, tamiflu). Other spices that are recommended are cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns. This means stay away from cream cheese but use mustard, avoid nachos in favor of cheese-free bean or meat chili with plenty of cumin, etc. Also include carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and lots of green vegetables (cooling and clearing) such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, mustard greens, radicchio, endive, arugula, dandelion greens, and kitchen herbs including parsley, cilantro, dill, rosemary, oregano, and more. The thinking is not about how these kitchen herbs or their oils may kill viruses, but because they help the body clear phlegm and digest food better, making us stronger and safer if exposed. Include also the small beans: lentils, adzuki, black-eyed peas, mung beans, and more. Sprouts are excellent, too, as are traditionally fermented foods. Meats, poultry, fish and seafood in your familiar amounts do not require change (although many people would benefit from some reduction there).
What’s the short advice?
- Get enough rest. Being tired reduces immune function.
- Get enough hydration, including some good dietary oils. Dehydration reduces immune function.
- Eat well. Poor foods reduce immune function.
- Dramatically reduce sugar, dairy (especially cheese), gluten.
- Avoid anything but very moderate alcohol consumption (abstention is fine).
- Avoid cold food and drinks.
- Avoid deep-fried foods (these raise mucus and reduce immune capability).
- If you smoke, reduce to 10% consumption, no kidding (do not quit, yet).
- Add seed spices to your cooking: mustard seed, cumin seed, star anise seed, Szechuan peppercorns, and others.
- Have wet-cooked porridges for breakfast (if sick or elderly, congee is the easiest to digest).
- Eat whole grains (unless sick, they are more difficult to digest if ill) along with plenty of fresh greens, root vegetables, seaweeds, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, beans, along with your normal (or a bit less) amount of meats, poultry, fish.
- If you snack, avoid sweets in favor or nuts and dried fruits; for example, almonds and dried figs.
- Dramatically reduce sugar, dairy (especially cheese), gluten.
- Get some sun and do some gentle exercise that focuses on stretching and breathing.
- For the elderly or those with weak digestion, have a very simple supportive homemade herbal tea before meals: 2-3 thin slices of fresh ginger root, 1/8 of a lemon or lime (with peel, squeeze a bit to release juice), and 1/2 teaspoon honey (if not already having too much sugar). Steep in boiled water, sip when cool enough. This simple infusion is inexpensive and easy to make. Ginger protects the lungs from phlegm, citrus peel also helps us handle phlegm and keep breathing open, and the note of honey supports the aspect of digestion we call transformation. Together in a hot water infusion, these ingredients enact a strategy to strengthen those who are most vulnerable in the gentlest and easiest way.
Yes, we should wash hands often and well, yes we should avoid touching things in public places and then our own faces, and yes we should go to the hospital if ill with fever and shortness of breath. But if we do our part with skill and focus, we can make the most of our health and ensure our place on the good side of any statistics.
Andrew Sterman is author of Welcoming Food: Diet as Medicine for the Home Cook and Other Healers, now available, available HERE and other places.