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Do Foodborne Antioxidants Fight Viruses?
Polyphenols from veggies, berries, tea, EV olive oil, and curcumin may help fight colds and flu 10/21/2015 By Craig Weatherby
As winter approaches, so does cold and flu season.

Flu shots only reduce the risk of infection by about half … which is still much better than nothing.

But there is no vaccine against the common cold, and no proven preventive measure for colds or the flu.

So it makes sense to adopt any diet or lifestyle measure that might reduce the risk or severity of an upper respiratory infection.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention stresses some obvious preventive steps:
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. 
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.
To that list we would add "get plenty of sleep” and "get plenty of seafood-source omega-3s”.

Lack of sleep raises the risk for catching a cold, and certain metabolic byproducts of omega-3 DHA – produced when we eat seafood or take fish oil – suppress replication of the flu virus (Bryant PA et al. 2004; Imai Y 2015).

Now, growing research suggests that we should add another preventive measure: ample amounts of the polyphenol-type antioxidants found in edible plants.

Foodborne antioxidants versus viruses
Research published over the past decade, shows that polyphenol antioxidants suppress viruses.

These naturally occurring compounds abound in colorful fruits and vegetables, tea (green and black), extra virgin olive oil, natural cocoa, all culinary herbs, and in many medicinal herbs, such as curcumin.

For example, the potent, yellow-hued polyphenols in turmeric root – collectively called curcumin – appear to suppress human papillomavirus (HPV): see Curry's Color May Curb Oral and Cervical Cancers.

And, in two small, placebo- controlled clinical trials, an elderberry (Sambucus nigra) extract – widely sold under the name Sambucol – showed significant benefits in people infected with different flu viruses (Zakay-Rones Z et al. 1995; Zakay-Rones Z et al. 2004). 

In the 1995 trial, the people in the elderberry group enjoyed significant improvement within two days, while the patients in the control group showed no improvement until six days had passed.

More recently, an Emory University team reported that elderberry extract impaired a bronchitis virus in human cells, at an early point during its replication (Chen C et al. 2015).

Foodborne polyphenols enhanced runners' immunity
David Nieman, DrPh, was among the first scientists to show that – following a race – marathon runners become vulnerable to viral illnesses such as colds or the flu (Calabrese LH, Nieman DC 1996).

As Dr. Nieman explained, "… after heavy exertion, bacteria and viruses can multiply at a higher rate due to factors like stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines. This is why runners are six times more likely to get sick after a marathon.” (ASU 2015)

(In contrast, Nieman and his colleagues found that moderate exercise – such as near-daily brisk walking – reduces the number of sick days by half.)

The discovery that endurance athletes become vulnerable led him to look for natural compounds that might prevent infection ... and/or enhance recovery and overall athletic performance.

Last year, Nieman's team at Appalachian State University (ASU) published the results of a placebo-controlled clinical trial.

They found that a drink packed with polyphenols from blueberries and green tea helped prevent viral replication in endurance athletes (Ahmed M et al. 2014).

As Nieman said, "We are producing some of the first human studies showing plant polyphenols work with the immune system to help clear viruses and keep their ability to multiply under control.” (ASU 2015)

Polyphenols probably benefit non-athletes
The novel assays (blood tests) used in the study were developed by Nieman and his study co-author Maryam Ahmed, PhD, a virology expert based at ASU.

In 2010, Professors Nieman and Ahmed published a study suggesting that the anti-viral effects of polyphenols probably apply to everyone ... especially people of middle age or older.

Their placebo-controlled clinical trial was designed to test the effects of a polyphenol called quercetin, which is found in fruits and abounds in onions and certain other vegetables (Heinz SA et al. 2010).

Nieman and Ahmed recruited 1,002 people of widely varying age (18-85 years), and divided them into two groups, each assigned to a different daily regimen lasting 12 weeks:
  • Placebo capsules
  • Quercetin capsules (providing 1000 mg per day)
Compared with placebo capsules, the quercetin capsules had no effect on infection rates or severity among younger people in the study (under age 40).

However, quercetin greatly benefited the participants who were middle-aged or older and relatively fit.

The older, fitter members of the quercetin group were 31% less likely to lose any days of work due to an upper respiratory infection (e.g., cold or flu) … and the severity of any infections was 36% lower (Heinz SA et al. 2010).

As Dr. Ahmed said, "These compounds are also anti-oxidant and anti-cancer and have other properties that can benefit the general public.” (ASU 2015)

Their findings add to the many reasons – such as optimal heart, metabolic, brain, and eye health – to get plenty of fruits and vegetables. 

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