Unchecked, repeated use of ‘immunity boosting’ home remedies, prompted by the COVID-19 scare, can turn dangerous. Here’s a guide to deriving the most out of kitchen ingredients
“Yesterday my patient on the operating table bled buckets. He wasn’t on blood thinners — no explanations… After surgery, he told me he was taking a herbal concoction of ginger, garlic, turmeric and asafoetida thrice daily to prevent Covid.” A consultant at Manipal Hospitals and an ophthalmic surgeon, Dr Raghuraj Hegde’s viral tweet has started a conversation on natural ‘immunity boosters’. So far considered harmless, their copious use, especially by those who have comorbidities, has actually turned dangerous.
With COVID-19 causing panic and fear, suddenly our WhatsApp group chats are full of recipes for homemade kitchen concoctions — kashayams or kadhas — to ‘boost immunity’. The supplements market also boomed. Vitamin C and D flew off shelves, and advertisements for turmeric pills popped up on social media.
Fear of hospitals, combined with the reluctance to make digital appointments with doctors, kept people at home, self-medicating on ingredients they believed to be safe, and hoping for the best. An Indian wellness juice company, that claims to be ‘powered by Ayurveda’ says that in the past six months, one of its most popular products has been a ‘body defence drink’, which is a concoction of ashwagandha, amla, moringa, turmeric, gotu kola and coconut water. “We have seen a 300% growth in the past six months,” says a company representative.
Chennai resident, B Adhiban, 20, suffered an aggravation of his dormant ulcer last month. “I drank a long pepper concoction everyday for two weeks to prevent a cold. My mouth started burning, and my ulcer started acting up again.”
Doctors are worried. “During consultation, I get patients who try to get a prescription for zinc tablets, or vitamin C in the hope that these will protect them against COVID-19,” reveals Dr S Krishnamoorthy, senior consultant physician at Apollo Speciality Hospitals, Chennai. “And most of these are sold as health or herbal supplements, so they are not that regulated. Anybody can sell them over the counter.”
Dr P Mohanavel, MS, Villupuram Government Hospital points out the result of this kind of self-medication. “At least 15% of the patients we get are those that have overdosed on such concoctions. They are treated for stomach problems, and sometimes, in severe cases, an endoscopy is done.”
As much as our concern for immunity has risen, health practitioners remind us that there is no magic pill.
“The very concept of boosting immunity is wrong to start with. Your immunity is a reflection of your own health. It is not like we should be consciously working on our immune system; work on your overall health, specifically gut health, and your immunity will automatically improve,” says Delhi-based dietitian Manjari Chandra, adding that about 70% of our immunity depends on our gut health, “And then it is the environment, the state in which you eat.” Exercise, sleep, and hydration are other equally important cornerstones, adds Dr Krishnamoorthy.
The most abused OTC supplements
- Vitamin C. “Vitamin C supplements work better in ascorbate form than in ascorbic acid form, which is the most common type sold,” says Manjari Chandra.
- Zinc, another popular supplement, in excess induces a deficiency in copper levels in the body and may also cause lethargy, according to a 2010 study, The Essential Toxin: Impact of Zinc on Human Health, published in Internation Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
- Ayurvedic and herbal medicines such as ashwagandha, ‘kapasura kudineer’ and ‘nilavembu kashayam’ too see heavy demand OTC.
“I am not against herbal concoctions and natural remedies, but there is a dosage that must be followed,” says Dr Mohanvel. When eaten as a part of our meals (like turmeric in dal), it is good for us, also because the spice is used in balance, “But many people are taking one cup of such concoctions like coffee and tea in the morning and evening,” he adds.
Dietitian Preethi Raj gives us some pointers on popular home remedies, what each does, and how much is too much.
Curcumin is the active ingredient which is responsible for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Freshly ground turmeric works better than store-bought powders, and should be consumed within three weeks. To maximise its benefit, have it with pepper. Cooking it in oil increases its bioavailability.
Stop if… you feel bloated or experience cramps. Eat no more than three grams (half a teaspoon) a day if taking in a concoction.
The physiological action of ginger is due to gingerol. Fresh ginger helps maintain the health of the digestive tract by stabilising gut bacteria. Dried ginger detoxifies the lung. For optimal effect, have as ginger lime juice.
Stop if… you experience gastrointestinal discomfort. Eat no more than 10 ml (two teaspoons) of fresh ginger juice or four to five grams (one teaspoon) per day
3. Black pepper
The piperine in black pepper helps in lung detoxification and improves production of T-cells, that help fight infections. Apart from being anti-inflammatory, it also helps in the initial stages of phagocytosis (where cells engulf bacteria, which in turn helps strengthen immunity). It improves the absorption of curcumin and beta carotene, so it can be combined with Vitamin A rich foods, such as a carrot salad.
Stop if… you face gastrointestinal issues, mild acid increase or heart burns. Eat less than four grams of pepper kernels over a day.
Fenugreek is anti-inflammatory, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, thanks to its active ingredients, mainly flavonoids, which work as antioxidants, and alkaloids and coumarin, which have antiviral properties. Sprouted fenugreek has a lot of antioxidants and when taken on an empty stomach, its absorption will be maximum. It also goes well with fermented food like idli and dosa, as the fermentation process feeds the good bacteria in the gut. So use it in a curry to eat with these.
Stop if… you feel intestinal distress. Have less than five grams (one teaspoon) a day, as more may cause liver toxicity which could lead to a fatty liver or even cirrhosis.
Allicin, disulphate and thiosulphate in garlic detoxify the lung from micro-organisms and oxidants, and induce good digestion for healthy adults. Best eaten with fish as the Omega-3-fatty acids in the latter, increasing the allicin component. Vegetarians can replace fish with flax seeds, like in the Bihari teesi ki chutney.
Stop if… you develop a bad odour in the mouth, feel bloated or weak in any way (it could be a sign of low blood pressure). Eat no more than seven grams a day (a teaspoon and a half at most) or 300 mg (a pinch) of dry garlic powder.
6. Cumin and coriander seeds
Best had together, cumin contains cuminaldehyde and phytochemicals that aid in gut motility (bowel movement). Being rich in minerals like selenium, calcium, magnesium and potassium, it helps build immunity. Cumin can also be had with salmon, and for vegetarians, with lentils and eggplant.
Be careful if… You have low blood pressure — do not exceed 600 mg of cumin and one gm (a few seeds) of coriander per day.