Keto and Covid 19 is something of a hot subject at the time of writing, for obvious reasons. As I sit here at 6 a.m. on a cold January morning in the UK, the pandemic is causing chaos both here and around the World. Case and mortality rates are at levels not previously seen. Some areas in the UK reporting infection rates as high as 1 in 18.
In this blog, I want to pose a couple of questions, and then attempt to answer them. Firstly, can a ketogenic lifestyle offer any measure of protection from Covid 19? Secondly, beyond the measures recommended by our various governments and health authorities, is there something extra that we ourselves can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from this ever-present danger?
What is Covid 19?
For the sake of clarity, I wish to lay out exactly what the virus is, where it is likely to have come from, and the potency of the disease.
Defining Covid 19
Covid 19 is a new form of coronavirus. Such viruses get the name ‘corona’ because of the crown-like appearance of the spikes on the surface of the virus particles. Its full name is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Corona Virus – 2, usually shortened to SARS-CoV-2, or just Covid 19 (which we shall use in the rest of the blog).
Covid 19 is in the same family of viruses as relatively harmless infections as the common cold. Unfortunately, it is also a family that includes far more dangerous diseases such as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). As far as we know at present, the virus is mostly transmitted between people via respiratory droplets or by physical contact.
The Origin of the Virus
Covid 19 is thought to have originated in the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in the People’s Republic of China. There is some controversy as to how the virus originated. A live food market in Wuhan was originally identified as the origin of the outbreak by the Chinese Government. Others believe the more likely explanation is the escape of a manufactured virus from Wuhan Institute of Virology.
At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation is attempting to investigate these questions. After several delays, the team of scientists arrived in the City of Wuhan two days ago. There are some who believe that the WHO may not be a sufficiently disinterested organisation to conduct this investigation, given their complicity in downplaying the severity of the problem at the start of the outbreak.
Infection and Survival Rates for Covid 19
This is something of a controversial subject in itself. Writing this in January 2021, there are many views as to how the data should be interpreted. Some will tell you that infection rates are as high as 1 in 18 in some parts of the country, others will claim it is much, much lower. The same applies to the risk of fatality. I have heard rates of anything from 0.002% (1 in 500,00) for children up to ten, to nearly 15% (1 in 6.66 for those over 85). Quite clearly, age and underlying vulnerability are huge factors in how dangerous the virus is to the person infected.
During these difficult times, one often hears references to the R number. The more precise term is r0, pronounced as ‘R nought’. It describes the rate of transmission of the disease. An rO rate above 1 will mean that for every infected person a number higher than one is given the virus, ie the number of infected people is growing. Conversely, an r0 of less than 1 means that for every person infected the virus is transmitted to less than one other person. This would mean the spread of the virus is coming under control.
Currently, after a challenging few weeks in the UK, as we’ve gone into the British winter, the r0 is between 1.3 and 1.4. This is likely to result in the highly restrictive measures in place right now continuing for quite some time. In the US, r0 currently ranges from 0.92 in South Dakota to 1.17 in Washington.
Who is at Risk?
Whereas the majority of people are not at huge risk of death from Covid 19, certain groups are much more vulnerable. Age, in particular, is a major factor. In simple terms, the older you are the greater the risk. Although there are a few isolated cases of children dying, they are rare indeed. On the other hand, those over the age of 80 have mortality rates as high as 20%, although this varies hugely across countries and cultures.
Beyond age, skin colour makes a huge difference. The darker someone’s skin, the more vulnerable they tend to be. The likely reason for this is that the darker the skin, the smaller amount of vitamin D that will be created from exposure to the same amount of sunlight. Unfortunately, this has been turned into a political issue in the UK, the narrative being that the higher infection and mortality rates amongst darker-skinned people were due to various forms of social deprivation.
The excessively high fatality rate amongst NHS doctors with darker skin gave the lie to that theory though. Most of these medical professionals had extremely highly paid jobs and enjoyed a very high standard of living, yet were still falling prey to the virus at much higher rates than fairer skinned colleagues.
There is a large range of vulnerabilities that render particular adults more at risk of a fatal outcome from Covid 19. Negatively indicated are health conditions such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), heart problems and type 2 diabetes. If you have any of these conditions then particular care is indicated. Until vaccines become more readily available, it is probably wise to isolate as much as practically possible and try to adopt a range of proactive measures as prophylaxis.
Other, generally less serious health conditions, also put someone at greater risk of a negative outcome. If you are obese or severely obese, then your risk is much increased. It would be wise to use this time to reduce weight, though I am well aware that this is easier said than done for many people. Those with a weakened immune system also need to take greater care than the general population.
Smoking, rather oddly, may be something of a double-edged sword. According to some studies, smokers are slightly less likely to contract Covid 19 than non-smokers. There are several plausible explanations for this. It may be the anti-inflammatory effect of nicotine, the presence of a blunted immune response in smokers or an increase of nitric oxide in the respiratory tract which stop the virus spreading into the cells. If they do contract the virus however, the outcomes are generally much worse.
How can a Ketogenic Diet Help?
There are two main areas in which a ketogenic diet may help in the fight against Covid 19. Firstly, it is one of the most efficient diets for reduction of fat mass. Obesity, being one of the prime factors indicative of a negative outcome, is clearly something that could and should be addressed. There are few better ways to immediately address the problem than the keto diet and lifestyle in general.
Secondly, the promotion of ketone bodies as the main source of energy for the body and brain brings along with it both anti inflammatory and immune system benefits. Given the current risk levels, we all need to think in terms of how can we, as responsible adults, impact our own health in ways liable to offer a measure of protection against the virus.
Adopting a ketogenic diet, with a certain degree of discipline, may well result in reducing several of the most critical risk factors for the virus. Beyond ketones effects on inflammation and the immune system, the practitioner’s metabolic profile often improves. Ketogenic diets are also believed to be effective in reducing the symptoms of type 2 diabetes, another critical risk factor in Covid 19.
What other measures can we take?
The psychological stress of living under the threat of Covid 19 can have a certain wearing effect. Much of the governmental advice tends to cast us all in a very passive role wherein, for the most part, we are advised to follow a range of defensive measures only: stay indoors, wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid socialising, etc..
Instead of being passive responders to governmental dictates, we can take responsibility for our own lives and our chances against Covid 19. Adopting a ketogenic diet represents one huge step along this path. There are, of course, plenty of other steps we can take, if we so choose. The most obvious of these is taking adequate amounts of vitamin D.
For some strange reason, the taking of vitamin D in relation to Covid has become controversial. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious is because it contradicts politically motivated narratives that some parties have attempted to attach to the Covid 19 story. People with darker skins have suffered much higher rates of Covid 19 in the UK. This may well be because vitamin D is created by the body from sunlight absorbed by the skin. To state it simply, the darker the skin, the more difficult it is to absorb this essential vitamin.
In the Northern hemisphere, most of us can get sufficient amounts by being outside for an adequate amount of time while we are enjoying summer’s warmth. During the winter, however, we would be wise to supplement. This is particularly true if you are part of a vulnerable group.
Vitamin D plays many useful roles in the human body. It is essential for the regulation of phosphorous and calcium. Perhaps more pertinently in regards to Covid 19 however, it facilitates a healthy immune system. There is a growing mountain of evidence that supports the notion that maintaining high levels of vitamin D during this critical time is a sensible precaution. It also helps that it is as cheap as chips to buy. If you live in the UK and are at high risk, you can even get it for free from the NHS.
If you do decide to supplement with vitamin D, then it makes sense to also ensure that you have sufficient magnesium. This salt assists the functioning of vitamin D via its role in promoting many enzymes involved in the metabolism of the vitamin. Magnesium, in its own right, also has beneficial effects because of its role in widening the airways (bronchodilation) as well as blood vessels (vasodilation).
Another nutrient that may play a vital role in our defences to Covid 19 is vitamin K. This assists the body in regulating clotting via the production of certain proteins, hence it can play a protective role in relation to lung diseases. One of the most dangerous aspects of Covid 19 is its effect on the pulmonary system, hence the relevance of having sufficient amounts of vitamin K.
Vitamin K1 is found in green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and also in goodly amounts in blueberries. K2 can be found in many cheeses, beef and lamb liver, chicken legs and thighs, eggs and pâté, among others. On the other hand, you can also simply buy the supplements. One word of warning though, taking vitamin K can be contra-indicated if you are taking warfarin or other blood-thinning medications. As ever, consult your doctor or other medical professional.
This should be obvious, even given that it may have a slight protective value as mentioned above. So obvious, in fact, that it shouldn’t really need stating. Smoking has many deleterious effects, too numerous to go into in this blog, but its negative effects on the pulmonary system is of the greatest concern in regards to Covid 19.
Inhaling cigarette smoke damages the bronchial systems and the lungs. There are few, if any, benefits to this practice. This is particularly true when we are in the midst of a pandemic that mostly kills via attacking the pulmonary system.
There are numerous other possible interventions that we can personally make in regards to Covid 19. So many in fact that it would be impossible for me to do justice to them all in a blog such as this. Such measures as regular exercise, moderating alcohol intake, sleeping well and minimizing stress are all worthy of attention, among others.
Let’s conclude by answering the questions posed at the start of this blog. Firstly, it would seem to be the case that being on a ketogenic diet is likely to offer some measure of protection against the dangers of Covid 19. Whilst obviously not in any way a cure, it is highly probable that a healthy metabolism and immune system is likely to give a measure of shielding against getting the virus in the first place. If you do become infected, the chances of the situation becoming critical are very much reduced.
Secondly, there are indeed a range of measures that we can personally take that will help to protect you from the dangers of infection from Covid 19. Again, if you do contract the virus, most of these measures are also likely to mitigate the possibility of experiencing the more serious complications. Perhaps the most obvious, and one of the simplest of these measures, is taking adequate amounts of vitamin D.
As ever, there seem to be many people who are content to passively follow guidelines and await the coming of their turn in the queue for a vaccine. On the other hand, there are some who are willing to take responsibility and personally take active measures to inform and protect themselves. For my part, I try to ensure that I am in the second group. The question one must ask oneself is which of these two groups would one rather belong to?