Some retailers are seeing such high demands for supplements right now that they are having to enforce purchase limits.

Lauren Wicks, Nutrition review by: Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
March 24, 2020

If you've been to the grocery store in the last few weeks, you've likely pushed your cart past empty shelves of paper products, bread and canned goods. But you may not have realized the supplements section is just as sparse.

Dietary supplements are in such high demand right now that pharmacies and grocers are having to limit the amount of vitamins you can buy at a time. But are these products actually doing anything to stave off the coronavirus? Here's what you need to know about common supplements and their impact on preventing COVID-19:

Dietary Supplements

Multivitamins and other supplements might feel like daily insurance policies—especially as many of us are living off of packaged goods and whatever is left at the grocery store right now—and about 77% of the U.S. population takes at least one. However, health experts agree that supplements shouldn't be seen as an equal replacement for getting nutrients from food. Sometimes they can even cause more harm than good.

This week, the omega-3 supplement industry was warned by GOED (Global Organization of EPA and DHA) that general "immunity" claims on a product could be an implied claim about fighting COVID-19 during the outbreak. The organization issued a warning saying that it has done a literature search on the topic and found no evidence supporting the claim that omega-3 supplements can boost immunity (although omega-3 fats in their natural forms are associated with improved immunity).

While we know omega-3 fatty acids are essential for heart, brain and immune health, the research is pretty contradictory when it comes to the effectiveness and safety of omega-3 supplements. This is the same for many other essential nutrients, like vitamin D, which can become toxic if we take too much in supplement form, causing an array of gastrointestinal symptoms. You may have noticed many dietary supplements offer significantly more than our daily nutrient recommendations, which are put in place to prevent the health consequences associated with vitamin or mineral toxicity.

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The FDA doesn't regulate dietary supplements as rigorously as food—in fact, the responsibility lies mainly on the companies that make these products. While there are some safe supplements out there that have been verified by third-party organizations, there are plenty of others lacking the clinical research to back their health claims.

Unfortunately, even those that have been verified aren't guaranteed to work or even be safe—the seal just assures the product was made properly and contains the listed ingredients. Untested and unregulated supplements could put consumers at risk for illness or even have life-threatening consequences."

Elderberry

Infectious Disease Specialist Amira Albert Roess, Ph.D., M.P.H., previously told us there is not enough data to show any potential benefits of using elderberry to prevent the coronavirus—or shorten its duration.

"What we know about the benefits of elderberry comes from a few small studies and more work is needed before health claims can be made," Roess said.

While there is some promising research associating elderberry with preventing the flu and common cold, there is no literature out there to associate elderberry with coronavirus prevention.

Essential Oils

We love diffusing essential oils to make our home smell clean and fresh, but there is no evidence to show they can help with COVID-19 prevention. The FDA has addressed this subject in a series of warning letters calling out supplement brands (several of them being essential oils companies) for spreading false information and claiming their products are able to "mitigate, prevent, treat or diagnose COVID-19."

Among these product claims were making an alcohol-free hand sanitizer with Herba Terra Organics essential oils and aloe vera to fight off the virus, as well as a list of "the most powerful essential oils to provide defense against coronavirus." The FDA has vehemently declared any claims of essential oils staving off the coronavirus to be false, and those who like to use these oils should know they should not replace any research-backed practices for preventing the coronavirus.

"Basically, if someone is trying to sell you something right now, I would be highly, highly skeptical," Lisa Valente, MS, RD and nutrition editor for EatingWell says. "Remember that the CDC and WHO, as well as local health departments, are updating their websites frequently with information regarding COVID-19. You should be getting your information from a reliable source like them or speaking with your doctor if you have questions."

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The Bottom Line

"COVID-19 is so new," Valente says. "There's no research to show that any food or supplement can help prevent you from getting this new coronavirus or reduce your symptoms. Believing that a specific supplement, like elderberry or vitamin C, is going to help you, may give you a false sense of security."

There are plenty of other research-backed ways to prevent COVID-19, like social distancing and washing your hands properly. There are also plenty of other research-backed ways to keep your immune system healthy without supplements, such as following a healthy diet, engaging in regular exercise, reducing stress and getting a good night's sleep. Doing all of these things in tandem is the best formula for preventing the coronavirus.

Taking a supplement isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it should be seen as its namesake says—supplemental to a well-rounded diet. Consuming nutrients through whole foods is always your best bet since they are digested with other nutrients for maximum absorption. For example, vitamin C helps your body best absorb iron, so topping your salad with citrus is a great way to get the iron your body needs, plus a host of other vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.

You should always talk to your health care provider before starting a supplement regimen. Your provider can help you find the right brands and types of supplements and let you know which ones might interfere with any medications you might be taking.

Related: 10 Tips for Safe Grocery Shopping During the Coronavirus Outbreak

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