The Crucial Role of Optimal Nutrition in the Fight Against Illness: A Conversation with Immunologist Aileen Burford-Mason
In her new book, The War Against Viruses, immunologist Aileen Burford-Mason explains how optimal nutrition can help reduce the risk and severity of COVID-19 infections as well as chronic illness including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
So, what exactly is optimal nutrition? An expert in evidence-based nutrition, Burford-Mason explains that it ensures we have peak amounts of the right nutrients our body needs, including vitamins C and D, Omega-3 and 6, essential amino acids, and protein. Not just for general repair and maintenance, but also for keeping our heart beating properly, our blood pressure under control, and our digestion working properly.
Unfortunately, many of us are not getting what we need.
“The immune system requires all of the nutrients and there is such a widespread need across all of these systems that often were not fully functional,” says Burford-Mason. “We’re almost there, but not quite. We have shortfalls of some of the nutrients that we need for functioning well.”
One of the areas where this lack of optimal nutrition is having a devastating impact is on those with COVID-19.
“People admitted to hospital with severe COVID have scurvy levels of vitamin C,” says Burford-Mason. Despite the fact that this is one of the nutrients that our immune system most depends on, “They are not being administered sufficient vitamin C. You would hope that this would at least be given to the point where blood levels in these patients came up into the normal range”.
The Toronto, Canada-based immunologist has also been frustrated by the lack of support nutrition and its impact on preventing and treating chronic illness has had within the medical community. “In my opinion, nutrition should be central to a medical education,” she says. “It applies to every discipline a doctor may go on to practice. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cardiology or cancer or immunology or allergies.”
By November 2020, there were more than 83,000 new studies published on COVID-19. Out of these, less than 2% were concerned about nutrition. The few studies that were done showed that malnutrition was common in COVID patients admitted to intensive care units and was associated with poor outcomes.
“We don’t educate engineers and architects without any knowledge of the materials they use to build and maintain structures. We wouldn’t do that,” says Burford-Mason. “But it seems appropriate that we educate doctors without any in-depth knowledge of the nutrients that are used to keep the body effectively repairing itself, maintaining itself, and keeping the immune system on top form.”
Burford-Mason hopes that the pandemic is a wake-up call to improve our nutrition.
“I’m seeing more people saying, ‘I think I can do better for myself. I think I can improve my health’, but this isn’t done in a 15-minute appointment. That’s one of the reasons I feel very sympathetic for doctors because they don’t have the luxury of time with their patients to really go into nutrition in depth.”
She hopes that it’s a wake-up call for the medical community as well.
“Very often many changes happen in medicine that are driven by public demand and desire. So, if the public wants more nutritional education from their doctors, I think the medical schools will respond to that.”