In the midst of the COVID-19 world pandemic, we can easily lose sight of reality. One coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) affecting millions of people across the globe. Of these, around 80% of infected people show mild or no symptoms. 20% of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 experience acute symptoms, life-threatening Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or death. The variable factor is our defence system against the virus. What makes some people more vulnerable to the virus than others?
The French Health Minister, Olivier Veran, warned consumers against the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to minimize the symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever and headaches. It was implicated that drugs such as Ibuprofen and cortisone could be ‘aggravating factors’, making the symptoms of the illness even worse. Popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include aspirin, Ibuprofen (Nurofen, Advil) and naproxen. Veran and health officials around the globe are suggesting the use of acetaminophen (Paracetamol, Tylenol, Panado / Grandpa) instead, which is not a NSAID.
How could anti-inflammatory drugs worsen the symptoms of an infection? The reason is that they lower our defences against the pathogens and they affect our immune response. All our epithelial cells that line our airways, lungs and digestive tract have a high negative charge surrounding them due to the degree of sulfation of the outer cell membrane. Sulfate (SO42-) binds to sugar molecules that extend outward from the cell membrane. It is this degree of sulfation that determine the negative charge surrounding the cell. Most bacteria (gram negative and gram positive) and viruses also have a negative charge surrounding them. It seems that SARS-CoV-2 has an exceptionally negative charge, making it more aggressive and enables it to covalently bind to many surfaces, facilitating its spreading. The negative charge surrounding our cells will thus repel the virus or other pathogen, preventing them from gaining entry into the cell. Once a pathogen or virus gains entry into the cell, it sparks an immune response. The degree of sulfation also modulates the immune response. If there is not enough sulfate, it can easily result in a destructive cytokine storm, damaging the cells of the lungs or digestive system.
Anti-inflammatory drugs need sulfation for their metabolism. They bind to the sulfate to make it more water soluble for ease of elimination. They will therefore deplete most of the sulfate from our system, resulting in undersulfation of our epithelial cells and therefore lowering our defence against viruses and other pathogens and also lowering our immune defences against these microorganisms.
It is not only non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Ibuprofen, diclofenac, Ibuprofen, diclofenac, celecoxib, meloxicam and etoricoxib that require sulfation. Other drugs, such as acetaminophen, isoproterenol, albuterol, corticosteroids, opioids, α-methyl dopa and fenoldopam also need sulfate to eliminate them. Hormones also need sulfation for elimination, therefore melatonin. Melatonin is recommended by many practitioners to modulate the immune response, but should not be given in high dosages and a sulfur-donor supplement should be added. Even ascorbic acid needs sulfation for elimination and we should therefore not use very high dosages of intravenous vitamin C, without making sure there is a sufficient supply of sulfate.
The general recommendation by the WHO is to use acetaminophen instead of Ibuprofen. It is, however, important to realise that acetaminophen also requires sulfate for its metabolism. Ibuprofen might have a more destructive force against our defence and immune system, but care should be taken with all these drugs. If you have to take something, take a low dosage for the shortest possible time. Anyone taking prescription medication for chronic conditions, should first consult their medical practitioner before discontinuing it.
What are our alternatives? Our first inclination is to pop a pill when we have a headache or fever. It will mask the symptom, but not address the underlying cause, the infection. In fact, it makes the infection worse. Although a fever should be controlled, it is the natural way of our body to kill off these viruses. When you have a headache, make sure you are properly hydrated by drinking enough water and rest. Natural supplements, such as homeopathic remedies, vitamin C, magnesium and sulfur donors can be taken to calm the immune response, without suppressing it. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), N-Acetyl-cysteine (NAC), glucosamine sulfate and Fucoidans are all sulfur donors that could be considered. In the clinical ICU setting, sodium-thiosulfate should be considered for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
Who are susceptible to COVID-19? Older people have a low dietary intake of proteins, which contain the sulfur amino acids that are precursors to sulfate. They are also more likely to be on a cocktail of drugs and have other underlying infections. Other people susceptible to COVID-19 are vegans and vegetarians with a low protein intake, those with blood disorders, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, severely weakened immune response / suppression, diabetes, metabolic and mitochondrial disorders, heart disease, lung disease and neurological disease. Sulfation plays an important role in all of these conditions.
It is clear that the degree of sulfation, contributing to the net negative charge of the outer membrane of our cells, does not only affect our protection against infections, but also disrupts the immune system.
Even though we might see the emergence of more aggressive strains of viruses, whether mutated or bioengineered; it is the weakening of our host defences against these pathogens that warrants global attention.
As a result of our poor diet and lifestyle choices, pollution and the over-use of prescription drugs, we are defenceless against these pathogens. With Asia Pacific being the fastest growing market for NSAIDs, followed by the rest of the developed countries, we need to ask ourselves whether this pandemic was self-inflicted? There is speculation that the anti-malaria drug, chloroquine, used in underdeveloped countries, contributes to the lower incidence of COVID-19 seen in these countries. It makes more sense that it is the high rate of prescription medication used in the affluent world that predispose us to more infectious states of disease.
By no means is it implied that NSAIDs are a direct cause of COVID-19, but rather that it could potentially play a huge role in causing an infectious disease state. Moreover, sulfur-donor supplements should be considered as both a preventative and curative measure. Although it is very important to put all measures in place to contain SARS-CoV-2 and prevent the rapid spreading thereof, the focus should be geared more towards building our resistance and immune systems.
The countless scientific studies of the past should guide us through this storm to keep perspective. For an in-depth scientific explanation of this article, read here
Author: Heidi du Preez, Pr.Sci.Nat., M.Sc.
Heidi du Preez is a registered Professional Natural Scientist. She holds a master degree in Science and specialises in Precision Medicine and Nutritional Biochemistry.