One of the hottest topics right now is COVID-19, the virus that put the world into a panic mode. While pharmaceutical companies are working to produce vaccines for the public and many studies are being conducted to find medications that could effectively treat COVID-19, the general public is going out to their local pharmacies looking for any supplements that could help their health. But can supplements like multivitamins or ginseng be used to help fight COVID-19?
I had COVID-19 when it first hit this country back in March. The classic symptoms of COVID-19 known back in March 2020 were cough, fever, and shortness of breath. As a college student in my twenties, I had experienced only mild symptoms of a sore throat, chills, no taste or smell, and cough for a day. After receiving my positive result from a drive-thru testing facility, I stayed home and quarantined. In addition to acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help with fever and aches, whenever I start to feel sick, I typically take ginseng extract and multivitamins. When I developed COVID-19 symptoms, I took 2 multivitamins and 1 packet of ginseng extract every day for approximately 2 weeks. When I started taking all of these products together, I started feeling better after a day.
So, was my experience just a coincidence or can certain supplements possibly help people with COVID-19?
According to an analysis of several studies with a total of 855 patients, the combination of “Western medicine” and herbal supplements was found to be helpful in treating COVID-19. Western medicine was described as prescription medications such as lopinavir/ritonavir, chloroquine, and ribavirin. This article states that symptoms such as cough, fever, sore throat, and fatigue are more likely to resolve when prescription medications are combined with supplements.1 Unfortunately, the analysis included studies on several different supplements and did not make any conclusions about the efficacy of one supplement over another, leaving me with the question, do ginseng and multivitamins specifically help you fight COVID-19?
I decided to dig in deeper a little with a study specifically looking at Indian ginseng (ashwagandha), which is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. This study utilized modeling simulations based on information known about the supplement and the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It demonstrated that Indian ginseng may be able to inhibit the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, which would stop the virus from entering human cells. However, more studies evaluating the actual effectiveness of preventing or treating COVID-19 are necessary to understand the true benefits of Indian ginseng.2 The only contraindications/ adverse effects to ginseng that are commonly known is the anaphylaxis or hypersensitivity. If a person were to have any symptoms related to these, they should not be taking ginseng as a supplement.3
In my multivitamin, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is one of the key supplements provided. Vitamin C is known to be an antioxidant that supports immune function and is commonly advertised to be taken when you are sick with a cold or the flu. A review of studies for potential interventions for COVID-19 reported a lower incidence of co-infection with pneumonia in patients who took vitamin C supplements.4 However, this study did not specify if this was a bacterial or viral pneumonia so there is a lack of evidence in vitamin C being directly correlated with helping COVID-19 symptoms. Vitamin C can cause hyperoxaluria, which is high oxalate level (correlated with kidney stone formation), which is a safety concern.5
In conclusion, supplements such as Indian ginseng and vitamin C alone might not be the best choice to fight COVID-19 based on available evidence, however, they can be used to supplement your care. For the CDC’s tips on managing a COVID-19 infection at home, click here.
- Ang L, Song E, Lee HW, Lee MS. Herbal medicine for the treatment of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Clin Med. 2020 May 23; 9(5): 1-20.
- Chiklae RV, Gurva SS, Patil RB, Sinha SK, Prasad SK, Shakya A, Shrivastava SK, Guray NS, Prasad RS. Sars-Cov-2 host entry and replication inhibitors from Indian ginseng: an in-silico approach. J Biomol Struct Dyn. 2020 Jun 22;1-12.
- Ginseng. In: Lexi-Drugs Online [database on the Internet]. Hudson (OH): Lexi-Comp, Inc.; 2020 [Mar 17; cited 2020 Nov 17]. Available from: http://online.lexi.com
- Zhang L, Liu Y. Potential interventions for novel coronavirus in China: a systematic review. J Med Virol. 2020 May 3; 92(5): 479-490.
- Ascorbic acid. In: Lexi-Drugs Online [database on the Internet]. Hudson (OH): Lexi-Comp, Inc.; 2020 [Oct 24; cited 2020 Nov 17]. Available from: http://online.lexi.com
PharmD Candidate 2023
Philadelphia College of Pharmacy