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Do Carbohydrates Boost or Harm Your Immune System?


It’s 2020, and as you already know, everyone’s stressed out over the coronavirus outbreak.

Whether or not you’re worried about contracting the virus personally, there’s a 100% chance your life has already been changed in some way by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

What’s next? Will the economy recover? Will things go back to “normal?”

No one can say for certain, hence the astronomical levels of stress many of us are experiencing.

But let’s talk about the other elephant in the room: carbs and stress-eating.

In this article, we’ll discuss what happens to your body when you eat extra carbs and calories during times of stress, what that might do to your immune system, and how a low-carb diet can decrease inflammation, boost brain health, and better equip you to deal with stressful times.

Carbs and Coronavirus: Carby Comfort Foods and Stress

There’s no escaping the fact that eating can be an emotional activity.

And scientific research shows that during times of stress, many people are drawn to unhealthy, high-sugar foods[*].

But does stress eating really help manage stress? 

According to a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, the answer is no: stress eating isn’t helpful for stress[*].

Based on interviews, the researchers found that emotional eating not only potentially led to weight gain, but also had other negative effects on people’s body image and well-being.

Additionally, “healthy” alternative stress reduction and coping strategies, such as exercise, mindful eating, and emotional regulation were not only more effective at reducing stress, but also helped people avoid overeating.

Therefore, any temporary stress relief from eating sugary junk food is probably outweighed by the harmful physical and psychological effects, especially if you indulge in stress eating frequently.

Depending on your situation, you may not have much control over your food selection during this unusual time. However, you’ll be much better off if you limit your calorie intake and seek other, healthier stress management techniques besides stress eating.

What Science Says About Diet, Carbs, and Immune Function

Does your diet affect your immune function? And could it potentially influence your resistance or susceptibility to COVID19 or other viruses?

Absolutely, and in more than one way.

Firstly, stress eating in general, and overeating carbohydrates in particular, increases your risk of conditions like obesity and insulin resistance[*].

And as the authors of a 2016 research review entitled “Impact of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome on Immunity” stated, “obesity negatively affects immunity, as evidenced by higher rates of vaccine failure and complications from infection”[*].

In other words, being overweight or having poor insulin sensitivity is bad news for your immune system and resistance to infectious diseases.

And while there’s no solid data yet on obesity and COVID19, we can still learn from existing data on obesity and the flu.

For example, the same 2016 review found that obesity affected the behavior of immune cells in response to influenza virus, “resulting in increased mortality, viral titers in lung, and worsened lung pathology”[*].

So essentially, if the flu data is any indication, being obese could make you more susceptible to infection and worsening of the novel coronavirus disease[*].

In a moment, we’ll take a look at some possible solutions to these issues. But first, let’s examine an area where we have even more relevant info.

Coronavirus, Insulin Resistance, and Diabetes

As we’ve already discussed, overeating carbs leads to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and eventually type 2 diabetes.

And you don’t have to be overweight or obese to have insulin resistance, either. Plenty of people with low or average body weight have impaired glucose tolerance, meaning they’re at higher risk of type 2 diabetes[*][*].

Unfortunately, a recent paper published in the journal The Lancet found that a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes predicted an increased risk of contracting or dying of the novel coronavirus[*].

The authors of the paper think that drugs commonly given to people with diabetes called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors may play a role in this trend. However, there wasn’t enough evidence to know one way or the other.

And other scientific data also suggest that diabetes and insulin resistance can impair immune function and worsen health outcomes when people get viral infections, regardless of ACE inhibitor usage[*].

The bottom line is that you’re probably less likely to get COVID19 if you have good insulin sensitivity. 

Conversely, if you’re insulin resistant or have type 2 diabetes, now is the time to be extra-cautious with social distancing and other preventive measures.

For an in-depth look at type 2 diabetes and how keto may help manage symptoms, check out The Keto Diet and Diabetes: Can Keto Help You Manage Symptoms?.

The Ketogenic Diet, Stress, and Inflammation

So far, we’ve covered the effects stress, overeating carbs, weight gain, and insulin resistance on your general health, as well as your immunity.

In a nutshell, inflammation in your body not only increases your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, but also ups the chances that you’ll experience a viral infection, and that if you do get a virus, your outcome will be worse[*][*].

Now let’s talk about solutions: evidence shows that low-carb diets, and especially the keto diet, can help relieve inflammation, enhance your brain health, prevent depression, and brighten your mood[*][*][*][*].

Furthermore, keto is an easy way to boost your fat-burning to lose weight or maintain your current weight–often without the need to count calories[*][*].

The health benefits of keto occur two ways: first, because you’re eating far fewer carbs, your blood sugar and insulin levels drop, which helps reverse insulin resistance and turns your body into a fat-burning machine.

And second, in the absence of carbs, your body goes into a state of ketosis. As a result, your liver begins producing ketones, which have unique benefits of their own, including decreasing inflammation and promoting healthy brain function.

If you’re considering going keto or want to refresh your knowledge, check out The Ketogenic Diet: A Beginner’s Guide to Low-Carb Keto Diet or How to Get Into Ketosis (And Stay There).

On the other hand, right now might not be the easiest time to switch your diet. But if you’re not ready, or you don’t have access to healthy low-carb foods, there’s another solution: ketogenic supplements. 

Keto supplements work similarly to going keto, but you don’t have to change your diet. Exogenous ketones like BHB raise your blood ketone levels as soon as you take them, while MCT oil is a healthy fat that helps your body achieve a state of ketosis.

The Takeaway

Now’s a tough time for everyone, but binge eating or stress eating carbs could potentially make matters worse.

Don’t resort to carb-heavy meals unless you have no choice–going (or staying) keto is one of the best things you can do for your general health, and it may also work to improve some of the factors associated with viral infection risk.

And if you don’t have the luxury of eating a low-carb, high-fat diet right now, you can still limit your calorie intake and use exercise and intermittent fasting to stay healthy in the short-term.

Additionally, taking exogenous ketones, MCT oil, or MCT oil powder can deliver some of the benefits of the keto diet, regardless of what foods you have available.

For deeper insight into stress and immune function, plus plenty of healthy stress management tips that can help you avoid stress eating, don’t miss Cortisol Hormone: Its Role In Stress, Inflammation, And Weight Gain.

Lastly, if you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder, including binge eating, you can speak to a trained volunteer for free by calling the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 Monday-Thursday 11 AM-9 PM Eastern, or Friday 11 AM-5 PM Eastern.

Or you can also text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line.


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