Ask the Pharmacist

Q. My friend told me that since I live a healthy lifestyle and use holistic medicines that I do not need the vaccine. What are your thoughts on this?

A. To your comment on healthy lifestyles, wouldn’t it be nice if that truly were the answer? There are many people that live this way and that number has been growing over the last few decades (although there is evidence that the last year has not been helpful towards that trend). They exercise regularly, eat wholesome meals that are not packaged or processed and perhaps regularly utilize holistic therapy in some form or another such as acupuncture, natural supplements, meditation and essential oils to name just a few.

Of the many people that have contracted the virus, while most have experienced mild symptoms, about 10-15% of cases develop a more serious form of the coronavirus and around 5% can become seriously ill. These numbers appear to be higher with the variants of concern (VOC) which we need to be cognizant of.

In the beginning of the pandemic, we thought that the lungs were the only organ targeted but now it is known that the virus can also damage other organs as well. Even people that suffer a mild form of COVID-19 can later have long-lasting damage to the heart muscle. This is due to the oxygen supply and demand being disrupted by the virus as well as it causing inflammation to the heart muscle itself.

The brain is another organ that can be affected with the onset of strokes, seizures or Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) and a higher risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. As we have previously discussed, the virus itself can increase the risk of blood clots (a much higher risk than that caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine by the way) which can ultimately affect other parts of the body depending on the location of the clot.

The majority of people suffering from the more severe cases of the virus are people that already have an underlying illness such as heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, dementia, stroke and those with compromised immune systems to name a few. That being said, the young, healthy purists among us are not impervious from it either. This is playing out in front of our eyes during this third wave. Ontario hospital records between March 15 and 21 show that those under the age of 60 accounted for 46% of intensive care admissions, up from 30% back in December. While the elderly are, of course, still more at risk of contracting a severe form since our immune systems declines with age, the success of the vaccine in this age group has significantly decreased their need for hospitalization. This has left those of us who are younger and generally healthier, but far more likely to be unvaccinated, to fill those beds as the more aggressive and contagious variants spread among us. Let’s be clear, this coronavirus does not know or care who it infects, it is just looking for yet another host.

Getting back to your question, there are also many people who believe that they are healthy and do not think of themselves at an increased risk despite choosing unhealthy lifestyles with their diet choices, lack of exercise and/or smoking. These choices increase one’s risk of having a more serious infection of the coronavirus on their own and they also make it more likely to already have acquired medical conditions that may still be undiagnosed such as diabetes and/or high blood pressure thereby amplifying the peril.

But let’s look at the those who are young and at the very pinnacle of good health. Consider our professional athletes who likely opt for an extremely healthy lifestyle with rigid guidelines on diet, sleep and training. To date, there have been far more than a handful of such athletes that have been impacted by this coronavirus. From the NBA, NFL, college football, MLB, soccer and tennis among others, there have been many players associated with the teams that have contracted the virus. The NHL’s Vancouver Canucks currently serves as an alarming example of this point. This is not to say that a healthy lifestyle is useless against COVID-19 by any means. An interesting paper recently published reflects this by showing that most professional athletes who did get COVID-19 did not suffer serious complications from it. A study was done to screen 789 athletes that were infected with COVID-19 for heart inflammation (myocarditis and/or pericarditis). Only 0.6% of these athletes were noted to have inflammation of the heart which is a much lower incidence than is found in the general population.

The risk of heart inflammation seems to correlate to the severity of the disease. People that have a severe form of COVID-19 appear to be at a higher risk of heart damage likely due to the release of inflammatory molecules (cytokines) that occurs. For a variety of biochemical reasons, clean living seems to mitigate this process. Though adopting a heathy lifestyle is wise for many reasons, reducing your risk of acquiring a severe form of the coronavirus should be near the top of the list these days. So, the good news here is that your holistic lifestyle choices might (and that is the key word) prevent you from having a severe form of the virus, but it certainly would not prevent you from transmitting the virus to other people. One or more of those people just might be ones who get seriously ill and suffer long term effects from this coronavirus. That person most likely will be a loved one, a family member, a close friend, a co-worker, or an essential worker that you have come into contact with during a trip to the pharmacy or grocery store (or non-essential stores or hair salons when they open up again!).

So, unless you plan to avoid contact with the outside world, a vaccine is strongly advised when the time comes that one becomes available for you. As of April 20th, people 40 and older are now eligible to get their vaccine from a participating pharmacy. For more information on this or any other topic, contact your pharmacist.