Nutrition, the NLRP3 Inflammasome, and COVID-19

In recent weeks, I’ve been researching SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 for my work as a technical writer within the nutraceutical industry and as a clinical nutritionist. In this time, I’ve delved into the research on how SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) harms the body and found some exciting interrelationships between the virus, it’s effects on inflammatory pathways, and nutrition. In this nerdy blog post, I’ll discuss how SARS-CoV-2 activates the NLRP3 inflammasome, a potent pro-inflammatory network, and how therapeutic foods may attenuate NLRP3 inflammasome activity and its harmful effects on the body.

Viral Infections Promote a Strong Inflammatory Response

While viruses are undoubtedly scary, it’s not the virus itself that damages the body; it is the body’s well-intentioned immune response towards the virus that ultimately harms the lungs, heart, and other vital tissues and organs. The NLRP3 inflammasome plays a central role in the body’s pro-inflammatory immune response to SARS-CoV-2, according to recent research. (1) The NLRP3 inflammasome is a protein complex that plays a crucial role in the immune response to pathogens, including viruses such as influenza A and SARS-CoV-2. While the NLRP2 inflammasome is a necessary element of the immune response, viral infections can cause excessive NLRP3 activation. Hyperactivation of the NLRP3 inflammasome triggers an inflammatory form of cell death through the release of inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-1β and IL-18. (2) In severe viral respiratory infections, including severe cases of COVID-19, the NLRP3 inflammasome overlaps with other inflammatory signaling pathways, causing a release of cytokines magnitudes of order higher than usual, ultimately causing a phenomenon called a “cytokine storm.”

To keep your body well during this challenging time, as we ride the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it is crucial to balance your body’s inflammatory levels as much as possible. Balancing NLRP3 inflammasome activity may help you stay well or reduce the severity of your illness, should you get sick. Interestingly, research indicates that certain foods and nutrients modulate the NLRP3 inflammasome. It is my opinion that these foods and nutrients would be wise additions to your diet at this time. I’m incorporating many of them into my own daily diet.

Please note that NONE of these foods or phytonutrients are a treatment for COVID-19. However, they will support a healthy inflammatory balance in your body via modulation of the NLRP3 inflammasome (and other pathways). A healthy inflammatory balance leads to a healthy body, and having a healthy body, in turn, may reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 or of experiencing a severe course of illness should you catch the virus.

Foods and Nutrients That Modulate the NLRP3 Inflammasome

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: If you’re not a seafood lover, now is an excellent time to become one! Research indicates that the omega-3 fatty acid DHA found almost exclusively in seafood (except for some forms of algae), is a potent inhibitor of the NLRP3 inflammasome. (3) I advise my clients to eat at least 2-3 servings of wild-caught or sustainably-sourced seafood per week to boost their DHA levels; however, many people need additional omega-3 support in the form of supplemental fish or krill oil.

Curcumin: Curcumin, a primary bioactive compound in turmeric root, suppresses IL-1β release and prevents inflammation by inhibiting the NLRP3 inflammasome. (4)

Resveratrol: Resveratrol, a type of polyphenol found in grapes, wine, and Japanese Knotweed, has become famous for its anti-aging properties. However, it also reduces NLRP3 inflammasome-mediated disease symptoms, in particular modulating the release of pro-inflammatory IL-1β. (5)

Green Tea: I’ve been drinking organic green tea like it’s going out of style lately, and for a good reason; green tea catechins reduce NLRP3 inflammasome activity. (6) They also may prevent SARS-CoV-2 from docking onto receptors on host cells, inhibiting a critical stage of viral infection. (7)

Sulforaphane: I’ve previously written about the numerous health benefits of sulforaphane, a sulfur-based phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables, as it pertains to Lyme disease, mold illness, and detoxification. However, ever the multi-purpose phytochemical, sulforaphane, also attenuates NLRP3 inflammasome activity. (8) It even has some direct antiviral properties, though I’m NOT saying it has any impact on SARS-CoV-2. (9)

Quercetin: Emerging preclinical research indicates that quercetin, a polyphenol found in fruits and vegetables, inhibits coronavirus spike protein binding to host cells. (10) Quercetin is found in apples, red onions, grapes, bell peppers, black and green tea, and broccoli.

Melatonin: While melatonin is a hormone, not a nutrient, I have mentioned it here because drug repurposing technology studies have found that it is an excellent “brake pedal” for the NLRP3 inflammasome and may have utility as a drug in the treatment of COVID-19. (11) Nutrition-wise, it may be possible to support healthy endogenous production of melatonin by stopping your food intake at least three hours before bed, because time-restricted eating has been found to sync circadian rhythms, which modulate melatonin production. (12) Of course, this practice should be combined with sleep hygiene strategies, such as blocking blue light before bed, to truly optimize your melatonin levels.

Vitamin C: Last but not least, I recommend that you optimize your vitamin C level by eating plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, such as broccoli, citrus fruit, papaya, and bell peppers. Vitamin C has multiple benefits for the immune system – it bolsters the antioxidant potential of immune cells, modulates the balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory activity in the immune system, and increases the activity of white blood cells involved in the innate immune system, your first line of defense against microbial invaders. In line with the topic of this article, vitamin C also modulates the NLRP3 inflammasome. (13)

While obtaining sufficient dietary vitamin C is crucial, I recommend supplementing with vitamin C during this time as well because high doses of the vitamin appear to be crucial for boosting immune defenses in situations such as viral respiratory infections. (14) Liposomal formulations are by far the best choice for vitamin C supplementation, due to their significantly enhanced bioavailability compared to conventional oral formulations.

While none of these foods will prevent or cure COVID-19, they are wise additions to your diet if you’re interested in optimizing your health to reduce your risk of getting sick. I’d love to hear how you choose to incorporate these foods into your diet! Let me know in the comments below.


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