I'm an accredited journalist working at the intersections of science, food and public health, and a certified nutritional practitioner.
In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to focus on developing and maintaining good health habits, optimum nutrition and quality rest to give ourselves the best opportunity for vital health and strong immunity.
Self-Care During COVID -19
If there is one thing we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that the pandemic has completely turned assumptions about the role of self-care in national health systems upside down. The impact of preventive medicine and health care had previously been greatly understated.
While the virulence of the COVID-19 virus is expected to gradually match flu levels over the coming years, the risk for all of us lies in complacency. At the first signs of the pandemic becoming milder, it will be tempting to carry on with the same lifestyle and self-care habits we had two years ago, increasing our vulnerability once again. If we do so, it will mean the lessons of this time have not been learned.
Let’s concentrate on building our personal immune systems this year by eating well, exercising and better managing daily stressors. Here are five lessons—or habits—to remember as we ease our way out of the pandemic, so that our next immune challenges, whatever they may be, will not be such a threat.
Optimal Nutrient Density
Based on the clinical features of the COVID-19 outbreak, a combination of excessive inflammation and oxidative stress contributes to the maladaptive immune response that makes the infection become worse.
Addressing poor nutrition prophylactically and in people at risk or already burdened by chronic illness is part and parcel of responding to COVID-19.
Consuming a diet that is both anti-inflammatory and nutritionally dense is a positive lifestyle change that pays off both in the short term, to improve health span, and in the long term, to prolong life span.
In its simplest form, a nutritionally dense diet is one that has a high ratio of nutrients to calories. The term “empty calories” merely refers to the absence of beneficial components, such as quality proteins, antioxidants, fiber and essential fatty acids (like omega-3s).
An anti-inflammatory diet possesses these components and lacks a) omega-6 oils (like canola oil), b) added sugar in products containing more than 10 grams of simple sugars per 100 grams and c) common allergens, such as soy, wheat (gluten) and casein (from dairy).
One strategy for optimizing nutrient density is to focus on eating a diet made up of clean proteins (plant-based, wild-caught fatty fish or grass-fed meat), seasonal greens, a variety of beans, some nuts and seeds, fats like avocado or olive oil, extra dark chocolate or raw cacao, and berries.
Not only is this type of diet full of essential amino acids, the right omegas and fibers, the whole spectrum of antioxidant vitamins and minerals, and polyphenols; it is also very satiating and blood sugar balancing—which prevents overeating and helps to maintain a healthy weight.
This is an important distinction because the virus has manifested more severely in people with type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome, which is tied to our weight, waist circumference and blood sugar levels.
As explained above, preventing micronutrient deficiencies is key to preventing immune dysregulation, and this should start with our diet. However, there are instances when supplementation can be helpful, such as when we are recovering from an illness.
Americans are notoriously deficient in a lot of important micronutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3. In conditions of physiological stress, like infections, the demand for these micronutrients increases dramatically—especially vitamin C and zinc.
Another important aspect of building natural immunity against the novel coronavirus through diet is gut health. The gastrointestinal tract hosts the largest number of immune cells, and there is a very complex interaction between our gut microbes and immune cells.
Unless these gut microbes receive fiber, they can't make essential compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that are signaling molecules for the regulation of the immune system, promoting the growth of T regulatory cells and soothing inflammation.
The first line of defense against infections relies on an intake of different types of fibers (through greens and seeds) as well as high-dose probiotics to maintain a good and diverse population of gut microbes.
Mobility and Flexibility
At a time when we’re learning that so many risk factors for different diseases are easily modifiable through lifestyle interventions, exercise represents a tool that can improve health outcomes and weight management when structured correctly.
If we look at this from an ancestral-health point of view, we evolved as a species outdoors, and we moved to live. There is a whole host of important health benefits linked to working out, like improving the immune system, insulin sensitivity and cardiorespiratory fitness, a reduced risk of sarcopenia, an increased sense of wellbeing, and reduced anxiety.
Exercise also keeps the brain happy, which is much needed right now. The paradox with fitness, however, is that nobody feels like training when they’re depressed, but training is proven to help us cope with depression. The most challenging part is to commit. Group personal training can be a good way to find the motivation and team spirit to give it a go.
Resistance training can be very powerful when done in combination with a healthy diet. Lifting weights just three times a week—or working out for just 15 minutes daily—and going for an hour-long walk each day is a great way to increase both physical and mental strength.
U.S. studies suggest that the average adult gains only about 1lb (.45 kilograms) per year, consistent with habitual excess energy intakes sometimes as small as 50 kilocalories per day. While it is often hard to find time to fit in a full workout, anyone can carve out some short forms of exercise, like a brisk walk, a quick jog or pushups, to help offset daily excess energy intakes.
Another important consideration about how we move is flexibility. With the current work-from-home orders, we are sitting—or rather lounging—a lot more. Musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions of the neck, back, shoulders, hips and knees are on the rise and can lead to unnecessary surgeries and overprescribed opioids.
Good body mechanics and exercise are inseparable. A muscular body that is stiff with low thoracic or hip mobility is not the goal. MSK pain can be treated simply by fixing postural issues and movement patterns with connective exercises and reconditioning or by toning the body to correct muscle asymmetries.
Quality Sleep Patterns
Sleep is a key regulator of immune function. Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation results in poorer immune function, including reduced natural killer cell activity, suppressed interleukin-2 production and increased levels of circulating proinflammatory cytokines.
A 2009 study from the JAMA Internal Medicine journal looked at sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. The results show that poorer sleep quality and shorter sleep duration in the weeks preceding exposure to a rhinovirus were associated with lower resistance to illness.
People were at especially high risk when getting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Those with less than seven hours of sleep were 2.94 times more likely to develop a cold than those with eight or more hours of sleep.
Sleep quality, as measured by the total time asleep divided by the time spent in bed, was also considered. The study participants with less than 92% sleep efficiency were 5.50 times more likely to develop a cold than those with 98% or more efficiency.
The results hold true once adjusted for virus-specific antibodies, demographics, season of the year, body mass, socioeconomic status, psychological variables and health practices like smoking, alcohol consumption and sedentarism.
Investing in blackout blinds or curtains, steering clear of blue light after sundown and sleeping without any electronic device in the room are just a few of the practices that can reduce sleep disturbance and, ultimately, symptom mediators that are released in response to infection.
Stress and Anxiety Management
The psychological modifiers of the stress-response include 1) outlets for frustration, 2) a sense of predictability and control, 3) a perception of life improving and 4) social support.
Special forms of exercise, like martial arts, make excellent outlets for dealing with mental eruptions and irritation. Turning frustration into energy for the creative arts is another way to cope with these feelings.
In addition to physical outlets, a few mental techniques exist to displace frustration so that it does not get repressed and create more stress. For example, keeping a “worry booklet” and writing down fearful thoughts as they arise can free our minds from their influence. Similarly, we can label thoughts as “past,” “present” or “future” and concentrate on the present and what is in our control.
Staying on a schedule is important for the body’s internal rhythm and to create a sense of control, too—as is making sure to remain connected to nature. If there’s no garden around, then a daily walk to the beach or the park can make a meaningful difference.
We could all benefit from being more mindful about our devices as well. We use them, but we aren’t present with them. We practice what some experts have called “unconscious tech engagement.” The truth is that these devices bend our perceptions and behaviors, and we need a certain level of awareness about how we change and adapt to perceive life positively.
People’s mental health has been and will be challenged. Digital life was highly stressful prior to the pandemic, and the shift to tele-everything will continue to be extensive and further diminish in-person contact, real-world support systems and social connectivity.
To counteract the loss of physical proximity, let’s focus on creating emotional bridges by being intentional about how we use meeting time at work, bringing out our most complete and authentic humanity to cultivate richer and deeper relationships.
Here is an example of prompts that the author Simon Sinek likes to use to be fully present when video-calling his team: 1) pick a facilitator, 2) conduct a quick grounding exercise, like deep breathing, 3) share high fives for everyone’s achievements that week, 4) ask a question of the week for everyone to answer, 5) share what’s on everyone’s heart and mind, and 6) have a volunteer close with a “why we do what we do” story.
Positive Mental Attitude
Our mental and spiritual outlook on the condition of our bodies—and, indeed, on life itself, with its ups and downs—is our greatest asset. When we lose faith or stop thinking positively, it can be harder for us to feel safe in our material world.
To cultivate a strong, powerful mindset, we must surround ourselves with other positive-minded individuals, silence self-defeating thoughts and go inward to find our center.
Through a daily meditation practice, we can become our own best friend, be in full acceptance of our circumstances and who we are, and learn self-love. And when our actions flow from that space, we choose to do things that are aligned with that new feeling of love and gratitude.
A regular schedule of 20 minutes of meditation (10 in the morning and 10 in the evening) is a very effective grounding exercise. Even taking five minutes out of the day to sit, pause, bring awareness to the breath and become present will help.
The meditation practice can be supplemented with affirmations repeated out loud or in your mind—statements like, “I am safe in this world; it is safe for me to surrender to life; I am right where I need to be; I move with the flow of life; I am fully supported by life; there is more than enough ‘whatever you may need’ to go around; I am connected to everything around me.”
All in all, there are many healthy lifestyle changes we can make on an individual level to build physical resilience and address the emotional impact of dealing with uncertainty, insecurity, stress and isolation in today’s world.
The most difficult step is to start, but once the habit is formed, it’s there for life. To quote the late Bob Moawad, “First we form habits, then they form us.”
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 Camille Bienvenu