What strange times we are living in. So many new words in our vocabulary like “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place”. So much fear and panic everywhere you look. STOP. Take a deep breath. And another one… Did you know that fear and panic suppress your immune system, increasing your odds of contracting coronavirus? What can you do besides washing your hands and social distancing? You can fight back with these 4 Health Tips to Fight COVID-19.
From a holistic wellness standpoint, we want to keep our immune system well balanced and healthy. We want it to be able to fight off any pathogen that comes our way, right? And since knowledge is power, let’s look at the numbers for a minute so we have knowledge on our side. Did you know that 95% of all known cases of COVID-19 have been mild forms with few to no symptoms?(1)
A Healthy Immune System is Key
This is in no way meant to minimize the severity and extreme contagiousness of the COVID-19 virus. It is extremely virulent. However, the fact that 95% have had mild to no symptoms is likely due to their stronger immune systems. But most American’s and Westerners, in general, could take a good look at their own immune system and how their lifestyle habits support it or don’t. Likely, many people could stand to re-balance their immune systems. So with that in mind, let’s look at these four health tips to balance your immune system and fight COVID-19.
I’ve written about these four health tips in several articles before. And they bear repeating as these four things have been shown to be the keys to fighting off the coronavirus.
Let’s first review the difference between the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system, and the importance of both to a healthy immune system. And let’s remember that the majority of our immune system resides in our gut.(2)
Parasympathetic vs Sympathetic Nervous System
Rest & Digest
We want our bodies to primarily live in the parasympathetic nervous system mode. In this “rest and digest” mode, we have little stress in our lives. We eat well, digest our food well, sleep well. And we have lots of oxytocin and serotonin flooding our bodies making us happy. This is how humans evolved to live. And living in parasympathetic mode helps build and maintain a strong immune system.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Conversely, the occasional sabertoothed tiger (or COVID-19 fear) pushes us into sympathetic nervous system mode. This is the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. And it’s great that our body responds by kicking into survival mode when we need it to.
Our adrenaline and cortisol surge. Our brain tells our gut to stop digesting and sends all our energy to our large muscles. This helps us run faster to outrun that tiger. Since we don’t need to procreate when we’re escaping the tiger, the sex hormones stop working. This has a cascading effect on the rest of our hormones from thyroid to insulin. Our blood thickens to clot faster in case the tiger snags us. And our heart rate and blood pressure increase to further help us escape that tiger.
Phew! We made it safely back to our cave, we can rest and relax now, our bodily functions return to normal, and before we know it, our body returns to parasympathetic nervous system mode. That was a close one, but we’re fine now.
Can you relate?
Most Americans (and those living in Western Cultures today), predominantly live in the sympathetic nervous system mode all the time. With our fast-paced, go-go-go lives, running here and there, commuting long hours, taking kids to every conceivable after-school activity, constantly being bombarded by TV or radio blaring, phone calls, text messages, emails… hurry, hurry, faster, faster, more, more, bigger, better… gotta keep up with the Joneses… You may not be outrunning a tiger, but your body doesn’t know that. It views all stress the same way.
Is it any wonder that our brains now take in more bytes of data in ONE DAY than our great-grandparents took in in their entire lifetime? Our nervous system can’t keep up. With your body on high alert for the next stress or fear, the surge of adrenaline and cortisol (think COVID-19 news story), your immune system becomes more and more suppressed. And that is no bueno!
So let’s turn this story around and start to live more in parasympathetic mode, “rest and digest”, as we evolved to live. Let’s help our immune system help us stay healthy. Sound good?
4 Health Tips to Fight COVID-19
1. Eat Healthy Food
This can not be stressed enough. Junk-food, crap-food, and sugar are about the worst things you can eat if you want to help your immune system stay strong. And since up to 80% of our immune system resides in our gut, what we eat plays a big role in supporting our immune system. The human body didn’t evolve over the past 300,000+ years to be able to recognize or deal with processed foods, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives.
And when some of those ingredients come down the hatch, the stomach is staying “Whoa! What is THAT? Is that a toxin? That doesn’t look like a food. I don’t even know what to do with that?! I think it’s a toxin. I’d better send out the army to fight it.” And if the stomach is doing that on a daily basis, two or three times a day, that army of soldiers that make up your immune system is going to get tired.
So think about that next time you choose a bag of Doritos, a donut, some Swedish Fish (ok, guilty secret here, I used to LOVE Swedish fish, but once I learned exactly what they do to the body, I now view them as the poison they are.) You are not doing your immune system any favors. And if you’re wearing it down on a daily basis, it might not have the juice to fight off a virus, like COVID-19.
A better bet is to load up on healthy food. Aim to make your plate 75% veggies and fruits at each meal, and mostly veggies. The daily recommended serving of vegetables is 9 half-cup servings. That’s 4.5 cups of veggies a day. And no, catsup doesn’t count as a veggie! Nor do corn chips. My articles on Staying Healthy As You Age and Eat the Rainbow have more tips to help you eat healthy foods.
2. Rest and Sleep
Most of us are staying home these days, sheltering in place, and only going out for emergencies like food, medications, or toilet paper. Some aren’t working and that can be very stressful. Some are working from home (WFH) with kids at home. And some and may have a few more hours each day thanks to no commute. It can’t be stressed enough that one of the best ways to prevent COVID-19 is to get LOTS of quality sleep each night. We’re personally making a priority of getting a minimum of 8-9 hours of sleep a night.
“Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus… Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.”
—Eric J. Olson, M.D., Mayo Clinic (3)
Aim for getting a minimum of 8+ hours of quality sleep a night, and taking a siesta mid-day. This is a time for your body to rest and rejuvenate from all of that stress you’ve been asking it to put up with for so many years. Think of it as a hibernation. A time to truly slow down and care for your one and only body that does so much for you.
Getting a good night’s sleep starts with good sleep hygiene. Let your body’s natural melatonin do its job. We so often interfere with the natural biological processes, our blue-lights from TV screens, computers, tablets, phones, and other reading devices. Did you know when your eyes take in blue light at night it sends a signal to your brain that it’s still daylight, and not to make any melatonin?
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. It signals your body to start slowing down for the evening so you can sleep. But if your electronic devices are telling your brain it’s daylight, you won’t make enough, and you may have a hard time falling asleep. If there’s one thing you can do to help your body as you’re in Stay-at-Home mode, it’s to get more sleep. Do not stay up all night binge-watching the latest Netflix. Set an alarm and aim to have all blue lights turned off by 9pm.
I know… what will you do with yourself without your devices?! Read a book, a real one with paper pages, or a magazine or newspaper (but not the stories about COVID-19, those will make your cortisol soar and that will negate your melatonin production as well.) Take a bath, go for a walk around your block to get some fresh air and exercise before bed (if this is allowed where you are, be sure to abide by any COVID-19 rules that are in place.) Listen to some music or to an uplifting podcast (with your device on red-light-mode), meditate or do some gentle yoga. My articles on how to Sleep Better Naturally and Staying Healthy As You Age have more ideas to help you sleep through the night and wake well-rested.
Staying well-hydrated is also crucial to staying well and fighting COVID-19 which attacks the lungs. Did you know the body is 60% water, and your lungs are 83% water? Hydration helps with so many processes in your body. It helps keep your blood flowing well, carrying away germs and viruses to be eliminated by the liver and kidneys. Dehydration causes your brain to shrink, and blood to thicken (and potentially clot). And that can lead to making poor choices, like forgetting to wash your hands when you’ve been to the store.
“There are few negative effects of water intake and the evidence of positive effects is quite clear from the literature.”
— Barry M. Popkin, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina (4)
Another good reason to stay well hydrated: one of the first things that can happen as you become dehydrated, is that your mucosal lining inside your nose and mouth will start to dry out. The mucosal lining in your nose acts as a protective barrier coating, catching viruses and bacteria and preventing them from entering your body. So if you’re dehydrated and that mucosal lining dries up, the inside of your nose can actually get tiny cracks or fissures in the skin. Once that happens, the door is wide-open for viruses like COVID-19 to enter your body.
Exercise has been scientifically proven to help the immune system ward off illness.(5) And since most of us are now WFH, with a few extra hours in our day, there should be no excuse to not exercise, right? I know, I know, this is the toughest one for me too. As I’ve said before, I don’t like to exercise for exercise sake. But moving your body is one of the key ways to remain healthy, balance your immune system, and avoid COVID-19.
For me personally, I like to do things to move my body and stay active, but aren’t necessarily considered “exercise”. We’re very fortunate to be shelter-in-place on our sailboat, with water to kayak or swim in, and a remote jungle hike to the beach not too far away, with the chance of seeing another human just about zero. So we’ve been getting out every day in the sunshine and doing some form of moving our body.
But that may not be possible for you, depending on your circumstances. So it’s time to get creative! If you’re home with your family, put on some dance tunes, take turns being DJ, and turn your living room into a dance hall. Pull out Twister?! I read one story in the news about a guy in France whose marathon was canceled, so he ran the 26.2 miles anyway, back and forth on his 23′ balcony!
There are lots of options for online workouts, from yoga to Zumba to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and many sites are now offering their online courses for FREE. Check out Mind-Body-Green’s Danc Workouts to Boost Happiness or my friend and yoga teacher Lynette Suchar who’s offering free Yin Yoga online. DailyOm.com also offers a wide variety of for-pay exercise classes with a sliding scale for pay as you can.
And along with these 4 Health Tips to Fight COVID-19, let’s not forget the basics of handwashing with lots of soap, social distancing, and only going out in public if it’s truly necessary. Wishing you and your loved ones health and wellness during these crazy days. We don’t know what the future will bring, but we can all do our part to help flatten the curve.
Please leave a comment to let us know how you’re staying healthy or helping to flatten the curve?