Welcome to 2020, the year COVID-19 took control of our lives and challenged the very definition of health for it does not discriminate. Even those who were deemed healthy found themselves subject to the virus. Much focus has been on mental health; children and adults alike are struggling with the consequences of quarantines and the lack of socialization that nurtures their well-being. But the question at large is, how does one reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 outside of minimizing physical exposures and wearing protective masks? The answer is to reduce stress levels and inflammation, which, in turn, will boost the immune system.
The stress response is the body’s innate ability to protect itself from a bio reaction by altering metabolic functioning, offering the best opportunity for survival. When metabolic functioning is disturbed, regardless of the cause, we have dysfunction within our stress response. Being that our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is comprised of 3 endocrine glands, we begin to see a breakdown of the numerous body processes they regulate; digestion, moods and emotions, immune system, and energy input and output. With that comes mental and emotional disorders, sleep disorders, metabolic and glycemic dysfunction (think diabetes and obesity), and chronic inflammation.
There are supplements in which help support the body from chronic stress; Ashwaganda, holy basil (tulsi), rhodiola and ginseng to name a few. In fact, I drink 2 cups of tulsi tea daily not only to support my body but as a replacement to coffee. More over, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, NAC, Moducare and Zinc are beneficial in supporting the immune system during the pandemic.
But we can also engage the parasympathetic nervous system in mindfulness meditation or focused breathing practices. Neuroscience reveals that only 10 minutes a day of participating in a mindfulness practice has substantial benefits on our body and mind. How so? Well, when we practice mindfulness, we increase neuronal activity. In neuroscience there is a phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” These neurons communicate with one another as well as other body parts, working together cohesively to strengthen the brain’s synapses. The more you practice mindfulness and meditation, the more you improve neuroplasticity ¬– the brain’s ability to grow and strengthen its functionality. As a result, you improve self-awareness regarding how your emotions, thoughts and feelings impact your life and reduce your stress response by focusing on the positives versus reacting to the negatives which promotes stress.
Nutrition and food play an integral role in immune health by balancing inflammatory pathways, reducing oxidative stress and increasing antioxidant levels, and balancing the gut microbiome. We want to focus on breaking the cortisol-insulin-adiposity inflammation response, contributing to diabetes and obesity, as well as the quality of the foods we eat. Our diets should be nutrient dense, high in phytonutrients and polyphenols, water- and lipid-soluble vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber as this helps downregulate an overactive immune response and inflammation. Eating from all of the different colors within the food groups, removing highly inflammatory and acidic foods (like sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts, corn), consuming 28-35 grams of fiber daily preferably from whole foods, and 9-13 servings of vegetables per day are recommended
Several studies demonstrate that low refined-carbohydrates and a Mediterranean style nutrition plan are highly effective; it comes from the Blue Zones, areas in the world where people tend to live the longest, healthiest lives. It is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, tree nuts and seeds, beans and olive oil. It’s rich in polyphenols and fiber, plant-based compounds that help protect against diseases such as diabetes and certain types of cancers, as well as against heart disease by lowering LDL and cognitive decline from the plentiful omegas from wild caught fish, seafood, poultry and eggs.
Hydration is critical in maintaining immune health. Experts recommend 11 cups per day for women and 16 cups for men. Water regulates body temperature, keeps joints lubricated, prevents infections, delivers nutrients to cells and keeps organs functioning properly. Being well-hydrated also improves cognition, mood and sleep quality.
This brings me to the importance of sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep is optimal and the most restful sleep is between the hours of 9pm and 9am. Sleep is crucial for metabolic processes and rejuvenating all of our body systems because it has a major influence on immune function and inflammatory signals. When we obtain less than 7 hours of sleep, we start increasing our risk for disease as we lose our ability to regulate blood sugar, insulin secretion and responses to insulin decreases, cortisol (which becomes inflammatory when released chronically) increases and we begin mimicking the effects of early diabetes and aging.
In 2017, Bridget Kuehn published “Resetting the Circadian Clock Might Boost Metabolic Health” in JAMA, and she details what science is learning in regards to how an individual’s habits regarding sleep, eating patterns, and diet contributes to desynchronizing the body’s circadian clock which, in turn, increases metabolic problems like diabetes or obesity.
Lastly, let us talk about the role exercise plays on our immune system. The American Heart Association recommends we obtain 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic training or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity a week, as well as 2 days of moderate to high intensity muscle strength/resistance training. Perhaps going to the gym during the pandemic is not on your agenda, so focusing on opportunities for movement are vital. Perhaps that is just taking a walk around the community, or taking the steps in your house for a specified period of time (a free Stairmaster!), tending to the garden, or parking a few spots farther from the door. Exercise has a plethora of health benefits. For starters, it helps support the immune system by raising levels of white blood cells (which fight infections) and antibodies, and increases circulation and decreases stress hormones. Exercise provides movement the body needs to oxygenate, circulate blood and nutrients and remove waste from cells. It lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s, several types of cancer, and some complications from pregnancy. Exercise contributes to better sleep, including improvements in insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. Improved cognition, including memory, attention and processing speed result from participating in movement in addition to seeing a reduction in weight gain, obesity and related chronic health conditions. Better bone health and balance result from exercise, with less risk of injury from falls. Exercise reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improves quality of life and sense of overall well-being.
While we feel like our lives are spiraling out of control during the pandemic, we are certainly in control of many factors that not only help us strengthen our immune system, but improve our overall health and quality of life. The less stress and inflammation, the stronger the immune system, mind and body.