Silver Linings of COVID-19 Health and Public Health Recommendations

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I cancel a recent trip to Seattle because I am not feeling 100% and it seems wrong to bring whatever virus I might be brewing to the United States epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. This decision gives me an unexpected, though not unwelcome, week at home with a calendar, cleared like a just-shaken Etch-A-Sketch.

This unanticipated gift has me thinking about the silver linings that our current epidemic offers. I am not making light of the current situation and I implore members of my family and my friends, patients and colleagues, to take seriously the imperative public health recommendations. Thankfully, most people who contract COVID-19 have only a mild symptoms, but I am also mindful of those suffering more with this illness, as well as loved ones who have lost people during this epidemic.

I also know that social isolation leading to reduced employment and school closures will have a more detrimental impact on people with fewer resources. Kids who rely on school breakfast, lunch, snack and in some cases, dinner, will not only be going without school but also without nutrition. There are food pantries and food banks in most every community and most have stepped up efforts during this uncertain time. If you want to help, donate to Feeding America.

And for some, there will be a number of silver linings to embrace.

  1. Time home on your own or with loved ones.

a. It could be just the moment to tackle a small project that’s been on the to-do list forever.

b. Because you may feel like it’s not the right time to go out to the gym or another setting for exercise, here are some resources for at-home workouts. And if you’d like to do a yoga class at home, you’ll have many choices.

c. Body-mind medicine helps your immune system. If you have not found time to learn how to meditate or practice mindfulness, check out some of these apps. Those with underlying anxiety will be more at risk for feeling worried right now, so it’s a good time to address anxiety with a naturopathic doctor. This could be the perfect time to introduce stress reduction efforts like mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercise, a gratitude journal, and time in nature.

d. Bring in music, more upbeat podcasts, books, more positive news outlets. I have been enjoying Only A Game, a weekly sports podcast and Modern Love, an effort between the New York Times and NPR and Kind World.

d. I often ask my patients, “What do you do for fun?” Increasingly over the years, people stare back and me and have no answer. I’ve written about this elsewhere. Point is, if you have a little time, because you are working from home and not commuting, or because an event you were planning to go to was cancelled, think about the rest of life that exists beyond work, the phone and your laptop. Cooking? Making art? Going for a walk? Listening to music? Walking in the woods or sitting on a bench in the park? Planting some veggies in a pot? Picking up your guitar? Spacing out with your coloring book? It’s a stressful time right now between global politics, the US election, climate change, the list goes on. Remember things you used to do for fun and bring them back or try something new. In this challenging time, it’s also good to enjoy ourselves, have some fun, have some pleasure each day. The world of psychoneuroimmunology has elucidated the fact the our state of mind impacts the nervous system and the nervous system influences the immune system and so the cycle goes. So, take this opportunity at home to do something fun!

e. How about a bath? Understanding that in some areas water is severely limited and this would not be a good option. For others, a long soak in a hot tub is relaxing and may well have other health benefits. Water therapies have been around forever. In some countries hydrotherapy resorts are big draws. I love the simplicity, the cost (nil), the side effect profile (nil), the efficacy and the comfort many hydrotherapy treatments offer. As a licensed naturopathic doctor, I often recommend specific hydrotherapy treatments, but for now, a non-goal oriented, escape to your bathtub might be just the thing.

f. Consider bringing back the nap. Now that you a bit more time at home, join about a third of us who enjoy a daily nap. Shorter’s better, and you can expect some improved memory, energy and focus. Some have suggested napping as a public health tool to counter the impact of chronic sleep debt! Adequate sleeping general, is essential for a well-functioning immune system.

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2. While trying to evade COVID-19 by making better choices related to diet, exercise, mindfulness, and smoking cessation, you will help improve your overall health.

a. Optimal immune function is supported by a diet that emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. The same Mediterranean diet that helps to prevent cardiovascular disease and diabetes also has immune protective effects. Ingest food and beverages that are cultured or fermented, which supports an active and robust microbiome which in turn supports proper immunity. Including high fiber foods is essential for that process, too.

b.If you’ve heard about intermittent fasting, you might want to give it a whirl. A thirteen hour overnight fast gives the digestive system a break and allows the immune system to work at optimal levels. Go up slowly to that thirteen hour mark, most everyone adjusts well. And the added discipline of this spills over into other areas of your life.

c. Limiting alcohol consumption would be a good idea. Alcohol negatively impacts the immune system via a number of pathways. This is true for both chronic excessive drinkers as well as those who binge drink. Maybe this is the time you commit to less alcohol consumption.

d. Avoid sugars refined, overly processed foods, each of which has its negative impact on overall health.

e. We know that smokers have a worse outcome if they do contract COVID-19, so take this opportunity to cut back or quit. The same is true for those who vape. Check out some free support to help you quit. Of course, quitting has long term positive impacts on health.

f. Certain nutritional supplements can help support an engaged immune system while also offering other health benefits. Nutritional needs related to our immune system shift as we age, so find a provider who can create an appropriate and individualized plan for you. Naturopathic doctors have extensive training in therapeutic nutrition, including diet and supplementation and can be an excellent resource. Studies show that some nutrients to consider include: zinc, selenium, vitamin C, fish oil, probiotics, vitamin D and green tea extract.

g. Keeping up with an exercise routine makes good sense during the time of this outbreak as studies reveal the role of exercise to enhance immune function. Exercise raises your threshold for feeling stress, helps you dissipate the stress you have and has your blood moving better, all keynotes for good health.

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3. Consider taking a news fast. The impact of constant access to news and the ubiquitous negative news brings us more anxiety and sadness. It can lead to catastrophizing, which is the last thing anyone needs. Some people at this time, fall to psychic numbing, where the ability to be compassionate, to take positive steps in any direction on topics of concern, wanes. I am not advocating complete avoidance of the news or ignoring the facts of difficult realities across the globe, but smaller doses of news are often enough.

With regard to COVID-19, rely on nonsensationalized information such as that on the CDC website, where you consciously choose to check every few days for updated, pertinent information. It’s healthy to compartmentalize, and to side step the bombardment of the 24/7 news cycle, so we can keep going, doing the work of our lives.

4. Remember that staying connected to the people you care about can take many forms.

a. If we all need to have less in-person contact, you can lean into online formats for connecting and reach out to relatives and friends you’ve fallen out of touch with. Group chats, meetings on Zoom and the like have long been the purview of business-type meetings, but we’ve had some fun family gatherings online of late. It’s not the same, there’s no favorite dish being served or loving hugs, but take the opportunity to try out some new ways to communicate with friends and family. If it’s been a little too long, you can start an email or phone conversation to reach out with, “I should have reached out a long time ago, how are you?”

b. Send a hand-written card to someone, just to say hello or to celebrate a birthday or anniversary or accomplishment. You can send a congratulations card about that new baby or upcoming graduation. You can write that long overdue condolence card. You can finally thank that person for their kindness or for a job well done.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

c. Hopefully another silver lining in this category is that we will grow more compassionate and thoughtful for the people around us. We’ll check in with neighbors, especially the elderly or those living on their own. We know that true social isolation is not good for health.

As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, let’s also focus on the positive steps we can take toward healthy living, for ourselves, our families and our communities. Perhaps on the other side of this epidemic we will keep up the better health habits, for more vibrant and enduring and health.

American Association of Naturopathic Physician’s 2017 Physician of the Year. Teacher, writer and advocate for healthy living.

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