|Dr. Karyn Shanks, MD
Functional Medicine Doctor
Optimal Health & Wellness
Fear & uncertainty | Practice safety | Immune system support | Sleep | Movement | Information overload
The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many of us to an unfamiliar place of stress, uncertainty and fear. More than ever, we find ourselves questioning our own safety and survival.
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic requires more than a strong immune system. We also need to pay close attention to our emotional health, so we can make the best rational decisions in the face of such a crisis.
In this article, I will share some key practical steps you can take to protect your physical and mental health. Use this information and create a safe and nourishing environment where you, your family and community can connect, stay strong and support each other until this crisis is behind us.
Dealing with Fear and Uncertainty
* Used with permission of Dr. Karyn Shanks, MD
I believe the first thing we need to address is fear and uncertainty, and what we can do to protect our emotional wellness in the face of the coronavirus threat.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented by the pyramid above, can help us better understand our reaction to uncertainty, stress, and fear. According to this model, human motivation is categorized into five hierarchical needs. The higher needs such as family, love, personal growth and self fulfilment depend on the strength we receive when our more basic needs of survival and safety are met.
The COVID-19 pandemic understandably raises questions about our basic survival and safety. Regardless of where we were operating on the pyramid before, we now find ourselves feeling afraid and vulnerable.
Whether our personal survival is actually threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, our minds perceive the potential threat. It is essential therefore, that we calm our minds and manage stress, so we can function with clarity and wisdom as we protect ourselves, our families, and our community.
Stress and worry are major immune system suppressors. The research shows a strong link between psychological stress, low immune system function and increased susceptibility to viral infections.[1,2] Mind-body practices such as meditation, deep breathing, and expressing gratitude are simple yet effective tools shown to help calm the mind, body, and reduce stress.
Stay Home but Socially Connected
Social distancing is the most effective way to minimize the chances of exposure to COVID-19 and slow its spread. Working from home (when possible) and avoiding social gatherings is imperative. Staying at home is a great opportunity to spend more quality time with family, something we may find challenging in our busy daily lives.
Social distancing doesn’t mean being completely socially isolated, however. We have technology that allows us to stay in touch with our family and friends and support one another virtually. Acts of kindness, love, and generosity are powerful ways to support both our immunity and emotional health.
Remember to Wash Your Hands
You should wash your hands any time you come into your house, before you prepare meals or eat, and after using the bathroom. Use this effective handwashing technique every time:
- Wash hands for at least 30 seconds with warm water and soap.
- Wash up to your forearms.
- Wash between your fingers and under your fingernails.
- Wash your jewelry and accessories as they can become contaminated or take them off during this time
Get Enough Sleep
You may not see sleep as a top priority, but lack of sleep can have a dramatic negative effect on the immune system. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more susceptible to viral infections such as the common cold.
On average, most adults need eight to eight and a half hours each night. When dealing with an illness or stress, you may find you need more sleep than usual. It is important to listen to your body and allow yourself to get enough rest.
If you find it hard to sleep due to stress or anxiety, here are a few sleep hygiene basics that may help:
- Dedicate enough time at night to unwind and relax. Read an enjoyable book, meditate, listen to soothing music, choose the activities that you know that calm your mind.
- Be careful with electronic devices as they emit brain-stimulating blue light that can disrupt your sleep.
- Do not check your email, social media, or the news at night. The last thing you need before bed, is to hear more stressful updates that will keep you awake. News can wait until the morning.
- Create an environment that nurtures good sleep by blocking out sound and light.
- Plan a regular bedtime you can sustain and stick to it. The brain likes habitual behavior and will get used to a specific bedtime.
When needed, try some of these natural sleep aids to help calm the brain and support restful sleep:
- Phosphatidylserine. Helps modulate the effects of cortisol on the brain.
- Calming herbs such as valerian, lemon balm, kava, skullcap and ashwagandha.
- Calming amino acids such as theanine and GABA.
- Melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep wake cycle.
To learn more about ways to optimize your sleep, see my article on insomnia.
Optimizing Your Nutrition for Immune Support
While there is no specific diet that works best for everyone, our immune system function greatly depends on the quality of foods and nutrients we consume. Some foods can weaken our immune system, while others can support and nourish it.
Now more than ever, we can benefit from paying attention to what we eat and cover the basics nutritional guidelines for a healthy immune system:
- Avoid: sugar, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates as these can suppress your immune system.
- Focus on whole, real food and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Colorful plants. Dark leafy greens and low glycemic fruits such as dark berries are particularly high in immune boosting nutrients while still low in sugars and calories.
- Protein. Eat enough healthy protein from clean sources such as wild-caught fish, pasture-raised poultry, and grass fed beef. A good rule of thumb is 0.8 grams per pound body weight each day.
- Healthy fats. Include enough healthy fats from foods such as fatty wild-caught fish, avocados and avocado oil, olives and olive oil. Coconut oil and cream have antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
- Healthy spices. Help improve the taste of your meals and also support a healthy immune system. Good options include onions, garlic, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, and ginger.
- Probiotic foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi to support your gut microbiome which play a key role in the health of our immune system.
Immune System Supplements
While certain supplements can help support your immune system, be cautious with the supplements you choose and don’t go overboard.
Start with the core immune boosting supplements and work with your doctor to test your levels and determine which additional supplements you may need.
The Basics. Make sure you are not deficient in these key immune system supporters:
- Vitamin D. Plays a key role in a healthy immune system function, and a common deficiency in North America.
It is best to have your level tested by your doctor to determine the exact amount you need.
For short-term immune system support, consider taking up to 10,000 IU a day for a week. (But not longer than that, unless advised by your doctor)
- Vitamin A. Another key immune system nutrient. Consider taking up to 50,000 IU a day for a week for a short-term immune system support. Beyond that, stick with the recommended daily values. Taking too much of vitamin A may cause toxicity, so have your levels tested to see if you need more.
- Vitamin C. Essential for a healthy immune system function. May have antiviral properties on higher dosage (1-2 grams). Liposomal delivery system is ideal.
- Zinc Chelate. An essential mineral that helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses.
- Probiotics. Support a healthy gut microbiome. Up to 80% of our immune system resides in the gut. Use a multi strain probiotic products such as lactobacilli, bifidobacterial, bacillus, and saccharomyces, with 5-20 billion organisms daily.
- Medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps are a rich source of nutrients and unique bioactive compounds we do not get from our standard diet shown to support our health and immune system.
- Multivitamin/mineral for overall support.
For additional immune system support:
- Elderberry. A natural immune booster with antiviral properties shown to help reduce severity and duration of cold and flu like symptoms.
- Adaptogen herbs such as rhodiola, ashwagandha, and ginseng can help the body cope with stress and anxiety, calm the adrenals and support the immune system
- Antioxidants such as curcumin and alpha lipoic acid
- Detoxifiers such as liposomal glutathione or N-acetylcysteine (NAC).
Movement and Exercise
Current recommendation for social distancing in your community may keep you from your gym or favorite exercise classes. In spite of this, we need to keep moving to support healthy immunity and stress levels. Walk outdoors on a daily basis and tap into the many exercise, yoga, and movement classes available on-line.
Protect Yourself from Information Overload
While it’s important to stay informed, it’s critical that we protect ourselves from information overload, particularly the hard pandemic news that triggers fearful worst-case-scenario thinking.
Limit your news consumption and choose reliable sources. One check-in to the local news and a national news source is sufficient for most people. Also take care to limit social media exposure. While we’re all craving connection and social support, the fear and anxiety often expressed through these venues can be harmful.
While there’s much more to learn about the COVID-19, there are still effective steps we can take to protect our physical and mental health. Use this information to create a safe and nourishing environment where you, your family and community can connect, stay strong and support each other until this crisis is behind us.
- Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry, Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller
- Stress-associated immunomodulation and herpes simplex virus infections. Sainz B1, Loutsch JM, Marquart ME, Hill JM.
- Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Cohen S1, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB.
- Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial, Evelin Tiralongo, Shirley S. Wee, and Rodney A. Lea
- Protecting Your Body and Emotional Wellness from COVID-19 - March 27, 2020
- The Healthy Keto Diet: How to Sustain Your Energy and Stop Fatigue - February 28, 2020