One of the difficult things about the coronavirus outbreak is the feeling of inevitability of its spread and that there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not used to such lack of control and it’s alarming. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do in addition to handwashing to get body and mind into the best state possible to deal with the virus if you get it. These are in no particular order. They all interlink, as you’ll see.
1 Prioritise sleep
Seven hours a night is good, eight is better. As sleep expert Professor Matthew Walker says in his bestselling book Why we sleep, “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day – Mother Nature’s best effort yet at contra-death.” Learn about good sleep hygiene to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Eg don’t use screens before bed, avoid alcohol (it disturbs sleep and reduces quality), keep your room cool and dark.
2 Avoid and manage stress
Any medium to long-term stress interferes with your immune system, reducing its effectiveness. Ironic, isn’t it, that worrying about COVID-19 might make you less able to fight illness? What helps people deal with stress is personal, but walking, dancing, yoga, gardening, knitting, meditating, a favourite sport, music, rhythmic breathing and stroking the cat can all help calm the stress response (fight or flight) and stimulate the calming parasympathetic nervous system’s response (‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’).
Breathing steadily is a great way to tell your body and brain that you are safe and all is well which starts the stress reduction process. Taking a deep breath, or counting to 10 are familiar ways to turn down our emotional, rabbit-in-the-headlights brain and switch on our thinking, let’s-think-this-through-logically brain. Meditation and mindfulness are extensions of this which is why they can be so useful for managing stress and anxiety. Check out apps like Calm or Headspace for help in getting started (there are many others, too). Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s books and podcasts are fantastic resources for learning about tackling stress. Reducing stress also helps you sleep better, and vice versa.
3 Eat the rainbow and the alphabet
Eating a wide variety of foods is a key way to support your immune system and stay healthy. Here I mean real, whole foods that are relatively close to their natural state. Fish not fish fingers, tomatoes not tomato ketchup, natural yoghurt not a fruit-flavoured, artifically-sweetened dessert. Eating the rainbow every week or alphabet every month means eating plants of every colour or beginning with every letter of the alphabet (good luck with X!). Studies suggest that eating 30 different plants a week is the starting point for good gut health, with gut health being a crucial factor for a robust immune system and all-round health, including mental health. Herbs, spices, nuts and seeds, and drinks like teas and fresh coffee all count.
4 Ditch the sugar and processed foods
This is sensible for everyone to prevent and address metabolic illnesses like weight gain (particularly around the belly), type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and some cancers. But with coronavirus in particular we know that people with heart problems and type 2 diabetes are at greater risk of complications. Insulin resistance and high blood sugar are underlying issues here so if ever there was a time to take steps to get blood sugar under control, it’s now. If you have type 2 diabetes, are pre-diabetic or have visceral fat (belly fat), avoiding refined or starchy carbohydrates like flour, pasta, rice and potatoes will help as these all quickly digest down into large amounts of glucose (sugar) that keeps blood sugar and insulin levels high and fat burning low. The good news is that making these changes can have positive effects surprisingly quickly. Furthermore, the coronavirus is here to stay so any changes you make now are likely to build in impact as time goes on.
Important: if you are on medications, particularly for type 2 diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure, consult your GP or practice nurse if you decide to cut sugar/starchy carbs/refined carbs significantly from your current consumption level. Your medications might need adjusting.
5 Aim to cook from scratch
Cooking from scratch means you can control what goes into your food so you can avoid the sugar hidden in so many pre-prepared, processed, packaged products. It’s a great way of eating the rainbow/alphabet, too, and keeps costs down. Eating together is a life-affirming way to connect with others, even if someone has to join your party via an internet screen on the table.
6 Avoid consoling yourself with alcohol, smoking, other drugs or junk food
Anything that adds toxins to your body will make it harder for your immune system to deal with infections. For example, alcohol is a toxin. It’s also a depressant so may make you feel more anxious. It also interferes with your appetite and dietary choices so you’re more likely to overeat poor quality food and, as mentioned above, it’ll reduce sleep quality and quantity. Smoking: we all know the health risks from smoking, but with coronavirus being a respiratory disease, now is the time to quit if you can. Junk food: it’s designed to be tempting, delicious and moreish and it’s everywhere so is difficult to avoid. But it won’t help your overall health. In the UK over half the food we consume comes from ultraprocessed food and research suggests that the more of it we eat, the more likely we are to be at greater risk of early death. Short term pleasure might not lead to long term happiness. Instead, focussing on eating real, fresh, nutritious foods as much as possible means we’re not just fed, but nourished, too.
7 Be as active as possible and get puffed out if you can
Exercise is fantastic for improving so many aspects of our health from heart health to digestion to our mood, mental health and sleep. It’s also a great stress-buster whether you use it as an opportunity to catch up with friends or just get some time to yourself. Don’t have time? 10 minutes can make a difference. Research shows that going for a walk increases creativity and that your brain continues working on a problem while you’re out getting some fresh air. Exercise doesn’t have to be running or the gym. It can be dancing, walking or even vigorous hoovering or leaf raking. A key thing is not to spend too much time every day sitting or not moving, which actually harms our health. Never really got on with exercise? The great news is that the biggest health improvements happen when people go from no exercise to some. Every minute counts. And no one ever regretted going for a walk, even if the best effect is feeling rather smug and pleased with yourself (nothing wrong with that – all good stuff for your wellbeing!).
8 Get outside for fresh air and sunlight
Natural light is inextricably linked to health. Florence Nightingale spotted that fresh air and sunlight helped patients recover faster. And don’t we all sleep well after a summer’s day outside at the beach or picnicking? It’s natural light that counts. Even a dark, rainy winter day gives you more light (measured in ‘lux’) than bright electric light. Morning light in particular helps to reset our light-sensitive circadian rhythms so we sleep better at night. If you can get out into nature, so much the better, even if it’s only a patch of green in a busy city. Humans’ innate affinity with nature is called ‘biophilia’ and might explain why even looking at pictures of nature makes us feel good. The Japanese idea of ‘forest bathing’, getting into nature and being around plants and trees, has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Take it as far as tree-hugging if you like, but just being in nature will help. Going for a walk outside will tick a lot of immune system-supporting boxes: stress reduction, exercise, natural light and biophilia.
9 Stay connected and sociable even if it has to be remotely
Our family and friends are important, aren’t they? Benefiting from being together, talking, laughing and supporting each other is a fundamental human trait. We’ll need to learn to be together in different ways over coming months, but it’s still valuable and worth it. This is where social media and remote connections like Face Time, Skype, Zoom and other platforms mean we can ‘meet’ and ‘have coffee’ with people in a different town or country (or next door). Perhaps we’ll have to get used to that old habit of using the phone! Or chatting to neighbours over the garden fence. I’m loving the flurry of virtual and real community support groups springing up, making plans to help each other. That’s a positive legacy this virus might give us.
10 Retain perspective and be proactive: you DO have some control
We’re all worried and we all want the same things with coronavirus, even if there’s no clear way to achieve them. The media and social media will be crucial to keep us informed, but it won’t do any of us any good to dwell on the downsides too much. For all of us, especially if you’re anxious, turning off the news and instead doing something positive for you, or the health of you or your community, or loved ones will do so much more good than fretting. If you’re anxious or stressed, being told to calm down doesn’t work. What does work is doing something to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system which will help dial down your stress response. So you do have some control over your health, even if you can’t control anyone else or the virus. And calming down the stress response will help us think more logically keep things in perspective. It could all start with taking a deep breath…
Lou is a registered health coach with interests in weight management, nutrition and real food, lifestyle medicine and workplace health. You can read more at www.louwalker.com.