5 Steps to healthy living in a pandemic

By Delina Rahmate -Clinical Nutritionist & Fitness Specialist

As we find ourselves in a challenging time it is important that we look after ourselves, our families, friends and our community. By looking after yourself and sharing positive helpful information you can help others to help themselves.

Many people are stressed and in fear which weakens the immune system. Your ability to fight bugs and recover faster lies in the strength and function of your immune system. Fortunately, there are several immune system boosters and life hacks that you can benefit from right now.

 

1. Eat immune system boosting foods

Food shortages have hit our communities hard and many of our usual family staples like pasta and breads are no longer available. Did you know the best immune system foods are in our fresh fruit and vegetable sections and in the frozen aisles?

To immune proof your diet, eat lots of fruits and vegetables. They’re high in key immune system booster vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that can help you combat dangerous bacteria and viruses. Where possible avoid foods that increase inflammation in the body and create an immune response such as foods high in industrial seed oils, sugars and highly processed ingredients. For those people who have difficulty with the digestion of gluten or dairy this is definitely the time to avoid them.

If you are concerned about what you should be taking in the form of supplements or food to support your immune system here are some you can consider:

Vitamin C

A deficiency of vitamin C can make you more vulnerable to pathogens. Vitamin C is found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as citrus fruits, berries, capsicums and broccoli.

Vitamin A & D

These two vitamins have been scientifically proven to be strong immune boosters and unfortunately, they are vitamins that many of us are deficient in (they are not water soluble so should only be taken as prescribed if using them as supplements).

Vitamin A is an anti-inflammatory vitamin found in foods such as eggs, cod liver oil, liver and as beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, in sweet potato, carrots, black-eyed peas, spinach and broccoli.

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin and can help with our immune system decreasing the risks of repertory infections including colds and flu. Daily healthy doses of sunshine as well as foods such as fatty fish like salmon, sardines, herring, tuna and mackerel, liver, cheese, egg yolks and mushrooms are all rich sources of vitamin D.

B Vitamins and Zinc

B vitamins are important for the immune system as they support a healthy metabolism and help in the production of white blood cells. Zinc supports the development of immune cells and acts as an antioxidant—defending your body by destroying free radicals.

Rich sources of all the eight B vitamins include whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet), meat (red meat, poultry, fish), eggs and dairy products (milk, cheese), legumes (beans, lentils), ​seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds), dark, leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, Asian greens) and fruits (citrus fruits, avocados, bananas).

Zinc is found in meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy, eggs, whole grains, some fruits and vegetables and dark chocolate.

Antioxidants

To help keep your immune cells strong, consume plenty of antioxidants from colourful, bright-hued fruits and vegetables. Red and purple fruits such as cherry, blueberries, pomegranate and elderberry contain a variety of antioxidants. Polyphenols, resveratrol, anthocyanins and lycopene are among them.

Beta-glucans are immunostimulants, meaning they support the function and responsiveness of immune cells. These micronutrients support the normal activity of neutrophils, which help maintain your health. Beta glucans are found in barley fibre, oats and whole grains, reishi, maitake and shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and algae.

There are other foods not previously mentioned that also have strong anti-inflammatory and immune system effects, so I’ve put together a shopping list for you to make life a little easier (I may have missed a few things). Please note this list isn’t written for any particular “diet” or dietary needs therefore some foods may need to be avoided.

2. Support your gut health

According to research, 75% of the immune system is comprised of gut flora, the trillions of live microorganisms that live in the gut. They promote GI function and digestion. They help synthesize key vitamins such as vitamin K and biotin. And when your gut lacks the right balance of healthy bacteria, you compromise your ability to fight infections.

Stress can have a negative impact on your digestive system causing you to experience digestive problems such as wind, bloating, nausea, acid reflux, diarrhoea and constipation! Stress coupled with a poor diet can disrupt the delicate balance and lead to immune system dysfunction. If you feel you need extra support now, have recently been unwell or take pharmaceuticals like antibiotics you may need a good multi-strain probiotic, its best to talk to your health store professional or pharmacist to get the best one for you. Choose foods that have been naturally fermented like sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir and kombucha to support your diet.

 

3. Exercise

There are countless reasons that we should exercise and one of these reasons is to combat stress. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious. You may also feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem. Exercise also: controls weight, helps in reduction of many diseases, improves mood, boosts energy, promotes better sleep, improves your sex life and it is fun (and can be social).

Exercise guidelines

 

4. Sleep

There’s a strong correlation between sleep and the immune system. Sleep is an anabolic state during which the body replenishes its energy storages, regenerates tissues, and produces proteins. Without enough sleep, the human body cannot function properly. Sleep deprivation causes unhealthy changes in the immune system of the body, including white blood cells.

Without adequate, high-quality sleep, your infection-fighting defences are weakened. Plus, prolonged stress can also leave you susceptible to getting sick as it may trigger a flood of ‘fight or flight’ chemicals.

Better sleep hacks

  • Reset your body clock first thing in the morning with sunlight exposure
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • Walk barefoot outside everyday in the fresh air
  • Get outdoors for fresh, clean air while maintaining social distancing
  • Avoid caffeine or other stimulants after 12 noon
  • Exercise can increase quality of sleep. Ensure you have at least a 90-minute break before bed. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise support sleep
  • Swimming, sauna, hot-cold showers (30 sec on 30 sec off and repeat for several minutes)
  • Limit late night alcohol intake
  • Block blue light from LEDs, computers, devices and television 2-3 hours before bed
  • Use red light in the evenings
  • Avoid devices in the bedroom
  • Optimise your body temperature in bed, a cooler bedroom is better
  • Use block out curtains
  • If preferred use a white or pink noise
  • Supplements: Magnesium, glycine, taurine, melatonin, tryptophan (tryptophan levels can be elevated in the evening by consuming some of the following food products about 1 or 2 hours before going to bed: spirulina, whey protein, pumpkin seeds, liver, cashews, cheese, turkey, chicken, pork, beef and herring), zinc, fish oil, essential amino acids and phosphatidylserine
  • Medicinal herbs: Reishi, ashwaganda, chamomile and lemon balm

https://www.ptpioneer.com/importance-of-sleep-infographic/

5. Stress less (this is probably the most important step for us all right now!)

 

Why stress is the enemy of your immune system

The immune system is the body’s defence mechanism for keeping us protected and safe from the bacteria, germs and viruses which we inadvertently ingest.

The immune system is ready, like a police force, to deal with these threatening invaders, swiftly and efficiently, to prevent them from damaging our health.

How does stress weaken the immune system?

Whilst stress alone cannot make us catch a cold or flu virus, it weakens the immune system’s ability to respond to invaders, leaving us more vulnerable to infection. Recovery is also liable to be slower since the immune system is suppressed in favour of dealing with stress. The body’s stress-response system should be self-regulating. Once the perceived threat has passed, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, the heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. In small doses this is fine.

However, when stressors and remain constant like the situation we are in right now (a pandemic combined with recent drought, bushfires and floods), the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on, over-exposing the body to cortisol and other stress hormones. The cells of the immune system (and other body systems) are unable to respond normally and produce levels of inflammation which increase the risk of further health issues. A recent study showed those who had been under stress were twice as likely to develop a cold.

Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as we tend to resort to unhealthy coping strategies, such as smoking or drinking too much caffeine and alcohol, eating too much sugar and processed foods, not sleeping properly and giving up on exercise and healthy social activities. Picture- mibluesperspective.com

Practical steps to help you lower stress

 

Breathwork: Lowers stress and anxiety – stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) to aid in getting us out of fight-flight. Always sit or lie down comfortably prior to commencing breathwork and try to repeat 3 times daily. If you find it hard to remember to do breathwork set a reminder or do it prior to each meal as this will help with your digestion.

Alternate nostril breathing

  • Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  • Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
  • Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
  • Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
  • Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
  • This is one cycle.
  • Continue for at least 1 minute

4-4-8 breathing (this is sometimes done as 4-7-8 breathing)

Start by inhaling for four counts of time.  Make sure you fill your lungs completely to the point where you feel your abdomen is filled full of air like a balloon.  Hold your breath for four counts (or 7 counts) then slowly exhale for eight counts. Continue for at least 1 minute

Box breathing

  • Slowly exhale for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Inhale for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Continue for at least 1 minute

Yoga and meditation

Like breathwork, yoga and meditation can work to help manage stress. Below is a link to 10 free yoga and meditation classes you can access from the comfort of your own home. Most kids love yoga and meditation so you can include the whole family if it works for you.

https://www.foodmatters.com/article/10-free-yoga-meditation-classes-you-can-do-home

One of my personal favourite mediations to do is the 6-phase meditation by Vishen Lakhiani, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaRu14P9H84

Natural supplements to help support you with stress

  • Rhodiola, Glycine, Ashwagandha, L-theanine, B-complex vitamins & kava

Support, family, friends and your community

We all know the importance of support when it comes to our mental health. Due to social isolation, high financial stress and a loss of access to personal support networks we are increased risks of depression, anxiety, feelings of overwhelm, confusion and fear. If you are at risk, please call Lifeline:

Phone: 13 11 14 (24 hours/7 days)

Text: 0477 13 11 14 (6pm – midnight AEDT, 7 nights)

Chat online: https://www.lifeline.org.au/crisis-chat (7pm – midnight, 7 nights)

How can we support each other?

  • Stay connected- think of creative ways to stay connected with others, including social media, email and phone
  • Be generous to others – giving to others in times of need not only helps the recipient, it enhances your wellbeing too. Is there a way to help others around you? Can you shop for an elderly neighbour, do their gardening, give them a call, buy some food for someone in need, support a business that is struggling through the changes, pick up rubbish around the neighbourhood and so on?
  • Stay connected with your values. Don’t let fear or anxiety drive your interactions with others. We are all in this together!
  • Daily routine – create a daily routine that prioritises things you enjoy and even things you have been meaning to do but haven’t had enough time. Read that book, watch that show, take up that new hobby
  • Try to see this as a new and unusual period that might even have some benefits
  • Limit your exposure to news and media. Perhaps choose specific times of day when you will get updates, and ensure they are from reputable and reliable sources
  • Most of all show compassion and kindness to each other, everyone needs love and understanding.

 

Medical disclaimer

All content in this article is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. Never disregard the advice of a medical professional, or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.