How to Improve Your Odds of Thriving During This Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic is taking over our lives.  As we face this invisible enemy, it’s important to use every tool in our arsenal to decrease our risk of suffering severe illness – or even death.  

Social distancing and sheltering at home are tools we are practicing to flatten the curve.  Although this won’t stop the virus from spreading altogether, it will help us from overwhelming the healthcare system.  We know that only a small percentage of people that get COVID-19 get really sick – but those that do, need a lot of resources – an ICU bed, a healthcare team that is qualified to take care of them – maybe even a ventilator. If too many people get this sick all at once and the resources can’t keep up, we run the risk of people dying simply from lack of access to these things.  So let’s keep working on flattening the curve!

However, in addition to taking care of society in general, we need to be working on taking care of ourselves!  We need to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to avoid being someone that needs an ICU bed and a ventilator!  

More than ever, it is time to take care of our bodies!  We know without a doubt, that a healthy body weathers illness better than an unhealthy one.  A healthy immune system fights infection better than a depleted one. A healthy immune system might be the difference between getting a mild infection that puts you in bed for a few days and an infection that sends you into the hospital.

So how do we get healthier – in a hurry? 

First, we know that higher intakes of specific nutrients appear to boost the immune system, probably by reducing inflammation. Nutrients that have been shown to help the immune system include vitamins A, C, D, E and some of the B-vitamins.  Other micronutrients like zinc, selenium, and iron have also been shown to be helpful.   

Although taking these nutrients in the form of supplements may be helpful, there has been a lot of debate in medicine about whether or not supplements really help our bodies.  We know without a doubt that people benefit from eating the whole foods that contain these nutrients; normal foods that you can find on the grocery store shelves like broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, red bell peppers, shellfish, almonds, hazelnuts, citrus fruits, berries and green tea.  

It is abundantly clear from studying prior infectious disease outbreaks that malnourished individuals have a higher risk of becoming ill, a longer duration and severity of illness and a greater risk of dying from the infection. Even a small decrease in risk from healthier eating could make a difference.  These foods are especially important in older adults and those with compromised immune systems, who are more at risk of getting a severe illness from Covid-19.  

We also know that regardless of age, people with chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are at increased risk of getting dangerously sick from Covid-19.  These conditions decrease the body’s ability to handle stress and mount a vigorous immune response to infection, probably by creating a chronic, low-grade inflammation throughout the body.   We think this low-grade inflammation could predispose these patients to develop severe inflammation that contributes to respiratory failure and death when they become infected with this new coronavirus.  

There has been a lot of speculation as to why The United States has a higher rate of severe infection and death related to Covid-19 than China and South Korea.  Perhaps it has to do with the overall health of our population. A 2019 report by the American Heart Association estimated that more than half of the US adult population has some form of cardiovascular disease or impaired glucose tolerance (diabetes or prediabetes) – or both.  One-third of us have high blood pressure.

I didn’t write this to be discouraging.  If you have one or more of these diagnoses, it doesn’t mean you should give up and accept the increased risk of severe illness.  It means you should do everything in your power to improve your disease and lower your inflammation!  

Given the right circumstances, it doesn’t take long for the body’s inflammation to decrease.  It may not be possible to completely cure your diabetes or high blood pressure or heart disease – these are diseases created by repetitive physical insults over time –  but doing these things can certainly work to lower the inflammation associated with them – almost immediately! And again, once your inflammation is lower, your immune system is stronger!

So how can you do this now?  

  1. Eat really well.  Over and over again:  Eat whole foods like the ones listed above:  fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and shellfish.  Eat a variety of them to ensure you get a wide variety of nutrients.  Most Americans are emptying the grocery store shelves of white rice, pasta and potatoes (foods that have no nutritional value and actually increase inflammation!). Don’t sit at home eating these foods that were designed to feed the masses during a famine – because this isn’t a famine – it’s a pandemic. We aren’t suffering from a lack of food.  Walk around the perimeter of the store and buy the health foods that people aren’t buying right now.  Most of these foods stay good for a long time – so don’t start making up stories about how healthy eating is going to increase your risk of exposure by forcing you to go to the store frequently to obtain them.  Finally, eat these foods instead of the junk foods that your brain wants you to eat – not along with them.  Adding a side of broccoli to a dinner of chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes isn’t going to do anything to lower your inflammation – the broccoli should be in place of the mashed potatoes – and the salmon should be in place of the chicken fried steak!
  1. Exercise every day:  Take a walk with the dog.  Till your flower beds. Put on a goofy dance video with the kids and make a fool of yourself in your living room.  If these aren’t an option, find an instructional video on YouTube and try it out. Then try another one tomorrow. Exercise doesn’t have to be done in a gym wearing workout clothes. Exercise can be done everywhere.  It should be done often. In addition to lowering your stress hormone levels and elevating your mood, it will also help you lower your inflammation. It will help your immune system.
  1. Sleep well and sleep enough:  Most Americans don’t sleep enough.  Mother nature designed our bodies to sleep for at least eight hours every day.  Think about this. The most important human need is to stay alive. We as a species have stayed alive for many years by making it a priority to acquire food, water, and shelter (and procreating to make more community members that will help us obtain food, water,and shelter).  In a world where we need to expend a great deal of time and energy to stay alive, we are also designed to spend a third of our life sleeping. Why is that? Because it’s the best way to rejuvenate our bodies to prepare for the next day of staying alive. However, most of us don’t value sleep.  We shortchange ourselves. In addition to not getting enough sleep, most of us don’t sleep well – we have screens blaring and beeping all night long. Ponder this: we are designed to have an oxygen saturation level of 99-100%. That’s our nature. That’s healthy. What if you made a conscious decision to do things that deprived your body of 20% of its oxygen saturation?  You would be less healthy. Your immune system would struggle. Not surprisingly, lack of sleep and poor sleep cause the body to weaken its immune system and increase inflammation! It’s time to fix this. If you have trouble sleeping, one of the best ways to remedy this (aside from getting rid of the screens and beeps) is to take slow deep breaths – in and out – over and over again.  This simple act allows the body to release stress and tension – something we could all use!

This has been a whirlwind of a few weeks for everyone.  We are all scared. We need to keep practicing social distancing to flatten the curve – to protect society as a whole.  We need to wash our hands and avoid touching our faces to minimize our risk of getting an infection. But, regardless of these things,  the reality right now seems to be that most of us are eventually going to get this virus. Most of us are going to be fine when we get it – but some of us are not.  

We need to be doing everything we can to improve our health and resistance to severe illness.  We need to work on lowering our inflammation. Sitting at home in front of a screen all day scrolling through fear-mongering news articles and eating junk food isn’t going to help anyone survive this.   We each need to make a conscious choice to live well and give our body the support it deserves.  

Eat well – move more – sleep plenty

Courtney Younglove, M.D.

Over ⅔ of Americans struggle with excess weight.  At Heartland Weight Loss, we use proven science to help people gain control over their weight and eating habits