By Dr. Pier Boutin, MD
Let’s face it, Covid-19 has done a great job at exposing our health vulnerabilities. We now know that women (and men) with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other chronic conditions have a greater risk of a severe case of Covid, including death or long term damage.
If you’re managing a chronic condition, you already know you need to be extra careful to avoid infection. But that doesn’t mean you should just hide in your home because you’re helpless to defend yourself. There’s a lot you can do to support your underlying health — always a good idea, but never more so than now!
What steps does this involve? Here are some key lifestyle changes that anyone can make towards stronger and more robust health.
Ditch the sugar and follow a whole food, plant-predominant diet
Eating too many sugary foods is associated with weight gain around the waist and adipocytes (fat cells) that produce inflammatory cytokines. Recent research suggests that these inflammatory cytokines (TNF-alpha and interleukins) are a factor in the “cytokine storms” that have been linked to more severe Covid-19 infections, complications and long-term side effects. These cytokines are also likely contributors to other inflammation-based diseases.
To give your daily diet a low-sugar makeover, start by eliminating foods with added sugar and “white carbs” — including white bread, pasta, rice and other high glycemic foods that spike blood glucose levels and place added stress on the body.
As you take away sugar, add back in more vegetables and healthy sources of protein, preferably with each meal, to stabilize blood sugar and provide your body with antioxidant vitamins, minerals and key micronutrients. Remember that no amount of broccoli “cancels out” eating a donut. It’s time to make a choice, and I encourage you to choose health.
Activate the key benefits of exercise
Exercise helps burn fat, increase circulation and reduce inflammation. In turn, these benefits help to reduce risk for inflammation-related health conditions like diabetes and hypertension.
How much do you need to exercise? Aim for about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, 5-7 days a week. You know you’re “in the zone” when you’re somewhat out of breath while exercising. Get in the habit of going on brisk walks after you eat — this does wonders for blood glucose metabolism. You can also try strength training to protect your bones and prevent falls.
Get restorative sleep
People who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s — among other health risks. Those links show the power of sleep in supporting healthy immune function and healing.
Not getting enough of the sleep you need? Take stock of what’s standing in the way — and then take steps to eliminate sleep disruptors.
If too much screen time right before bed is keeping you awake, put away computers, phones and other blue light emitting devices about 2 hours before bedtime. (Their blue light suppresses the melatonin that helps you sleep well.) Feel tense at the end of another long day? Take a hot bath in magnesium-rich Epsom salt to help you relax and explore if a natural sleep supplement with magnesium can help. Sleeping in a room that is slightly cooler than the rest of your home may also help you you drift off. If your sleep patterns need a true reset, try taking melatonin to help restore your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Chronic, unrelenting stress results in a chronic state of “flight or fight” that is damaging both to your hormonal health and your overall wellness. Chronic stress is also a driver of chronic inflammation at the root of so many diseases.
To start reducing your stress load, you must first identify the factors that created excessive stress in your life in the first place. Once you know what’s stressing you out, you can then take healthy actions to reduce this stress burden, such as rearranging your schedule or saying no more often to added obligations. Relaxation techniques vary from mediation and deep breathing to arts and crafts other relaxing hobbies to sports. Exercise is a wonder for reducing stress and helping you sleep better. The important thing is to do what works for you.
Limit alcohol, and quit smoking
Consuming too much alcohol on a regular basis triggers inflammation and impairs the body’s ability to repair itself because it inhibits the generation of new cell growth. An occasional glass of red wine is fine and gives you a nice dose of resveratrol, a potent anti-inflammatory polyphenol.
Need more reasons to quit smoking? Cigarette smoke constricts blood flow (worsening hypertension risk), increases your risk for lung infections and decreases your body’s ability to heal itself. Smoking also put you at risk for heart disease and cancer. You know it’s important to quit, so get a plan together and just do it.
During this time of social isolation, loneliness can be devastating. Some compare loneliness to the negative effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! It’s imperative to connect with positive people in your life and maintain your close relationships.
Of course, this is easier said than done during the pandemic, but look for ways that Zoom and other technology can help you stay connected. Get together for a Zoom holiday carol sing-a-long to lift everyone’s spirits, or use Netflix’s plug-in for synced viewing and watch a holiday movie “together” even if you are in your different homes.
Wouldn’t it be great to come through this pandemic feeling healthy and well and supported by your friends and family?
We have so many other great resources for supporting your health during the pandemic. You can read my companion blog, “A surprising side effect of the pandemic? For many, it’s joint pain” for even more tips for easy lifestyle changes that can help you keep you feeling well during this challenging time.