If you’re like most people, you’ve read a lot of tips on avoiding COVID-19. You likely know the basics: Wash your hands; keep a safe distance from others; avoid travel and quarantine yourself if you have traveled; and don’t go out at all if you experience any symptoms.
However, it’s also important to acknowledge that staying healthy starts on the inside. The defense system we all need to take care of in these crazy times is our immune system.
Yet here’s the irony: When we are stressed, our immunity becomes weaker. And right now, we’re all stressed about sickness among other things. Just when we all need a strong immune system, chronic stress has the potential to weaken our defenses.
Why does stress weaken immunity? The process makes perfect sense if you think of how we lived for most of human history.
Not too long ago, if we perceived a threat, such as a predatory animal in the wild, we had to respond – and quickly! In that sense, our body is primed to protect us.
Let’s take a look at the “flight or fight” response and how stress changes us on a physiological level.
All of these changes are designed to make sure that you have enough energy in the right places - ie the arms and legs - to respond to stress appropriately - ie fight or run.
That’s because your body wants to put all of its resources into dealing with the immediate threat. This response is actually very helpful – if you need to escape a predator. However, in today’s world, stress is typically more chronic and, let’s face it, unrelenting.
And that’s where the problems start.
Our body’s ability to respond to stress is called “adaptive physiology.” To understand this, it might help to think of your nervous system as actually two systems:
Essentially, the way in which these two systems work together is not unlike the brakes and gas pedals in your car. One speeds you up, and the other slows you down.
Ideally, your body adapts depending on the situation. The Relax and Recharge period is essential to restoring balance in mind and body.
Putting The Breaks On Stress
Right now, many of us feel like the “gas” is always on, which is a perfectly understandable response when faced with a global crisis.
However, that kind of constant stress can lead to a long list of health problems if the sympathetic nervous system never turns off.
What happens to a car if you only touch the gas and never use the brakes? There’s a high likelihood of a crash.
Not surprisingly, your immune system suffers when you’re heading for a crash. All the things that happen during your flight or fight response can lower your immunity. And that’s exactly what you don’t want to happen right now.
So, what can you do? Isn’t stress inevitable at this moment in history? A good starting point is thinking of the two states of your immune system and doing what you can to reach a state of rest and restoration.
How you perceive a stressful situation will affect your body’s response to it. Perhaps you’re social distancing and feeling trapped and restless inside your home. That’s stressful. However, consider the difference between feeling stuck at home and feeling safe at home. That simple mental shift can help your nervous system remain in a restorative mode.
Don’t forget: You always have the opportunity to change your attitude.
In times of stress, you should be close to people who restore your sense of wellbeing. It’s important to feel connected and accepted, because a feeling of connection can boost your immunity. However, how can you connect to others while also social distancing?
Fortunately, we’re lucky to live at a time with many options for video chats. Set up virtual coffee dates and regular meetings to touch base with those people who make you feel connected.
Many people are having trouble sleeping right now. However, it’s more important than ever to try to get between seven and eight hours a night. Even if your normal routine is disrupted, try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. That means going to bed at the same time every night (yes, even on weekends). As well, don’t dismiss the restorative powers of a good nap.
We’re all under a lot of pressure right now. Take a close look at your commitments and think of how you can eliminate any unnecessary stress. Remember that the goal is to rest your nervous system.
What makes you feel refreshed and restored? Those are the activities to focus on.
Many studies backup the importance of essential nutrients in protecting your immunity. The ideal diet and supplements for you will depend on your unique health profile, but important nutrients include selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and D. In addition, don’t overlook the importance of maintaining a balance of “good bacteria” in your gut. More and more research points to the connection between a healthy gut and a healthy immune system.
In fact, up to 80 percent of your immune cells are found in your gut. The interaction between your gut microbiota and your immune system helps protect you against foreign pathogens.
Exercise can help your body’s nervous system maintain equilibrium. It can slow down the release of stress hormones and increase the number of disease-fighting white blood cells. As well, movement helps to regulate the communication between your brain and your body.
However, it’s important to move in a safe way – any irregularities in your body’s alignment can affect this process. Focus on doing something you love and making exercise a part of your daily routine. Consistency is the key! If you’re not sure exactly how to work out with gym closures, check out the multitude of workouts you can find online.
Even in stressful times, it’s possible to optimize your immune system. Focus on your body’s need to restore and repair itself and prioritize your self-care. Taking steps towards staying healthy can help you gain a sense of control in an uncertain world. And that will ultimately strengthen your response to stress.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, please reach out. We can work together to create a plan that fits your unique needs!