Many of my clients are asking me what they should eat to shore up their immune system against the dreaded Coronavirus.

While there are no miracle foods or supplements that will protect you, there are many things you can do to support your body’s protections against infection and disease. In an ideal world,  you’d already be practicing these; but if you’re not, now is a great time to start!

This is particularly important if you are over 60 years old or have an underlying health condition (including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure,  chronic respiratory diseases, autoimmune disease or are undergoing cancer treatment), as these factors increase your risk of severe symptoms and, potentially, death from COVID-19.

However, younger people are also at risk. According to a report issued yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 508 patients known to have been hospitalized, 38 percent were notably younger — between 20 and 54. And nearly half of the 121 patients who were admitted to intensive care units were adults under 65, the C.D.C. reported.

To support my clients of all ages, I wanted to write a post listing ways to support immune health. As I wrote it, it got longer and longer and so I decided to break it up into bite-sized morsels for ease of digestion and assimilation. Today’s kick-off post looks at stress, which puts us at risk of so many diseases, including the flu.

Stress saps immune strength

My client Shirley has been experiencing powerful urges to drink alcohol in the evenings, something she never usually does. Another client, Karen, tells me she’s feeling teary and overwhelmed and craves cookies all day. Both are retired and have spent the past week at home, intently following news reports of coronavirus spread, overcrowded hospitals, governmental incompetence and panic-shopping, and have been getting sucked into a vortex of apocalyptic angst.

Feeling out of control in an unpredictable situation can trigger a powerful fight-or-flight response and the secretion of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These raise our blood pressure and glucose levels, cause digestive problems, mood swings, sleep problems and a weakened immune system. All these physiological changes make us more vulnerable to infection. So in these viral times it’s essential to keep manage our stress.

Countless studies show that chronically elevated cortisol causes inflammation. It has also been shown to increase susceptibility to a variety of conditions, such as autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, depression, cancer and infection.

In a 1991 study, participants’ stress levels were assessed before they were administered five different viruses that cause the common cold, three strains of rhinovirus and one strain of respiratory syncytial virus. Rate of infection was 5.81 times higher in highest-stress participants compared to lowest-stress folks (independent of which virus they were exposed to), and rate of developing a cold was 2.16X higher.

More recently, a 2019 study looked at susceptibility to life-threatening infections in people with stress-related disorders (including post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], acute stress reaction, and adjustment disorder) compared to their siblings who didn’t have stress-related disorders, and compared to people from the general population.  A stress-related disorder diagnosis increased risk of life-threatening infections by 47% compared to siblings and 58% compared to the general population. PTSD, in particular, increased the risk of life-threatening infection by 92% compared to siblings and 95% compared to the general population.

In a series of studies over 20 years at Carnegie Mellon University, volunteers were exposed to the cold virus and then quarantined for observation. The researchers found that people who reported less stress in their lives were less likely to develop cold symptoms.

My favorite health writer, Tara Parker-Pope at the New York Times, describes another fascinating study showing how stress affects our immune health. Meanwhile, scientists at Ohio State University found that marital conflict is especially taxing to the immune system.

In a series of studies, the researchers inflicted small wounds on the arms of volunteers, and then asked couples to discuss topics both pleasant and stressful. When couples argued, their wounds took, on average, a full day longer to heal than after the sessions in which the couples discussed something pleasant. Among couples who exhibited especially high levels of hostility, the wounds took two days longer to heal.

Tried-and-tested stress busters

When I asked Shirley and Karen how they thought they might reduce their anxiety, both said they would limit their news-watching to an hour a day at most.

I also suggested they find activities that make them feel engaged and fulfilled, such as a daily walk, a regular schedule of calls to friends and family, craft or home-improvement projects they’ve been saving for a quiet moment (e.g., scrap-booking, organizing family and vacation photos, gardening (a study on substance abuse treatments found that gardening led to decreased levels of cortisol), spring-cleaning, etc.. Shirley said she’d like to take a crack at the pile of books that have been gathering dust on her bedside table.

As for me, here’s what I’m doing to take the edge off my corona-stress:

  • Aggressively minimizing my exposure to news. Once a day I check the CDC’s Covid-19 web page for updated guidelines and 1-2 times a day I check Colorado Governor Jared Polis’s Instagram feed that features updates on developments in Colorado, where I live. I allow myself read 2-3 articles in the New York Times each morning. I completely avoid watching TV footage or even photographs relating to eh crisis which are much more emotionally triggering than back-on-white newspaper reports.
  • Prioritizing sleep (when I sleep less than seven hours I am much more prone to feeling anxious and overwhelmed)
  • Taking a daily 45-60 minute walk (spending time in nature can significantly lower cortisol levels — in Japan this is called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), and it’s free and easy when all other public activities are curtailed
  • Meditating (I use the Calm app)
  • Planning and cooking nutritious, delicious Mediterranean meals – both to nourish my body and to occupy my mind and hands
  • Listening to uplifting, calming music; my favorite music app is Swiss National Radio’s classical music station, which plays one lovely piece after another with no advertising and minimal talk
  • Vacuuming my apartment and keeping my kitchen super-clean (this may make me sound like a neat freak — which I’m really not — but it makes me feel in control of at least some small part of my life)
  • Planning my day each morning to give structure to my day (important when you’re on an enforced semi-vacation and might be tempted to stop showering, getting dressed and eating regular meals)
  • Watching uplifting films (I challenge you to watch Happy and not feel uplifted by it)
  • Taking warm Epsom-salt baths before bedtime
  • In the evenings, I often light a fire, a candle or two, and diffuse soothing lavender essential oil in my aromatherapy burner
  • Reading books I have that have been piling up for ages, including Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Daniel Klein’s “Travels with Epicurius,” Tara Swart’s “The Source” and a wonderful book about the health benefits of walking, “In Praise of Walking,” by neuroscientist Shane O’Mara.
  • Working my way through a long queue of podcasts I have downloaded and never found the time for.
  • Connecting with family and friends via Zoom and WhatsApp. 
  • Talking with people who have been through harder times than these (my mother lived through WW2 and a dear friend survived the Holocaust; talking with them about the terrors and deprivations they experienced puts the current crisis into perspective)
  • Staying present and taking it one day at a time. When I worry about things I can’t control and make contingency plans for every possible emergency, I am no longer in the present. In the present, everything is fine. When and if things stop being fine, I’ll do what needs to be done. Until then, I’ll try to live in accordance with Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:God, grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

When the next wave of anxiety threatens to engulf you, I suggest you listen to this wonderful musical rendition of the Serenity Prayer by one of my favorite jazz singers, Rene Marie:

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