Having worked in the field of natural health and healing for many, many years, I have found there are a few absolutes as far as what we all need to be doing to be metabolically well with good resilience to stress, modern life demands, and infectious disease. Despite everyone having individual genetic and metabolic predispositions, which may require some nuanced and careful management, most people, most of the time feel the benefit of doing a few simple, but vital things to support their health day to day. Consistency with the simple things is really, really effective, yet many people are overwhelmed by health advice, especially at this time of year, with the must do’s and must do not’s around food, sleep, exercise etc. causing healthy-lifestyle paralysis, not least because the advice is often contradictory and confusing.
I do my best to simplify and reassure but my reach is small. Critically, many, many people need help in implementing good health practices in a realistic way to ensure the changes become long-term, effortless habits, requiring little or no forethought, rather than trying to commit to something extreme where the effort is so great, it quickly fails. What’s the incentive? Well, to not only have the joy of feeling of physically and mentally well, energised and vital day after day, but critically, to also ensure good resilience in the face of a pandemic.
So, along comes Covid19. Just another flu virus to some but devastating, terrifying and clearly life altering for many. I have been really busy with people wanting information and support on what to do to best arm themselves against the Covid infection and more recently how to get themselves out of the misery of Long-Covid. People are looking, often desperately, for some agency, something tangible, practical and factual to support their immune responses and their overall metabolic health. This is great news, as we need to be advising, teaching, supporting children and adults alike, in the importance of being well, on a cellular level, so then, whatever comes our way, we are armed, ready and able to initiate a suitable immune response. Most people understand this, yet they often don’t have the know-how to achieve it and this leads to more fear, frustration and anxiety.
Thankfully, there does appear to be a general increase in people’s openness and willingness to being helped in the practicalities of staying healthy rather than simply knowing what to do once sick. But one key thing that people generally do not understand, or appreciate the significance of, is what inflammation is, where it comes from in the body, what the triggers are and its critical relevance to our ability to combat the inflammatory, potentially deadly nature of Covid19.
We have probably all heard, especially in the early days of Covid 19, about the cytokine storm. This is an inflammatory response by the body to the virus, which, if not appropriately managed, ideally by the body itself, can cause harm to self. When we have an infection, an injury , when we eat or drink something that is contaminated with a nasty pathogen, when we breathe in airborne infections, our staggeringly complex and brilliant immune system kicks in. The bone marrow goes into overdrive, producing white blood cells, especially macrophages, that trigger an inflammatory response to fight the invader or to mend the injury. This is how we survived as hunter-gatherers when we would have quite frequently eaten spoiled and infected food and battled with nature and its predators to find that food. This is a fabulously sophisticated, intelligent and lifesaving system that should be neither too revved up nor too sluggish.
But what if this system is over triggered? What if, rather than kicking in during times of injury or infection, the body is so overwhelmed with proinflammatory triggers due to many of our modern lifestyle choices, that the system is out of control and no longer intelligent enough to elicit an appropriate immune response that then turns off and calms down as soon as it is no longer required?
Then we become less able to heal, recover, renew and restore. We become systemically more vulnerable to internal damage be it in our brain, our joints, our cells, our organs, our blood vessels. We all have our individual biological vulnerabilities that make us more prone in some areas than others. If the body is overwhelmed by inflammatory triggers and stuck in over-rev mode, the immune system can being to ‘attack self’ by mistake with the weakest chink in your biological chain showing the effects first.
Why is this relevant right now? Because if we are to be immunologically intelligent, armed and at the ready to overwhelm the Covod19 virus, should we be exposed, then we have to live a life that supports an internal environment of lying in wait for such an event but not so gung-ho that it rampages out of control. Inflammation: it must be managed otherwise we are vulnerable in so many ways to such much disease.
There are many, many, many things that trigger inflammation internally, some of which are simply your daily bodily functions. However, much of modern-day food and drink is extremely proinflammatory – see below for the worst culprits (there are no real surprises). But before I go into foods to eat less of and those to eat more of, did you know that just the act of eating causes inflammation! This makes sense when we look again at evolution. Pre-refrigeration and food sanitation, we would have been exposed to many potentially deadly pathogens in the things we consumed. Therefore, every time we eat, the body’s immune system is triggered in case it has to fight off any nasties. That means, the more often you eat, the more you are inflamed. So without even starting on what’s healthy to eat, just try and eat less often: don’t snack, eat well-balanced, hearty meals and then wait to get hungry before eating again.
Breakfast, as we understand it today, is not the most important meal of the day, esp. if consisting of highly processed cereals, pastries, toast and jam etc.. Breakfast is the breaking of your night time fast and that can be at any time, including midday or 1pm, it certainly doesn’t have to be as soon as you get up. When we were living off the land, we had to go out and hunt or gather our food before we could eat anything, so get up, get moving and wait to get hungry. Be curious about your hunger and need for food, stop the endless eating just because you can, just because it’s nice, just because you’re bored. There is a price to pay, even if you’re not someone that readily puts on weight. Eating well is so, so, so much more than keeping at a healthy weight. It’s about deep nutrition, cellular nourishment, providing the tiniest amounts of critically important nutrients that allow our cells, our hormones, our immune system and our nervous system to communicate and regulate, heal and balance.
Wait and see if you actually need to eat first thing or if you only do it because we’ve had it drummed into us that we must eat as soon as we get up or else our energy will crash and our brains won’t work. Well, guess what our body fat if for?… to fuel the body while we are not eating. Even skinny people have reserves of body fat to fuel function. We need food for nourishment, not just for energy. These critical messages are not associated with what we eat, how we eat, why we eat – this has to change.
It you are someone that struggles with keeping at a healthy weight, carrying more body fat than is healthy means you are more prone to being inflamed and have a greater risk of having a tough time with Covid or any other infection as an excess of body fat is proinflammatory, producing cytokines and there is some suggestion that viruses replicate in fat cells. Hence we have been hearing since this time last year, that the overweight, obese, those with cardiac issues and type 2 diabetics are more vulnerable – these are metabolic issues . This is not me being sizeist or fattist, it’s simple, biological fact: a body fat percentage above around 25% for women and 20% for men, begins to add to metabolic risk and damage. Knowing one’s body fat percentage is hard to gauge because this has relatively little to do with what you weigh and requires a sophisticated measurement tool. A good, simple way to measure whether or not you have a healthy body composition, a far more useful measure than what you weigh, is if your waist measurement is equal to or less than half your height. So, if you are 155cm tall, your waist measurement should be 77 ½ cm or less. In ‘old money’, if you are 5 feet 9 inches tall, that’s 69 inches, so your waist should measure 34 ½ inches or less.
Many of the Long-Covid patients I am working with are not, in fact, overly fat. Many are not elderly and classically vulnerable, rather they are conscientious in their bid to be healthy, with good food choices and a sensible approach to exercise, yet they cannot shake the awful post-viral experience of Long-Covid. What this cohort do have in common is a high stress, high pressure life where they have been chronically deprived of enough quality sleep while juggling children, elderly parents, busy careers resulting in little recovery time. These patients are deeply, physically and mentally tired and have been for long periods of time, often years. Alcohol often features as a sedative to blur the edges, further affecting quality sleep, inflammation and immune function, and now, with Covid restrictions, these middle-aged, often female patients are hitting an emotional and psychological overwhelmed to an alarming degree, with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness exacerbating the sense that they are losing control of their body, mind and life as they knew it.
I am beginning to wonder if some of these symptoms of Long-Covid are, at least in part, due to the psychological stress the lockdowns have brought: the loss of routine and social interaction; the isolation and constant unknowing of what’s coming, is contributing to this sometimes months long illness manifesting in different ways, from constant brain fog and brain fatigue where concentration and recall of information is virtually impossible; to muscle and joint aches; headaches; nausea, gastric pain and diarrhea; loss of appetite; general malaise and feeling low, hopeless, despairing.
So we need to be clear, the Covid19 virus not only causes inflammation and damage to the lungs. Many patients, esp. those with Long-Covid are showing inflammatory damage in the heart tissue, kidneys, nervous system and brain and it also causes inflammation in the gut lining. There is an incredibly delicate, one cell thick lining of the intestine that hosts much of our immune system (hence reacting to the foods we eat). If this lining gets damaged, inflamed, over-triggered, we compromise our immune intelligence and we experience gastric distress. We also become more prone to ‘leaky gut’, a breaking down of the gut lining, allowing pathogens, proteins, bacteria and other contents of the intestine, that should only ever be in the digestive system, to ‘leak’ into the blood supply. This further activates an already active immune system, another cytokine storm. What helps fix a damaged, inflamed and leaky gut?… giving the digestive system a rest! Not eating so often, maybe drinking some nourishing bone broth or miso soup for a couple of days and hey presto! the gut lining can heal, deflame, become functional and protective again. The body, not just the digestive system, is A-MAZ-ING at healing itself, but healing only happens when the body is not in high-alert, inflamed, stressed, defense mode. Eating (esp. eating too often and certain foods), stress, too little sleep, too much or too little exercise, too much alcohol, pollution, smoking- the usual culprits, all charge up, challenge, damage and leave us vulnerable to attack by pesky, very smart viruses.
There is so much information out there, so much so that it can be utterly overwhelming and paralyzing. I am guilty of this, even in this blog, so here’s my simple summary.
We do not want to ‘boost’ the immune system, as we keep hearing, we want to ensure it is intelligent, fully primed and ready for action as and when is needed, but not overly reactive as to cause a constant wear and tear on the body. The things we can all be doing day to day to help this:
- Eat Less Often: stop snacking and leave at least 12 hours from last calories to first calories the next day.
- Eat When Hungry, Stop When Full: rather than automatically eat as soon as you wake, hydrate with water, maybe some tea or coffee and then move. Earn your food, your body will utilize it so much better and you will feel so much better. Constantly digesting is exhausting and inflaming
- Eat Less Sugar (or try stopping it all together – we don’t need it!): sugar not only depletes the body of nutrients while contributing nothing of value, sugar also drives up cytokine production resulting in increased inflammation. Sugar can increase the impact of a viral infection because high blood sugar levels open ACE2 receptors on cell walls, allowing the virus to get in to cells. Sugar consumption also negatively affects our healthy gut microbes, which are there to support our immune responses.
- Prioritise Your Sleep: it’s where we mend and reset, where we burn fat and calm inflammation. Going to bed at the same time, getting up at the same time and getting early morning daylight exposure are all really helpful, as is not eating late.
- Ensure Your Vitamin D Levels are Optimal: this is not just about being in range, the range of what is medically considered acceptable is huge. Being at the low end of range means disease prevention, i.e. you won’t get rickets, but we all need to be well in range if we are to have a smart, responsive, well balanced immune system. Most people will need a supplement most of the time, it’s just too hard to get enough from food, especially during the winter where we can’t top up with sun exposure.
- Reduce / Avoid Highly Processed Foods: eat more whole foods. Simple, not hard, but it does take a bit of time and effort compared to opening a packet of something ready-made. However, the difference to your health outcomes will be huge.
- Fibre (different types) is Critical for a Healthy Gut Microbiome: the trillions of microbes that live in the gut and help regulate immune function, appetite, metabolism, digestion, all feed on fibre. The more types of fibre from a wide range of vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts seeds and fruit, the smarter your gut microbes.
- Move More, Sit Less: it’s not about lots of formal exercise it’s about regular activity. Don’t sit for long periods, stretch, walk, take some deep breaths and try and do at least some of the things you would normally do while seated, standing up.
- Do Whatever You Can to Better Manage Stress – yes it’s really, really tough right now, but chronic exposure to stress hormones causses chronic inflammation
We all need to want to be well, rather than hoping we can get fixed when illness occurs. Prevention has to be the solution, not symptom management. Allow your body to heal you by limiting the daily assaults you subject it to. There is so much we can do to help ourselves, it’s our body, it’s our responsibility.