Girl Planting seeds

Crisis and Opportunity

UV_light_shutterstock_1678636204By Dr. Ben Kligler
When I last wrote, the COVID-19 pandemic was just recently upon us, and we were geared up for a tough but (we assumed) time-limited spell of social distancing and other preventive measures. Now that we are six months into the crisis with no immediate relief in sight, we need to revisit our options for staying healthy from the perspective of a long-distance race rather than a sprint.

One important piece of the puzzle we have in place now that we did not a few months ago is an understanding of what puts people at increased risk for a severe case of COVID-19 if they do get it—and fortunately there are things we can do to reduce that risk. People with diabetes, for example, have an increased risk of complications if they have poorly controlled blood sugar.[i]  But people with well-controlled diabetes do not have the same level of risk. If you or your family or friends have diabetes which is currently not under good control, take the simple (simple but not always easy!) steps you need to get there: eat a plant-based diet with limited intake of high-glycemic index foods which convert into sugar rapidly in your bloodstream; take your medications regularly if you are on medication; increase your physical activity, ideally to a total of 150 minutes per week; and try to lose 5-10 pounds. If you take these steps over the next month or two, you can significantly reduce your risk of severe complications if you do get COVID during the “next wave.” A nutritionist or health coach can be extremely helpful in the process and can work with you virtually just as effectively as in person. So if you haven’t taken the step yet of seeing one, that’s a great idea right now.

Similarly, both hypertension and being overweight increase the risk of COVID-19 complications. Both of these are conditions which can be addressed with lifestyle methods. Perhaps for some of us, a ”silver lining” of the pandemic might be the increased motivation to get our blood pressure and weight under control to reduce our risk of serious complications if we become infected. The DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension)[ii] can take 10 points off your blood pressure in just 2-4 weeks, reducing your COVID complication risk and potentially taking a bit of weight off at the same time. The core of the diet is very high intake of fruits and vegetables, limiting fats and reducing salt. Not to say changing diet is easy—but thousands of people have done this successfully, so maybe we can too, with the added motivation of getting healthier to reduce our COVID risk.

My last suggestion on reducing risk is for all of us, not just those of us with diabetes or hypertension. Social isolation and uncertainty about the future are experiences we all share right now—both significant stressors which can potentially make our immune systems less effective.[iii] Now that we know that both of these stressors might be part of our lives for quite a while, we should all be taking active steps to counteract their impact on our psychological and physical health. And those steps can be simple ones! Call a friend, or a family member you haven’t been in touch with for a while. Make it a point to pay attention to connecting regularly with people who are important to you. Find something to do every day that takes your stress down a notch—and the studies show that this could be any of a wide range of things, including meditation and yoga, but also including being outdoors, physical activity, or doing something creative like writing or drawing. Maybe you can even tackle the stress and the social isolation at the same time by enlisting a friend or family member as your “stress management buddy” and doing one or more of these activities together. Having a partner to help hold you accountable to your goals can help you stay on track as well —much like a health coach or a personal trainer would do but without the price attached!

Crises like COVID-19 can be frightening—but they can also present us with motivation and opportunity to make changes we know we need to make but have not had the motivation or commitment to follow through on. The coming 6-12 months give us the opportunity to make changes which can stand us in good stead during the pandemic—but also beyond and into a healthier future.

Dr._KliglerDr. Kligler is the Medical Advisor for The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®. He is also the National Director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center for the Veterans Health Administration and Research Director for the Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. He was the founding  Director  of the Beth Israel Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine, and teaches in the Beth Israel Residency Program in Urban Family Practice. Dr. Kligler is the author of Curriculum in Complementary Therapies: A Guide for the Medical Educator, and co-editor of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.

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