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Taking Good Care of Ourselves in a Challenging Time

bonnie_handwashingBy Benjamin Kligler, MD
It goes without saying that these times are difficult—and not something any of us have ever experienced before. Dealing with a crisis that isn’t within our frame of reference—or even that of our parents—is uniquely stressful. But it might help to remember that a good number of things that are very familiar to us can make a huge difference in keeping us and our loved ones safe, and ultimately in moving us as a society through this period successfully. Here are a few of those familiar things:

  1. Wash your hands! This one goes without saying—our mothers told us this non-stop growing up and we should be telling each other this every day. Hand hygiene and trying to reduce the frequency with which we touch our faces are probably the two most important things we can do to keep ourselves safe. But it can help motivate and reinforce our attention to doing these simple behaviors when we realize that when we do this faithfully, we are also contributing dramatically to the public health and to the well-being of everyone around us—for me at least that is at least as strong a motivator as the impact on my own well-being. And once we move out of the current period of social distancing, washing hands will become even more important—because even if we are more likely to get exposed to COVID at that point, handwashing can still help lower the risk of infection.
     
  2. Get enough sleep! Studies have shown that sleeping less than five hours a night can increase the risk of contracting other respiratory viruses by more than three times when compared to sleeping seven or more hours per night.[1] Sleep is known to have a positive influence on immune function overall—definitely worth paying attention to during this period.
     
  3. Be proactive in managing stress! Like adequate sleep, effective stress management is known to significantly improve immune function.[2]  This is a challenging time emotionally for everyone. Choosing and staying with some kind of daily practice—even one that’s five minutes long, or three—can help smooth the rough edges in our moods and in our relationships as well as potentially reducing our chances of infection. The free app Insight Timer (https://insighttimer.com/) is just one of many easily accessible sources for simple, brief relaxation, mindfulness, or guided imagery exercises you can build into your daily routine. You may even choose to continue this practice into the post-COVID future once you start to experience some of the benefits.
     
  4. Eat your fruits and vegetables! Flavonoids and other nutrients found in many fruits and vegetables can be essential for supporting good immune function.  Five to seven servings of fruits or vegetables daily is a good goal, though whatever you can manage will be worth it.

These are simple steps—but potentially critical in reducing our chances of infection, or reducing our chances of getting very ill if we do become infected. A few other ideas might be worth considering, especially if you are older or not in generally good health. Taking Vitamin D supplements may be worthwhile: a recent study found that people with severe Vitamin D deficiency had much higher mortality from COVID than those with normal Vitamin D.[3] Those with normal Vitamin D will not necessarily benefit from supplements—so this is really about making sure elderly folks, who are much more likely to be deficient, take a supplement to boost their levels.  Vitamin C, zinc and melatonin supplements may have some theoretical benefit too as they can be helpful in preventing some other types of viral respiratory infections and maintaining healthy immune function—but we really do not know for sure yet if these will have any impact on COVID-19.

Bottom Line: Take the simple steps of handwashing, adequate sleep, proactive stress management and healthy eating to support your immune system and stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will all get through this together!
 

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.

 



[1] Prather AA, et al. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep. 2015;38(9):1353-9.

[2] Black D and Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):13.

[3] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200507121353.htm

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