0028 - How to get healthier in confinement
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Whilst confinement feels like a pain for most people, it can be a fantastic opportunity to spend quality time with your family, to relax, recharge your batteries and take care of yourself. What about giving your immune system some love, shed a few kilos or generally get healthier? It is a perfect time to form new habits that can remain part of your weekly routine once the confinement is over. Whenever an epidemic or a pandemic arises, the topic of how our immune system operates suddenly becomes of interest. Whilst an optimised immune system is by no means bulletproof to avoid catching viruses, it can definitely help fight pathogens, prevent an infection or reduce its severity or duration. And it is critical for our health and well-being no matter what. There are many well-researched nutrients, plant extracts and supplements that have been proven to strengthen our immune function and to help fight influenza and upper respiratory tract infections. They are definitely worth considering even if they have not been tested against the coronavirus. However, the best way to avoid a virus remains to avoid catching it in the first place. So, don't forget the basics and start with good hygiene and social distancing. It is never too late to start making dietary and lifestyle changes to support your immunity: benefits can be achieved in a matter of weeks. So, if you don't know what to do, this blog will get you started. Ready?
Don't stress, adopt of positive mindset and take action This is a difficult time for many, especially for those who are already frail or sick and for those who face uncertainty about their job or their financial situation. However, worrying about the virus, work, home schooling the kids, running out of toilet paper (!!) or just about going insane trapped within 4 walls, can only make things worse. Most of what is going on in the world right now is out of our control, but we can all take measures to control our stress response.
Stress is part of life. A little bit of stress forces us to adapt, which increases our health and resilience. However, when stress becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on our body and prevent us from dealing efficiently with challenging situations. Many studies have shown how excess stress can negatively affect our immune system, lower our body natural defences against viral infections and make us more vulnerable to illnesses.
Keeping a positive mindset is more important than ever to lower our stress levels and protect our immune system. So, every day, think about all the good things you have in your life. Spend some time identifying and reframing your stressful thoughts and take action!
Rather than ruminating about not being able to go to work (really??), to the pub, the mall or your favourite yoga class, consider all the things that you can do instead: spend quality time with your spouse, kids, pets or just taking care of yourself. Fix or tidy up stuffs around the house, work in the garden, read that book that has been sitting on your bedside table for months. Or it might be a great time to work on new business ideas, strategies or projects. I have covered several techniques that can help you lower your stress in my article Time to relax. If you are confined at home, be creative! You can sing to activate your parasympathetic system, or practice deep breathing, mindfulness or gratitude, or go for a walk in nature.
Most of us struggle to prioritise sleep. We need 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep to allow our body to rest and repair, but 1/3 of us get less than 7 hours per night. Sleep deprivation can cause many serious health issues: it lowers our immune function and increases the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity and depression.
Confinement might be the best time ever to catch up on sleep or, even better, to start adopting a healthy sleep routine. It might be the best medicine to strengthen your immune system. So, don't spend your nights bingeing on telly or chatting on social media. Instead, dim the lights after sunset or buy blue light blocking glasses from an online shop. Start winding down a couple of hours before bed. Dig out these good old board games or read an actual book (one that is made of paper). Try to fall asleep by 10 pm to maximise deep sleep and melatonin production. Melatonin is required to sleep well and is also a very powerful antioxidant that is very beneficial for our immune system. Last, keep your room dark, cool and quiet, and use an eye mask and ear plugs if necessary. See my 10 tips to improve your sleep.
In short, good sleep is key for health in general and can help you fight infections. One study observed that those who slept less than 7 hours per night were 3 times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept more than 8 hours. Now is not the time to play the odds!
Go out in the sun to boost your vitamin D levels Even with the current social distancing rules, it is still possible to spend time outdoors, on your balcony, in your garden, in the nearest park or in nature, as long as you go on your own, with the people you are confined with or with your dog. If you are completely confined, just moving your chair or desk by the window or in the direct sunlight could help! There are many benefits of getting sun exposure. Sunlight promotes the release of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and beta-endorphins. It also allows us to synthesise vitamin D and to produce nitric oxide, that are both essential for good health, good mood and a strong immune system. Optimised vitamin D levels help reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis and other health conditions. And supplementation even has a protective effect against respiratory-tract infections in those who are deficient. So, go out for a walk every day. Leave your phone behind, or take it to listen to your favourite tunes or podcasts, or to join conference calls or virtual meetings. A good starting point in temperate climates and if you have a medium complexion is to spend about 20 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, with your arms, legs and - if possible - back exposed. Find out how long you can stay in the sun without getting pink. You don't want to get sunburnt in the process! Taking a vitamin D supplement can be another option, although not as efficient as getting appropriate sun exposure that also promotes the release of nitric oxide. Check your blood vitamin D levels before taking a supplement, as too much can be toxic (which does not happen with reasonable sun exposure).
Combine sun exposure with grounding or earthing and double the benefits! Spend as much time as possible barefoot walking on the grass or in nature. Take your shoes off at home if you live on the ground floor and have conductive flooring. Direct contact with the surface of the earth allows electrons to penetrate into the body, which neutralises oxidative stress (a.k.a. free radicals) and decreases the excess voltage created by man-made dirty electricity and electromagnetic fields.
Start cooking your own wholesome meals If your are stuck at home and have some spare time on your hands, it is a fantastic opportunity to start cooking your own delicious nutritious meals. Forget about Uber Eat and take-aways. Don’t order burgers, fried foods or even so-called healthy wraps or salads that are loaded with refined carbs, added sugar, harmful processed vegetable oils and toxic preservatives and additives. All these ingredients are inflammatory, calorie-rich but nutrient-poor. Instead, when you cook your own meals, you control what ends up on your plate: tasty food that keeps you fuller for longer, packed with the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals that give you the energy you need and strengthen your immune system. Try new recipes. Or, if you don’t want to spend your afternoons cooking, batch cook meat or fish in the oven for the week. Then, grab a piece of cooked meat, add a few colourful veggies and microwave for a few minutes. Top up with some avocado, nuts or seeds, and your meal is ready. Easy! Add spices or herbs for variety, taste, as well as anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral benefits. Garlic, oregano, coriander, thyme, rosemary, sage, paprika, ginger, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon are all great choices. Garlic, in particular, has been shown to help prevent or recover quicker from a cold or the flu, thanks to its powerful anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. Add fresh raw garlic (not garlic powder) to your meals. Mince it and leave it to rest for a few minutes if you find the taste too strong. Otherwise, supplementation with encapsulated aged garlic extract can help as well. The more variety of fresh produces you eat, the wider range of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants you will get. Different coloured vegetables and fruits have different anti-oxidant qualities, different vitamins and minerals. Also, make sure to eat enough meat, fish and eggs that are rich in nutrients essential for our immune system, including proteins, cholesterol, iron and vitamin B6 (meat), selenium and zinc (red meat and oysters), and vitamin C and A (from liver and organ meats). Last, fermented foods are a great natural source of probiotics that feed the good gut bacteria, thus strengthening your immune system. For extra bonus points, buy organic fruits and vegetables, meat and eggs from pastured-raised animals that are fed their natural diet (i.e. not grains, antibiotics and hormones) and wild-caught fish. There are many cooperatives and companies that sell awesome organic food online, direct from the producers to the consumers and that promote regenerative agriculture. If cooking is really not for you (but you should try at least once), find delivery services that sell grilled meat or fish and vegetables or salads. Skip the bread and the barbecue or teriyaki sauce. If the meal comes with chips, rice, pasta or potatoes, ask for vegetables or salads instead.
A fresh produce-based nutrition ensures that your immune system has all the building blocks it needs to help fight and defeat infections. Did you know that 70 to 80% of our immune system lies in our digestive tract? Our gut microbiome plays a pivotal role in our immune response. So, let good wholesome unprocessed food be thy medicine!
Reduce sugar and carbohydrates and do NOT snack between meals! These are two healthy habits that deserved to be adopted, especially by those who would like to shed a few kilos or who are struggling with hunger, cravings, energy or mood swings. Confinement might be a great time to start, when there is less temptation around. No delightful bakery on your way to work, no vending machine full of chocolate bars, no birthday cake from a colleague. And once you have stopped eating excess carbs and sugar for a few weeks, your body will adjust, meaning much less hunger and cravings once you resume a "normal" life. If you have read my article Quit sugar, you are sweet enough, you know that sugar and refined carbs are extremely addictive and trigger the release of insulin that signals your body to convert them into fat. This is a natural hormonal response and neither willpower nor calorie restriction can do anything about it. A diet high in sugar and gluten can also deplete important nutrients such as vitamin C and zinc, dampen your immune response and increase inflammation, which can worsen the severity of an illness. Last, excess carbs or sugar is also associated with an increased risk of developing many diseases (diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, accelerated ageing, Alzheimer‘s, Parkinson's, dementia, mental issues, depression and hypertension). So, if your are confined and want to exercise your post-apocalypse skills, do not stock up on junk food or high-carb packaged foods. Replace excess carbs by healthy fats from avocados, coconuts, olives, eggs, fatty meat and fish. Another great way to reduce your carb and sugar intake is to upgrade your breakfast. Swap cereals, toasts, pastries and OJ for eggs and avocado with spinach, mushrooms or cherry tomatoes (no toast, sorry!). It will be beneficial for your waistline and will help you avoid the mid-morning "sugar-crash" and cravings. Or, if you are busy or not hungry, skip breakfast altogether and have a nice nutritious lunch: this is called "intermittent fasting" or "time restricted eating". Extending your night fast to 16 hours (dinner at 7pm and brunch at 11am for instance), without reducing total daily calorie intake, can be beneficial for fat loss, cellular repair, heart and brain health and inflammation reduction. It promotes a process called autophagy, whereby the body eliminates dead and damaged cells and it can also help to get rid of bacteria and viruses. A great habit to keep once you return to work! Last, and this is really important, do NOT snack between meals. If you are bored at home, this can be very tempting. However, any snack - even healthy - will raise your blood sugar levels, trigger the release of insulin and put you in a fat storage mode. Insulin drives excess blood glucose into your muscles (if you are physically active) and then into your fat cells. This causes your blood glucose and your energy to drop, and your hunger to come back a few hours later. Snacking will keep you from dropping these few extra kilos, even if you restrict your calories. The more often you eat, the more you keep storing fat.
Exercise most days Many studies have demonstrated the benefit of regular exercise on long-term health and to enhance the immune system (unless the exercise becomes too strenuous and prolonged). Those who exercise regularly tend to suffer fewer infections, recover quicker and maintain the immunity of a young person. So, if you are sedentary, now is a good time to start a daily exercise routine. See my blog exercise to get fitter, smarter and healthier. Go for a jog, a power walk, do body weight exercises in the park, or go for a swim or a bike ride. If you live in a big city and the confinement rules don’t even allow you to go out, improvise a dance competition with your spouse and kids, or start your day with a series of jumping jacks in your lounge. You can also buy a cheap mini-trampoline or a jump rope online. For body weight exercises, push up's, pull up's, crunches, dips, squats or lunges are great. Or grab something heavy or a set of dumbbells and pump up your biceps, triceps and shoulders. In short, stay physically active most days but don't overtrain. If you are an adept of marathons, super high-intensity interval training or strenuous cross-fit, consider decreasing the frequency or intensity of your workouts for now.
Supplement to optimise your immune system
I say optimise, rather than boost or supercharge, as it is all about balance. We don't want our immune system to be underactive, but we don't want it to be overactive either, as this can lead to irritable bowel, allergies or autoimmune diseases. However, we can absolutely support our immune system in its defence against pathogens.
Many supplements have shown great benefits on our immune function. I have covered them in my article What to do when you have the flu? To recap, give your immune system some love with the following vitamins, minerals and herbs that can help prevent viral infections or reduce the severity of illnesses. Again, that does not mean they will kill all the viruses, but they are worth considering, in addition to (not in replacement of!) a balanced and varied wholesome nutrition. However, before taking any supplement, check your blood levels for deficiency and talk to your healthcare practitioner, especially if you have a health condition.
Vitamin C has been all over the media lately. Between those who claim it will cure the coronavirus and the detractors who say it is totally useless, who should we believe? The research has shown that this vitamin is a powerful anti-oxidant, helps improve immune health, is involved in killing viruses and in the prevention of viral replication. Studies show conflicting results in term of illness prevention, but most agree that it can reduce the severity and duration of viral infections such as the flu or colds. Whilst it is unclear whether supplementing in vitamin C can be beneficial against COVID-19, there is generally no harm in taking up to 1 or 2 grams per day (the maximum recommended daily intake). Vitamin C is water-soluble and what we don't need is excreted into our urine, although high doses can cause diarrhea.
Some experts recommend a much higher dosage (such as 1 gram, 4 times a day, or up to bowel tolerance) in case of viral infection, to reduce its duration and severity. Intravenous vitamin C is already being employed in China against COVID-19, with some success, and the Shanghai Medical Association has published a consensus (in Chinese but you can ask Google to translate) on the treatment of the coronavirus, that includes vitamin C injected intravenously, with daily doses up to 200 mg per kilo of body weight. But don't try this at home!
This is why supplementation might be worth considering for those who feel tired, stressed, have a weakened immune system or are at high risk of developing complications. That said, most of us could benefit from eating plenty of vitamin C-rich foods. Here is roughly how much you can get from fruits and vegetables: guava 0.4g/cup; yellow capsicums 0.3g/cup; red capsicum 0.2g/cup; green capsicum or strawberries 0.1g/cup; orange or papaya 0.1g/fruit; broccoli, kale, pineapple or Brussels sprouts 0.08g/cup; grapefruit 0.07g /cup; kiwi 0.06g/fruit; lemon or lime 0.05g/fruit.
Zinc supports our immune system by helping the formation and development of immune cells. Studies have shown that zinc supplementation (especially zinc gluconate lozenges) can reduce the number, duration and the severity of colds, when taken within 24 hours of the onset of the first symptoms.
As for many other vitamins or minerals, it is advised to check blood levels before taking a daily zinc supplement and it is always better to prioritise a balanced and varied diet that can provide all the required nutrients. Good sources of zinc include red meat, shellfish (oyster, crab) and cheese. Some plant foods are also rich in zinc, such as legumes (lentils, chickpeas), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, hemp), nuts (cashews), unsweetened cocoa powder and quinoa, but they have to be soaked or fermented first to reduce the phytic acids that inhibit the absorption of this mineral.
Probiotics are another very good option to help fight the flu, colds and upper respiratory tract infections. Studies have observed that they help reduce the severity and duration of an infection. Probiotics enhance our immune system, reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract and down-regulate viral replication. The strains the most studied were bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, but other strains could work as well. Whilst taking a daily supplement could be an option, start by getting your probiotics from fermented food such as unsweetened full-fat plain yogurts, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, pickles, traditional buttermilk, nato and some cheeses.
Echinacea and elderberry extracts can also help prevent catching the flu or a cold, reduce the symptoms of an infection, and could be as efficient as standard antiviral medication. Both elderberry and certain species of echinacea (not all of them, which is why it is important to buy the correct extracts) contain anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory compounds that support our immune system and stop viruses entry and replication. One study observed that a complete cure of the flu was achieved within 2 to 3 days in 90% of the patients taking elderberry extracts (versus at least 6 days in the placebo group).
American ginseng and liquorice root also have anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can help prevent the flu, colds or upper respiratory infections. Liquorice root has even been tested against SARS-associated coronavirus in 2003 and was found efficient in inhibiting the virus replication. However, liquorice can affect blood pressure and stress levels and might be contraindicated in certain cases.
Last, N-acetylcysteine (or NAC) and glutathione are also powerful anti-oxidants than have been shown to inhibit the replication of the flu virus and to be effective at reducing the severity of pneumonia (for NAC).
Many others plant extracts or supplements have also been proven beneficial against the flu or colds, by strengthening the immune system or thanks to their anti-viral or anti-inflammatory properties: selenium, seaweed extract, yeast-based products, vitamin A, ginger, EPA and DHA (omega 3's), curcumin, astragalus, green tea...
In summary, enjoy fresh wholesome foods that are rich in vitamin C, zinc and probiotics, season your meals with garlic, herbs and spices and sip on herbal teas that contain echinacea, ginseng, liquorice or elderberry. Stay physically active most days and prioritise your sleep.
The more healthy habits you will adopt during your confinement, the better prepared you will be if you catch an infection. There is also a very good chance that you will feel better and more energised, which will motivate you to keep these new habits when life returns to normal. So, look at opportunities to get healthier now, so that you can remember confinement as a time of your life where you took care of yourself and improved your well-being! This article is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, heal or prevent any disease or medical condition. See full Disclaimer here. I encourage you to do your own research and to discuss with a qualified healthcare practitioner the options that could work the best for your specific circumstances.