The key weapons we have in this fight against COVID-19 are containment and mitigation.
A lot has been shared about containment strategies by the Centers for Disease Control: social distancing, hand washing for at least 20 seconds, surface cleaning, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth are all containment techniques. Please, review the guidelines at cdc.gov/coronavirus.
There is less information about mitigation, or minimizing the severity of the disease if we are infected.
According to a study published in Lancet that focused on Wuhan, China, findings, people most at risk are those who have chronic diseases, with high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease being the three most common. Also at risk are those who have weakened immune systems and increased inflammation.
Managing your immune response
Ultimately, the goal is to have a healthy, appropriate immune system response. If the immune system “under-responds,” the virus’s symptoms will be more severe.
If the immune system is overstimulated, your white blood cells are more likely to attack healthy lung tissue and cause further damage, contributing to the problem, instead of helping.
The goal is to create a healthy/strengthened immune system - not to boost and not to suppress it. You want the “Goldilocks” of immune responses: not too little, not too much, but just right.
What can be done?
Here, lean on what I call the four pillars of lifestyle modification: diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep.
Diet. By implementing a nutrient-dense, whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet or, more specifically, what I call a “Low Inflammatory Foods Everyday (LIFE) diet,” you can rapidly improve or even reverse these chronic diseases, decrease inflammation and strengthen your immune system, which will decrease your chances of dying from the virus.
With a healthy immune system, the response likely will be targeted instead of a disproportionately large response that kills the virus but also healthy lung tissue.
To incorporate LIFE diet habits, focus on fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables and legumes. This is very important. With vegetables, the focus should be on dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, bok choy, kale, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as mushrooms. More is better. You cannot have too much.
For fruits, apples have shown to play an important role in lung health, and all types of berries have high anti-inflammatory effects.
WFPB diets ultimately help with inflammation and immune strengthening and support reduced stress and better sleep. The reason may have to do with the microbiome, the microbes living in your gut, where 70 percent of your immune cells are.
Stress management and exercise. Please, don’t panic. When you stress, your body releases cortisol, or internal steroids, that weaken the immune system and increase your risk of serious infection. Techniques to reduce your stress include exercise, yoga and meditation.
Mild to moderate exercise can be effective, such as a walk or jog outdoors or up and down the steps of your home. Just because the gyms may be closed does not mean you can’t get exercise.
You can also exercise your lungs using an incentive spirometer. Take 10 breaths using the incentive spirometer twice a day to help expand your lungs and keep the aveoli healthy and open.
Sleep. Exercise and diet will also help with sleep. Getting enough quality sleep is important to strengthening the immune system. Quality, not quantity, is most crucial.
What if you are infected?
If you are infected, supportive care is most critical: stay hydrated; focus on foods with fluids in them to help with this, like fruits, vegetables, and low-salt vegetable-based soups; and sleep.
Importantly, stay away from NSAIDS. These are mostly over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen and even aspirin, but can be prescriptions such as diclofenac. These suppress the immune system. Instead, reduce fever using acetaminophen or Tylenol.
Do not hesitate to go to the hospital if you have difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in your chest, new confusion or an inability to get up, or bluish lips or face. These are signs of potentially severe and life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms.