Welcome to Part 2 of this three part series: Protecting the Mind, Body and Spirit During Covid! In Part 1, we talked about strengthening the resilience of our mind. Today, we’re delving into our body and the concrete steps we can take to build our body’s resilience during the pandemic. Our lessons from Part 1 apply to this week and vice versa, because the mind and body are inextricably linked. What’s good for the body is good for the mind! That’s the mind-body connection in a nutshell.
The big question on everyone’s mind is whether we can increase our immunity to Covid.
From the strictly biological perspective, this is a new, emerging infectious disease that our immune system has never seen before so theoretically-speaking, no one has immunity. But looking at it from the integrative medicine perspective, there is so much we can do to optimize our immune system, and that’s precisely what we’ll talk about this week.
1. BUILDING OUR IMMUNITY FROM THE INSIDE-OUT
Our immune system is dynamic and always in flux, responding to our internal and external cues. Studies show that at the molecular level, our immune system responds not just to our daily actions (what we eat, how we sleep, and how we move) but it also responds to our emotions, specifically happiness. When we cultivate a specific kind of happiness, called purposeful or eudaemonic happiness, we can alter how our immune cells respond.
So how can we increase this specific kind of happiness during unhappy, pandemic times? Through the integrative practices of yoga, meditation, tai-chi and others, which have been proven to build the happiness muscles in each of us, irrespective of what’s happening on the outside. We’ll talk much more about these practices in later posts, but if you’ve been interested in a mind-body practice but never took the leap, now would be a great time to get yourself into the Om Zone!
2. SLEEP IS A THERAPEUTIC INTERVENTION
Besides social distancing and hand hygiene, one of the best things you can do right now for your immune health is to protect your sleep. Sleep is a therapeutic intervention. It is restorative for every single cell, blood vessel, and organ system in the body. And in times of crisis like now, the restorative benefits of sleep cannot be overemphasized. Our immune system is more powerful at night while we sleep, so protecting our sleep like the vital resource it is has never been more critical.
The two components of sleep- quantity and quality- can be protected and strengthened in a two concrete ways:
To improve sleep quantity, its key to set an early bedtime. The ideal bedtime is 10pm, since the most restorative sleep usually happens between 10p and 12am. By going to bed after this window, you’re shortchanging yourself out of the copious benefits that sleep provides. An easy way to adopt an earlier bedtime is to set a night time alarm at 9p to give yourself a nudge to start winding down. Try it, it works!
To improve sleep quality and decrease sleep fragmentation, try to create a relaxing bedtime routine and minimize your bedtime screen time, specifically two hours before bedtime. Screens of any kind (TV, laptops, smartphones) emit a blue light which stimulates the awake center in our brain, so even if we are tired and physiologically ready to sleep, screens can artificially keep us up. Choose a non screen-based activity like reading an old-fashioned novel, listening to music, or doing a calming yoga sequence or meditation session before bed. These bedtime activities help soothe the sympathetic nervous system and decrease the fight or flight response. Personally, I love the legs up the wall yoga pose (below) before bedtime since it helps relax the sympathetic nervous system and gets the body into a rested state. It’s a game changer for sleep quality.
3. TRAINING YOUR BRAIN TO EXERCISE
Exercise: the word alone is so cringeworthy isn’t it? We all know its good for you and yet so few people do it. But if there’s ever been a time to start exercising, the time is now! Exercise changes not just our external appearance, it can change our internal landscape too. It alters our genes and immune response, improves our sleep, increases our mood, decreases anxiety and has protective effects on our vital organs like the lungs and heart. As my exercise coach says, don’t exercise so you can appreciate your fit body in the future, exercise because you appreciate your healthy body in the now. That’s some wisdom!
To reap the rewards of exercise, you don’t need to run a marathon or even run at all. A simple daily 20-minute walk is enough. And if you can’t get outside, there are so many indoor, low-impact options to consider.
The one thing to remember is that when starting an exercise habit, its important to do a little bit everyday than just once in a while. When we do something everyday we automate the task (like brushing our teeth or showering) and building a habit is all about making something automatic and habitual. When we’re learning something new, its easier to train our brains to do something daily than to do something once in a while.
4. YOUR GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION AT WORK
During periods of stress, our brains are evolutionarily programmed to crave high-fat, high-sugar, calorically-rich foods. When our self-preservation mechanism is on red alert, at the most basic level calories equals survival. Enter the donut. When you reach for the donut its your brain appropriately responding to its internal environmental cues. To curb stress eating, ask yourself, what am I hungry for? More connection, more safety, less stress, less uncertainty… and work to address that underlying emotion. Over time, the downstream mechanism of stress eating will respond accordingly.
Once your stress eating is under control, aim to eat a version of the Mediterranean diet, which has been scientifically studied to be the best overall diet for boosting immunity, increasing lifespan, and warding off most chronic illnesses. Another great thing to consider adding to your diet is probiotics (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi). Probiotics help strengthen your gut microbiome, which many scientists believe houses a large proportion of our immune system.
The gut microbiome also helps to regulate the gut-brain connection and our mood. Did you know there are three to five times more serotonin receptors in the gut than the brain? This may be why the gut microbiome is intimately linked to our mood state. By keeping our gut microbiome healthy, we give our bodies the best chance at creating a positive internal environment for our immunity and mood, two things that are top of mind for most of us right now.
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The post originally appeared on draditi.com