Improving Immunity and Combating Chronic Diseases

By Parul Kharod

The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the year where the whole world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we close out the year, let us take a moment to think about what this pandemic has taught us. What did we learn from this experience? Can it help us prepare for the future?

We think of the human race as mighty and most powerful, and yet a tiny microscopic organism brought the whole world to a standstill! The virus did not discriminate! It did not ask which country you live in, how much money you have, which language you speak, what political party you belong to, which religion you follow, the color of your skin, or your class or caste in society. Everyone had their life impacted. It made us realize that we are all connected in a unique way. Maybe we need to celebrate this aspect of humanity rather than divide ourselves by petty differences.

However, there are some questions that need to be looked at more closely if we are to prevent any future pandemics. Did some people have a higher risk of getting infected? Why did some people die within days while some people recovered with relatively mild symptoms? Researchers will probably spend years studying that. But there are some trends emerging.

Data is suggesting that people, who had other chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc., are likely to suffer more severe symptoms and take longer to recover or die.

Since underlying chronic conditions may put people at a higher risk for developing complications from COVID-19, there has been an increased focus on prevention and treatment of these health issues. The CDC (Centers of Disease Control) and the AMA (American Medical Association) have urged physicians and health care providers to make chronic disease prevention a top priority moving forward.

This is a wake up call for everyone. More studies are showing that the same lifestyle factors that cause chronic diseases also affect immunity.

Here are some changes recommended by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine to help combat chronic diseases now and beyond the pandemic.

• Pay attention to your diet: Food is our fuel. You either eat to nourish your body and mind or you eat to feed the disease. That does not mean everyone has to be on a “diet" and can never indulge in sweets or fried foods. It means that we need to be mindful of our eating habits. Eat a mostly plant-based diet that is high in fiber, low in sodium, fat and cholesterol, and is full of anti-oxidants that lower inflammation and boost immunity. Do not deprive yourself or feel guilty. Enjoy life's little pleasures, the occasional dessert or treats. But majority of the time, pay attention to what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat.

• Move more: Be physically active. Everyone does not need to run marathons, but we do need to make sure that we move our body. Walk if you can, or do yoga, Pilates, or any other form of activity that you like. Make realistic goals and do it consistently.

• Get a good night's rest: Our sleep cycle is very closely connected to our health. Practice good sleep hygiene. Try to get about seven hours of sleep so the body can rest and rejuvenate. Develop a regular schedule with a bedtime routine. Keep your bedroom dark and noise free— avoid watching television or surfing the internet while in bed. Stay away from caffeine late in day.

• Manage stress: Stress increases inflammation in the body and creates chemicals that are harmful. Try breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, massage, aromatherapy, listen to music, go for a walk – whatever helps you unwind.

• Avoid smoking and alcohol: This is a no brainer! Also avoid excess medications, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and other chemicals and preservatives.

• Keep positive social connections: The most devastating outcome of this pandemic has been isolation. With social distancing in place, we are not able to meet with friends and family whenever we please. However social interactions are important for our mental health. Loneliness can be very damaging and can increase stress and other risk factors. Use phone, chat, video calling or any other means to stay connected.

----------
Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at parulkharod@gmail.com