If there ever was a time to stay healthy, it is now. While we are still practicing physical distancing from each other, that doesn’t mean that we need to stop taking care of ourselves.
Kim Casto, owner of Bodylines Studio, of Fitchburg and Harvard, said taking care of yourself is the most important reason to exercise and to eat and sleep well is to combat stress, especially in these unusual times.
“There are recent findings that note that when there is an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, that your immune system is compromised,” Casto said. “And there are so many great ways to decrease your stress, and in turn, boost your immune system.”
Deep breathing, which can be done anytime and anywhere, is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body.
“This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax,” Casto said. “Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.”
Slow, deep breathing has been shown to increase parasympathetic activity in both healthy and symptomatic populations through influence on the vagus nerve, which helps control the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.
This leads to decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, muscle relaxation, improved digestion, improved sleep cycles, enhanced anti-inflammatory effects, and enhanced mood. Kim Casto suggests practicing yoga or pilates as an excellent way to exercise.
“Practicing pilates, yoga and counting breaths, all are great breathing techniques to activate the parasympathetic system,” she said. “Dr. Andrew Weil promotes a 4-7-8 count breath. Inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts — give it a try.”
Next on the list is exercise, which naturally produces mood boosting endorphins, which also can act as a painkiller in the body. Additionally, the stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline decrease with activity. All three combined will boost your immune system.
“Right now, is one of the best times to be exercising where there is an abundance of virtual classes being offered,” Casto said. “This is a great time to try different workouts before committing to an extensive membership somewhere.”
Want a double benefit while working out? Casto said to try yoga or pilates-breathing techniques, combined with exercise, to provide even more immune boosting benefits.
At Bodylines, Casto believes that pilates is one of the best forms of exercise, and it’s history can prove it.
“One of its claims to fame was during the Influenza epidemic of 1918,” she said. “The internment camp that Joseph Pilates was stationed at had no cases of the flu. He claimed that all his students were practicing his exercise techniques and that kept them resistant to the disease.”
Pilates combines the strength training, mobility, and breathing techniques in a balanced approach to create uniform development throughout the body. It is known for its ability to strengthen without negatively impacting the joints.
The great outdoors is another great place to get your activity going.
“Based on an article in Time magazine, some research suggests that when people are in nature, they inhale aromatic compounds from plants called phytoncides,” says Casto. “These can increase their number of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that supports the immune system and is linked with a lower risk of cancer.”
These cells are also believed to be important in fighting infections and inflammation, inflammation being a common marker of disease.
“So, take a walk, find a nature path, enjoy a hike,” she said. “Get out there and take in the beauty around you.”
An often-overlooked immune boosting habit is sleep.
“Let’s take a look at what happens in the body when you get a bad night of sleep versus a good night of sleep,” she said.
Inadequate sleep impacts many hormones: increased ghrelin, which is the hormone that regulates hunger (therefore you are hungrier); decreased leptin which controls how satisfied you are; and increases cortisol levels in the body which is the “stress hormone” promoting fat storage.
“Interestingly, scientists relate the dangers of chronic sleep loss to being similar to driving while intoxicated with alcohol,” Casto said.
During a good night’s sleep, particularly during the deep sleep cycle, brain waves slow down to delta waves (this is why it is good to listen to delta wave music to fall asleep) your heart rate lowers, breathing slows down, and there is a release of the hormone prolactin which supports the immune system.
Casto recommends the following strategies to take when trying to improve your sleep:
“Use the 3, 2, 1 rule,” she said. “Three hours before bed, stop doing work. Our brains need time to transition. Two hours prior to bedtime, stop eating food, particularly sweets. And, finally, one hour before bed, stop all electronics.”
Routines and rituals with a pinch of exercise make for the perfect recipe to prepare for bedtime.
“Just like we would do for our toddlers to teach them to prepare for bedtime, guess what, our brains and bodies need the same,” Casto said. “It sends the signals to our brain that it is time to slow down which in turn makes our bodies slow down.”
What’s Casto’s routine?
“A cup of tea, reading a book, mindful breathing, take a bath, meditate, listen to relaxing music,” are just a few ideas, Casto said.
Make your bedtime a ritual by sticking to the same sleep cycle (your circadian rhythm) and it will increase how efficient you sleep, therefore maximizing your deep and REM sleep cycle.
Bodylines nutritionist Krissy Berthoud also offers a few words of nutrition wisdom.
“Here are just a few key nutrients and herbs that we can easily get from food or simple supplementation,” Berthoud said.
Vitamin C and zinc are the key.
“Zinc is a mineral that can help boost white blood cells, which defend against invaders,” Berthoud said. “Vitamins C is an antioxidant that helps to eradicate free radicals and support the body’s natural immune response. Both vitamin C and zinc play important roles in immune function and increase an individual’s resistance to infectious pathogens.”
Zinc rich foods include oysters, Alaska king crab, beef chuck roast, hamburgers, baked beans, and some fortified cereals. Vitamin C rich foods include oranges, kiwifruit, strawberries, tomato, red pepper, and even potato.
Like vitamin C, vitamin E is also a powerful antioxidant that destroys free radicals and boosts the body’s natural immune response. Foods rich in vitamin E include dry roasted sunflowers, dry roasted almonds, wheat germ oil, dry roasted hazelnuts, and peanut butter.
“Believe it or not herbs and spices we use everyday have antiviral qualities,” Berthoud said. “Garlic, ginger, oregano, basil, fennel, rosemary, and sage all have antiviral elements. Use these liberally in your cooking.”
Also, don’t forget to add plenty of lean protein from chicken, turkey, beef, or beans.
“This will provide adequate iron to help bring oxygen to our cells,” she says. “Plenty of green leafy vegetables provide folate, yet another contributor to a healthy immune system.”
Eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors daily.
“We need balanced healthy diets at all times, but especially with the threat of infection,” Berthoud said.
There are many reports out there that show a feeling of isolation and hopelessness is more prevalent during this pandemic.
“If we all stick together, we can get through this together!”, Casto said. “Stay healthy, reach out to your friends, neighbors, and family members…for you and for them.”