BEYOND FEAR: Stress and immunity in times of Corona

Published in Bloom Magazine 24 June 2020

In Bloom (May), Prof. Dr. Mattias Desmet (UGent) shared his striking insights into the connection between fear and a drastic reduction in immunity. This fear and stress, which in recent years have become increasingly manifest in our society, has grown exponentially because of the stories and images about the virus SARS-COV-2 and the disease COVID-19. Fear and stress increase the risk of infection and the emergence or worsening of chronic diseases. It is therefore high time to make short work of these jammers. Dr. Ir. Carla Peeters teaches you how.

This article examines the relationship between stress and other factors that can weaken immunity and thus increase the risk of illness. In the second part of this contribution you will find 8 tips to promote a well-functioning immune system and a more resilient life. The time of transformation has come, to a next step, in which quality of life is central and in which the psychological and spiritual dimension of being human is brought back to the fore. A next phase of autonomy, of using talent to build a more sustainable and healthier world, in which future generations can also live safely. This step presupposes personal leadership and at the same time invites you to make your own contribution to this necessary transformation.

Stress and immunity

Stress can be the result of psychological, physiological, or physical stressors. The ‘good’ stress (a few minutes to hours) is an important response of the body to perform and survive in a short time. Short-term stress enhances the activity of humoral and cellular immunity (preventing the penetration of the virus and the production of antibodies). Prolonged stress (longer than 2 to 3 weeks), ‘bad’ stress so to speak, can seriously damage health. Both the primary and secondary immune responses are suppressed by prolonged exposure to stress. The internal ecosystem is out of balance; inflammation develops, and the body enters a self-enforcing pathological immune response. This can ultimately lead to the now well-known cytokine storm, in which the risk of organ failure and death is high. Prevention is better than cure, here is the adage.

Poorer immunity during corona crisis

Recent American research during the lockdown shows a stress increase of 88% in the period from 16 February to 15 March 2020. 69% of those surveyed experience the coronary pandemic as the most stressful period of their lives, even more so than during the days of 9/11 and the recession of 2008. The effects on mental and physical health are enormous. Within a month an increase of no less than 20% was recorded, which translates, among other things, into a tremendous increase in the use of antidepressants, medication against anxiety and insomnia. Fear and stress due to lockdown, loneliness, too little sunlight, less structure in daily life and hopelessness … are all factors that affect sleep.

Lack of sleep takes a high toll, given the increase in chronic diseases, obesity, and premature death. Sufficient sleep with a good night’s sleep is important for a well-functioning immune system. It activates the immune system to prevent the penetration of viruses and bacteria and builds up good humoral and cellular immunity. Animal research showed 30% loss of neurons in the brain stem involved in alertness and cognitive processes in sleep-deprived mice. Sleep deprivation enhances the flight-fight reaction (flight, fighting), which disturbs sleep and sleep through. This creates a vicious circle.

Nutrition and immunity

A wide variety of nutrients play an important role in a well-functioning immune system. Shortages of a nutrient can quickly lead to a less efficient immune system. Often there is malnutrition with a shortage of multiple nutrients. Loneliness and less exercise are factors that can increase the risk of malnutrition. One in five elderly people is malnourished and in 19% of children admitted to hospital, malnutrition is also diagnosed, according to a study published in the Dutch Journal of Medicine. Malnutrition can affect anyone, from young to old. In the past month publications were published in which a possible relationship between vitamin D deficiency and a serious course of COVID-19 was described. The link between vitamin D and the occurrence of viral infectious diseases was discovered earlier. In 2017, the British Medical Journal published a review article, in which the relationship between severe influenza infection and low vitamin D levels was demonstrated. By increasing vitamin D levels, the number of people infected decreased by 70%. In the period February to April 2020, many people were found to have low levels of vitamin D in their blood, mainly elderly people. People who are severely overweight and have dark skin are at greatest risk.

Vitamin D is obtained from food and is produced by the skin under the influence of sunlight. Because of the lockdown many people get less sunlight than before. Measuring the level of vitamin D in the blood can therefore be relevant for many people, so that it can be replenished in time until the required amount is reached. The concentration achieved with a certain amount of supplementation differs from person to person and depends on various factors. Too high a concentration of vitamin D can also be harmful to health.

Resilience and immunity

Resilience is the property that enables a person to emerge stronger from a crisis. Biopsychosocial studies have shown that certain character traits, such as positive attitude, personal responsibility, optimism, and social support can increase resilience and mitigate the negative effects of stress on physiology and the immune system. The opposite is also true: a strong immune system leads to greater resilience. Resilient individuals, for example, appear to have a different immunophenotype than those who are sensitive to stress. The positive story is that this interdependence of resilience and immunity can be improved by optimizing the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract, the second brain. The following tips will help you on your way to a more resilient life, or ‘bala’ in Sanskrit.

Boost your immune system / 8 tips

Do you want to work towards a well-functioning and resilient immune system? Then it is advisable to consult an expert. The following tips form the basis. Start with step three and then develop your plan further.

1. Daily rhythm / daily routine

A good daily structure has become even more important with working from home. Stand up regularly and alternate with an upright desk whenever possible. Avoid eating while working. Take regular breaks with exercise. This helps maintain concentration and alertness. It is important that you can end your day with a satisfied feeling.

2. Nutrition

Eat as much fresh food as possible with 200 to 300 grams of vegetables and 2 pieces of fruit daily for sufficient vitamins and minerals. Preferably produced locally. Limit foods with a high sugar content and eat more healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil and butter. Drink plenty of water and herbal teas, limit alcohol (max 5 drinks spread over the week) and caffeine (3 to 4 cups of coffee or tea/day). Avoid soft drinks. Salads and cold food are tempting in the summer, but for people with low energy levels warm food remains important to maintain a good energy level.

3. Moving

Provide sufficient exercise with at least 30 minutes per day in the open air. Walking is soothing and improves the blood circulation in the body. When health permits, sport is also recommended once or twice a week. A sport that contributes to pleasure and well-being.

4. Sunlight

Seek out the sun regularly; 15 to 30 minutes without sunscreen. This can be done several times a day. Avoid burning. Daylight is important. If you live too much indoors, light deficiency can occur, disrupting the synchronisation with the biological clock and producing insufficient melatonin. The latter leads to disturbed sleep.

5. Mindfulness, yoga

Yoga, meditation, mindfulness about 15 minutes a day. More and more scientific studies endorse the beneficial effects of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. Stress decreases, sleep improves and concentration and alertness increase.

6. Nature

Research shows that walking in a forest for 30 minutes a week can reduce the cortisol level (stress hormone) in the blood. Too high a level of cortisol has a negative effect on the immune system and sleeping pattern. By staying regularly in nature, a connection is established with nature and more attention is paid to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Playing sports in a natural environment is better for mental health. Alone or in a group makes no difference.

7. Connection and togetherness

Although it is not easy during lockdown, a sense of connection and togetherness appears to be important for general well-being, better sleep, and a healthy immune system. Choose literature and positive companionship that connect. Avoid too much negative news about the current crisis.

8. Sleep

Provide 7 to 8 hours sleep per night. Sleep well before midnight, as this promotes a good night’s sleep and a fresh start the next day. Observe daily rituals, such as a cup of hot tea with classical music, to prepare the body in time for a good night’s sleep.

Practical tips that can reduce infection pressure

It has long been known that the best way to reduce epidemics and pandemics is related to personal hygiene. This means washing hands more often with a naturally softly scented soap. Frequent use of alcohol and gels can damage the skin flora, which can lead to infection by bacteria and viruses. Due to the high temperatures outside and the decreasing number of people infected with the covid-19 virus, the spread of the new corona virus decreases. Research by Moriyama et al. of Yale University showed that the virus is less able to maintain itself at summer temperatures and lower humidity.

Virologists question these results, which is why wearing mouth caps is recommended/required both in Belgium and in the Netherlands, when it is not possible to respect the one and a half meter. Wearing mouth caps is not without risks. After all, the oxygen content can drop too much, which can lead to shortness of breath and unconsciousness. The risk of infection can just increase as a result. Wrong use also increases the chance of spreading. Therefore, wear mouth caps as short as possible and only if needed. For homemade mouth masks, use a biological substance to prevent exposure to toxic substances that reduce immunity. Regular changing of the mouth masks is important. The nasal mucous membranes can be rinsed in the evening with a lukewarm (Himalayas) saline solution.

Recent research of the German professor Drosten confirms what we already learned from our grandparents: a good ventilation of living, working, and sleeping space to maintain good health. The integration of old wisdom in the present time leads to an approach that helps to come out of this crisis stronger.

About the author
Dr. Ir. Carla Peeters is the owner and founder of COBALA Good Care Feels Better®. For years she worked on diagnostics, immunology, and infectious diseases and as a director of care organizations. Since 2015 she has specialised in personalised nutrition and lifestyle. COBALA guides people preventively and from absenteeism to work with a Personalised Integrative Care® programme.