How strengthening your immune system can help you fight off Covid-19
Covid-19 may unfortunately be here to stay, at least until we have a vaccine. Even extremely careful pregnant women taking all the recommended precautions might be exposed to it, for you cannot live in a bubble and still needs to access maternity care.
It therefore makes sense to prepare your body to fight it and potentially reduce your chances of having a bad dose. How? By strengthening your immune system – for then if you do encounter the virus we will be able to deal with it much more easily and quickly.
There are four areas which have a massive influence on how our immune systems are able to perform – what we eat, how active we are, how stressed out we are and how well we sleep.
A Healthy Diet
If our immune systems could tell us what to eat they would tell us to opt for a healthy diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, protein and probiotic yogurt. The bigger the variety of these foods the better as this encourages a bigger variety of friendly bacteria to live in our gut (as they are eating these different foods too!).
Steer clear of those fatty, salty, sugary and highly processed junk foods that can lower the diversity of bacteria and cause chronic inflammation not only just in your gut but in your body in general. Reducing chronic inflammation is important as severe Covid-19 symptoms are often related to the body overreacting to Covid-19 through a massive inflammatory response by the immune system. The link between obesity and more serious Covid-19 symptoms is becoming increasingly clear too – another reason to eat healthily.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in oily fish, olive oil and vegetables which contain omega-3 fatty acids, oleic acid and polyphenols which are anti-inflammatory. The Mediterranean diet is already known to be associated with a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia. Could eating the Mediterranean way also help protect you against severe Covid-19?
Perhaps you may opt for junk food because you want the convenience of quick bites or you aren’t a MasterChef (I fall in this bracket, unfortunately). There are so many recipe books and websites to give you quick and easy recipes – just google healthy quick recipes and it will be hard to choose between them.
To help keep your immune system fighting fit to help fight Covid-19, keep your body fit too by being active. Go for a walk or run, take an online pregnancy yoga or Pilates class, put on your gardening gloves or dancing shoes. Being active not only keeps you fit and encourages your baby into a good position (particularly in the last trimester), which will help you in labour. You will also release those happy endorphins to help keep you positive, reduce your stress levels and… you said it – keep that immune system healthy to help fight Covid-19.
If you are pregnant, check out Maidenhead’s Bumps to Babes. Tara runs a weekly pregnancy yoga class, currently on Zoom due to Covid-19 restrictions. Either I or local doula Louise Prince will be on hand each week to answer your questions and the group has a lively and supportive WhatsApp group of other pregnant women. Please visit www.bumpstobabes.org.uk for more information and to sign up.
There are also lots of links to free pregnancy and postnatal exercise sessions using https://www.babybuddyapp.co.uk/this-mum-moves-active-at-home.
Stress dampens down your immune system. When we are in fight-or-flight mode, the body is preparing itself for just that – not acting long-term to prepare itself for any potential infection or disease. This is fine for a short while and of course useful if you are about to be attacked by a lion! But not where stress is chronic and ongoing...
The release of stress hormones such as cortisol plays havoc with how our immune systems work, for example reducing how many white blood cells we produce and increasing our rates of infection and tissue damage. One type of white blood cell is the natural killer cell which destroys our own cells when they are infected by viruses or becoming cancerous. These are vital in our bodies’ Covid-19 response, so we want to ensure we have access to as many as we need…
Stress can also lead to unhealthy coping strategies that further impact on our immune system, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and binge-eating. Not what we want during a pandemic or indeed during pregnancy!
It is natural to feel a little anxious and stressed at times during your pregnancy. However, if you feel anxious most of the time and find it hard to relax you should ask for help from your midwife or GP. 1 in 10 pregnant women have anxiety, so you are not alone. But even without anxiety, you can still benefit from reducing your stress levels.
The first step to tackling stress is to identify what makes you feel stressed. It may be an obvious stressor such as a relationship breakdown, financial problems or concerns about your pregnancy. However, sources of everyday chronic stress can be harder to identify. Recording a stress diary can help you identify the sources of stress in your life, see patterns in how you feel and how you deal with them.
On the Self-Help for Anxiety Management (SAM) app you can input and track your feelings of anxiety and the app provides self-help techniques tailored to your needs. See https://sam-app.org.uk/.
You may have job insecurity, there are not enough hours in the day, tasks are piling up or you may have concerns about your pregnancy... Panic not, for there are ways to minimise the stress we feel, which will in turn make us happier, our babies happier and our immune systems stronger too.
Here are a few ideas for what you might try to combat stress:
- Avoid unnecessary stress. It sounds simple but sometimes we just need to say no. Say no to that extra task your boss is asking you to take on or delegate it, limit how much time you spend with people you find hard-going, find less stressful alternatives (e.g. do an online food shop if going to the supermarket is stressful). If you are anxious about Covid-19, avoid watching/listening to too much news. If you are anxious about the birth, avoid One Born Every Minute and instead immerse yourself in positive birth stories (check out www.tellmeagoodbirthstory.com) or think about hypnobirthing.
- Write those lists! Better time-management can help you work more efficiently. Start with writing lists or work plans, prioritising and if tasks on your to-do list are not necessary drop them to the bottom or remove them from the list completely – phew!
- If you cannot avoid the stressor, try to reframe it into more of a positive – time wasted stuck in traffic becomes time to listen to the radio and relax. Maybe something stressful can become a learning opportunity. Look at the bigger picture – will it really matter in a year’s time and does it really matter now? Perhaps adjust your standards and stop reaching for perfection. Instead, take a moment to appreciate the things in life that you can be grateful for. Check out the My Possible Self app www.mypositiveself.com which is aimed to do just this and is proven to reduce your stress and anxiety levels.
- Share your feelings with somebody you trust – it can be so cathartic to talk and it may help you to see the cause of your stress in a new light as well as a chance to look at what you can do about it. Connect with friends and family, or perhaps to your midwife or a therapist. Other pregnant women with an empathetic ear can really help – your antenatal or pregnancy yoga group could be a great source of support.
- Relaxation exercises include listening to relaxation scripts and audios, breathing exercises, guided visualisations, meditation. These are an intrinsic part of hypnobirthing as well as often used in pregnancy yoga classes. Including time out during the working day to relax (even if for a few minutes of slow, deep breathing) can work wonders and if done before bedtime they can help you get ready for that much needed sleep. Check out the wellbeing app Headspace at www.headspace.com or breathing app Breathe2Relax.
- Regular exercise will give you a boost of oxytocin and endorphins. Try a daily walk, pregnancy yoga or Pilates – and aim for at least 30 minutes if you can. You can feel better for hours after a burst of exercise plus it gives you that precious time to clear your head.
- Eat well, minimising sugary snacks, refined carbs such as white bread and pasta, and junk food with lots of preservatives. These high-carb foods as well as coffee can cause a high and then a crash in your energy levels and mood. Instead opt for foods with omega-3 fatty acids which can help your mood, such as certain fish (salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines), seaweed, flaxseed and walnuts.
- Avoid nicotine and alcohol. There are many reasons to avoid these when pregnant (message me if you are unsure!). Although smoking and drinking alcohol can temporarily make you feel better, smoking is actually a stimulant which can make you more anxious and alcohol is a depressant which can make you more anxious as the effects wear off.
If you can adopt even some of the above, you should notice your stress levels improve...
A Good Night’s Sleep
Having enough shut-eye is really important if you want your immune system to function well and help you to fight Covid-19. Without enough sleep, you are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus such as a common cold and potentially Covid-19.
Whilst you sleep your immune system is as busy as can be performing many crucial functions. Your body is producing various proteins called cytokines which pass messages between cells, including the whereabouts of bacteria and cells invaded by viruses. White blood cells then kick into action, with neutrophils, killer T cells and macrophages attacking any bacteria or cells harbouring viruses, and B cells produce antibodies to grab onto the cell walls of bacteria and viruses – these viruses are then unable to enter your cells. Do you see the hive of activity that goes on whilst our eyes are closed?
Inadequate sleep may prevent you producing as many of these protective cytokines. You will also produce fewer antibodies and immune cells for fighting viruses and other pathogens. It should be no surprise that at times of sleep deprivation it will be it harder for your body to fight off invaders such as colds, flu and Covid-19 and it will also take you longer to get over them.
Another interesting fact? Killer T cells are particularly important hunters and killers of viruses and the unfortunate cells that contain any. T cells stick to infected cells thanks to sticky proteins called integrins, but stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline can make them less sticky. The best way to lower these stress hormones and enable our T cells to attack? Sleep!
Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each day is ideal for your body and mind to be healthy and functioning as they should. You also ideally want lots of deep sleep (good quality sleep!). Stress, night shifts, having to get up in the night to go to the toilet, going to bed late and babies or young children all take their toll on sleep.
Finding it hard to sleep or waking and not able to get back to sleep? Here is a (rather long!) list of helpful tips:
1. Try and go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day and take regular exercise. This will help you to go to bed feeling sleepy and have a better night’s sleep.
2. Go to bed stress-free. If you go to bed feeling anxious or depressed you are more likely to spend less time in deep sleep and more likely to wake during the night. Anxiety and depression are shown to reduce our quality of sleep and poor sleep also contributes to symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you are feeling down or anxious, don’t hesitate to talk to your midwife or GP or somebody you trust. Look out for my next post on stress and ways of managing it.
3. In the evening before going to bed, write a journal containing whatever is on your mind and potential solutions, or perhaps simply a list of things to do – structuring your next day can help it feel more manageable and stop you worrying about things you need to do before you sleep. You can then come back to it in the morning.
4. Use self-hypnosis and positive sleep affirmations to help change your mindset to sleep, so that you stop worrying about not sleeping and instead welcome it. This is the equivalent for sleep that my hypnobirthing classes are for birth!
5. Use the last hour before bed to relax – perhaps a warm softly-lit bath, listen to a hypnobirthing audio, read a novel or practise breathing relaxation exercises. Avoid any screen-time in that last hour.
6. Don’t drink too much before bed, particular caffeine which is both a stimulant and a diuretic (so will have you wired and later needing the toilet) and alcohol which is also a diuretic and associated with less deep poorer quality sleep. You cannot do much about the weight of the baby on your bladder I am afraid!
7. Lavender or jasmine aromatherapy oils are proven to promote sleep. Add a few drops to the bath, spray it onto your pillow, put it into the diffuser before bedtime or better yet enjoy the fragrance in your massage oil.
8. Get comfortable… Could it be time to upgrade your 20-year-old mattress and treat yourself to a new pillow? Lots of pillows or a pregnancy pillow can provide support to your back and bump as pregnancy advances and you are advised to sleep on your side. Try a pillow between your knees.
9. Keep your room as dark as possible, as this promotes melatonin production, the hormone which controls our body clocks. Blackout curtains can help you stay in a deeper sleep for longer, particularly in these summer months.
10. To fall into a deep sleep, your body needs to be able to cool down. Sleeping in a cool room enables you to fall into a deep sleep more quickly.
11. Some people find white noise or soft relaxing music helpful as they drift off to sleep as it can stop their mind wandering from thought to thought and help them to switch off.
12. If you are prone to waking with the noises of car doors, birds singing, others waking, ear plugs or white noise might be worth a try.
13. If you do wake up, don’t look at the clock or worry about waking. This will only ensure you stay awake! Instead enjoy the moment and you will be asleep before you know it...
14. Take a look at Sleepio, an app designed to improve your sleep and based on Cognitive Based Therapy for insomnia (CBTi). It involves keeping a sleep diary and then working with a virtual therapist to help tailor mindfulness tools and advice. It is also free for people in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire so what have you got to lose? https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/sleepio/
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