We have never endured a time where we are required to self-isolate from our communities, our friends and family, in order to play our part and help to minimise the impact of COVID-19. We are human, and community is at the heart of human nature. We are social creatures that desire and thrive off interaction with others, for the majority of the time. Self-isolation, therefore comes as an unnatural phenomenon, something that the majority of us struggle to deal with. Even for those amongst us that enjoy their own company, and love to be alone, long term isolation can still take its toll.
Faced with this unnatural task to isolate ourselves from others, for many weeks, we have to turn our attention to our physical and mental health. Both are at risk of worsening during this time, yet we need to maintain optimal health more than ever.
Despite this hard task, this is a wonderful opportunity to step back from our chaotic daily schedules, reflect, and spend some time thinking about ourselves, our loved ones and, perhaps most importantly, our health!
So how do we keep our mind and bodies healthy during self-isolation? Here are my best tips.
Nourish the body.
This is a little harder than you think! However, with a little bit of knowledge, preparation and thought, it can be achieved. There are certain mood and immune boosting micronutrients that can help maintain a good level of health during this time. To ensure that your food is loaded with nutrition go for wild caught (fish), grass/pasture fed (animals & eggs) and organic produce where possible. This is my food quality rule. We are what we eat, and this is no different for animals and plants. They are only as nutritional as the food they have eaten or taken up from the soil. Processed foods, ready-made meals and industrially farmed animals, are much less nutritional and these should be avoided. They are linked to poor health outcomes.
My key mood and immune boosting nutrients are:
• Magnesium is required for serotonin production, the body’s natural mood lifting neurotransmitter. It is also needed to relax smooth muscle, the type of muscle that lines the airways and bowel. Foods rich in magnesium include green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, broccoli, cabbage, kidney beans, figs and bananas. Nuts and seeds are also great sources of magnesium.
• Vitamin D. Vitamin D is made when the sun’s UVB rays penetrate our skin. It is essential for our immune & bone health and deficiencies are associated with increased risk of cancer and increased risk of infection. For many of us in self-isolation, our sunlight exposure will fall, leaving our bodies at risk of becoming deficient. If you have also just endured the Winter months, it is likely that your level is already suboptimal, so this is a vital nutrient to really focus on. Vitamin D rich foods include oily fish, eggs and mushrooms. However, try not to forget, expose your skin to sunlight. This is by far the best way, although please do this in a socially responsible way at this time. A supplement should be considered if deficiency suspected. For Vitamin D rich foods, attention must be paid to my food quality rule (above). Farmed fish, for example, has up to ¾ less vitamin D compared to its wild cousins.
• Vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is also required for the production of serotonin. Therefore, maintaining a good vitamin B6 level is important for maintaining your mood. Vitamin B6 can be found in animal products, including fish and eggs and also within chickpeas, avocado, spinach, carrots and sweet potato.
• Vitamin B12. B12 is essential for the normal function of our nervous system and therefore is important in maintaining mental health. B12 deficiency can be very problematic and low mood is one of its symptoms. Poor diets, smoking, excessive alcohol and stomach protection medications can interrupt us from absorbing B12 into our blood. Vitamin B12 rich foods include beef, fish and eggs. However, remember the food quality rule here too. Animals fed on daily doses of antibiotics in standard farming approaches will kill the bacteria that produce B12 in the animal, ensuring we get less B12 than we think!
• Omega 3. Omega 3 essential fatty acids are ‘essential’ for brain health. Deficiencies of omega 3 are linked to mood disorders. Improving your omega 3 can improve mood, but also health, in general. Foods rich in omega 3s include chia seeds, fish and green vegetables. Remember the food quality rule here as well. Omega 3s are synthesised in chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. If animals are not fed their natural foods like grass, plankton, then their omega 3 levels will be much lower.
Cooking from scratch is essential for boosting both mood and health as fresh, non-processed foods are the best for health. Not only will cooking help to feed your creative juices, but it can bring the people in the household together. It is a fantastic way to learn, laugh and create. It is also a brilliant way to make sure nothing goes to waste as well. Tired looking vegetables can be easily be boiled up to make a soup with some stock, very easily done, good for the environment and tasty. Freezing leftovers will make sure that you stay well stocked up. Get creative with these amazing immune boosting foods:
• Spinach & Kale
• Cabbage (Green & Red)
• Live Yogurt
• Olive Oil
Avoid the TV, food & drink binge.
The typical self-isolation strategy for many of sofa, box sets/movies, snack and booze may be appealing, as we step back from our busy day to day lives. However, lack of exercise, excess sugar, alcohol and refined carbs will soon change the body’s metabolism and cause unnatural insulin spikes and cortisol spikes, leading to poorer mood, reduced cognitive function, hormonal imbalances and ultimately, reduced immune function. Not to mention the potential weight gain.
Practice mindfulness and mental stimulation.
Our usual busy day to day lives tend to be full of mental stimulation, but lacking in mindfulness. In self-isolation, we now have the opportunity to take some time to be mindful, reducing our anxieties and improving our mental health.
The easiest way to execute some mindfulness into your day is to concentrate on your breathing. By breathing in for 4 seconds, holding it for a further 4 seconds and breathing out over 8 seconds. Doing this for one minute, upon waking and before sleep, is a simple way to really bring your body into the moment and focus the mind away from all thoughts. It is a proven technique to reduce stress, anxiety and even can help with depression.
Mental stimulation is also key and it is easy to move into binge mode during this period of self-isolation. If you are working from home, this will likely provide you with plenty of stimulation, however, on your days off, evenings in or weekends in, then make sure you remain mentally active. This will help to maintain some normality and could help reduce stress and anxiety. Great ways to stimulate your brain includes, socialising (electronically of course), reading, writing, engaging in a hobby, brain games, research and even cooking or gardening.
Stand up and move.
As we all know exercise is great for us. However, it is massively important in maintaining our mood. Exercise increases the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals released by the body. We also know exercise helps to maintain a healthy heart and does support improved immunity. So, despite self-isolation, exercise must still form part of your day.
Creativity is potentially required here if you are stuck inside, depending on the national guidance. Doing exercise outside is a fantastic way to boost vitamin D levels, get fresh air and spike those endorphins. However, this may not be an option for you.
There is a lot of help out there though. Whether it is following an online trainer, dancing, using home gym equipment or even using household items, then there are plenty of options to explore. Everyone has a body, and ultimately, that is all you need. Cleaning, gardening and decorating are great sources of exercise too, so maybe incorporating exercise is easier than you think.
Being social is a fundamental part of human life. Self-isolation means that we are not able to see our friends, family, or our work colleagues. This can be very difficult on our mental health. We are lucky, though. We live in a digital age, with immensely easy and available technology at our fingertips that can ensure that we can remain in touch with everyone, wherever and whenever we want.
By staying in touch and connected to each other, we can make sure we do not become isolated and lonely. My nana, living on her own, has now mastered video calling via her phone, so she is able to video everyone every day, ensuring she has that essential human contact. We therefore feel less worried about not being able to visit her. It has only taken serious self-isolation measures to get her up to speed with this, but now, even afterwards she will benefit from mastering the video call!
It is a wonderful opportunity to form tighter bonds with your loved ones, spend more time talking to them than you perhaps would normally have otherwise. Maybe you can reach out to old friends and strike up a hello. Laugh about past times, reminisce about happy memories. This all helps us to remain human in this unnatural time.
Get a great sleep.
8 hours sleep has been linked to better mood, better immunity and better health. It is not clearly understood why, but sleep must have a strong biological function, for us to need so much of it. In the early days of humankind, sleep would have made us very vulnerable to predators, enemies and the surrounding environment. It is not evolutionarily advantageous from that point of view. So, for us to need 8 hours a night of it must mean it has an essential biological function. It is emerging that when we sleep we tidy up the new connections made in the brain from that day, storing some as memories and wiping others clear. We also seem to perform some detoxification when we sleep as well, helping to get the body ready for the next challenging day.
Sleeping 8 hours is recommended for all adults. Older adults can usually sleep a little less. To try and gain 8 hours sleep a night there are a few tips I can offer.
Firstly, reduce exposure to blue light. Blue light is emitted from TV, computer, tablet and phone screens and is an intensely bright light. It will help to confuse your bodies internal clock and melatonin release, tricking the body into thinking it is not time for sleep yet. So, to counteract this, try reading before bed or not engaging with the screens for 30-60minutes before you are due to sleep. This will help you drift off easier.
Secondly, avoid eating before you go to bed. Try to allow 3 hours between your last meal or snack and sleep. Digestion requires a lot of energy and can interrupt sleep. Alcohol also requires a lot of energy to process and although a sedative, it actually does not help you sleep. Sleep and sedation are two different things.
Finally, choose an early night. We all have internal clocks that naturally control when we sleep and wake up. Our clocks are all wired slightly differently, but on the most part we are programmed to go to sleep 2-3 hour before midnight and wake 5-6 hours after, at sunrise. The chemicals released whilst we sleep means that our deepest sleep occurs before midnight/1am and this is the most biologically beneficial sleep. So, going to bed at midnight, or after, may not be as beneficial, even if you achieve the recommended 8 hours.
Of course, this crisis isn’t making it easy for any of us, but for us to be able to come through the other side, faster and hopefully with a much lower mortality rate, these weeks of self-isolation are critical. The points I have discussed will to make sure we emerge from this in a good state of mind with strong and healthy bodies, ready for the challenges of getting back to normal.
Dr Michael Barnish MBChB, Head of Genetics & Nutrition, REVIV.