Keeping Healthy Amidst the Pandemic

Immune system and keeping healthy during the pandemic

Life as we know it has been completely and utterly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The very landscapes of New York and surrounding areas have become stark unfamiliar ghost towns. It is a confusing time for everyone,and the collective anxiety is palpable. At this time of uncertainty, it may feel like there is nothing one can do to feel less vulnerable. But let’s take a step back from reading the news and review some facts and look at things within our control.


What Is the New Coronavirus and How Does It Afflict?


The disease known as Covid-19 is caused by SARS-Cov2 virus,which most likely jumped from an animal source and infected a human at a wet market in Wuhan, China. From there, it spread and continues to infect throughout the world, as we have experienced. It is an RNA virus whose image is all over the internet: a sphere with spikes around it. These spikes are proteins that attach to receptors in the lung and then infiltrate by taking over the host cells. It spreads easily, primarily though droplets transported through coughs and sneezes, but now there is concern about its airborne potential. There are a few stages before, during and after disease that are important to know. In the prevention phase (which applies to most of us at home), supporting the immune system is essential. Poor diet, high stress levels, insufficient sleep all affect immunity, so counteracting these is imperative. The early phase of the disease and mild cases do not require hospitalization and may be treated at home. The symptoms are cold and flu-like with fever, dry cough, aches, chills, and so on. If it progresses to a pneumonia phase, infiltrate in the deeper parts of the lung may occur, with deep phlegm like congestion that causes shortness of breath or dyspnea. Many complications may arise from this: an autoimmune-like reaction may occur when the distressed lungs send more immune cells to the infected area, further congesting them. Inflammation causes more injury to the lung tissue, breathing assistance is required with a ventilator and eventually, in the worst cases, alack of oxygen causes multi-organ failure and ultimately mortality. For patients who recover after this serious phase, it is a long slow process and fatigue and breathing difficulties might persist for some time. The elderly and those with underlying conditions are at highest risk of severe stage illness, complications,and death.


As we know, the projections forecast that the majority of citizens will contract the virus at some point, but the vast number of those will have very mild symptoms. Many patients carry the virus and spread it without ever knowing or showing symptoms, and tests are not given to everyone who has mild symptoms, so the tally is probably very inaccurate. It is important to follow all recommendations from the CDC about social distancing and taking precautions,if and when you do leave home. It sounds extremely grim, but the positive side of this is that these measures are beginning to affect the rates of infection. This,and continued personal vigilance, are the ways to stay healthy and not spread the disease to others.


Chinese Medicine and the New Coronavirus


In Chinese Medicine, the phases of the coronavirus can manifest as different syndromes, depending upon which way the body deteriorates. In the early phase of the disease (and with minor cases), patients have, for example, a wind-heat or wind-cold invasion syndrome, much like the cold or flu, but then the disease might morph into a damp, stagnation or toxic invasion-type condition and ultimately lead to a major deficiency of the lung and spleen and qi and yin. In Chinese medicine theory, the immune system involves a coalescing of different aspects of the body to withstand disease: free abundant flowing qi, blood, and body fluids, healthy organs, strong inherited constitution, calm shen (or spirit), and so forth. Specifically,the lungs control wei qi, or defensive qi, which circulates to protect the body from invading pathogens. Once this is attacked and inhibited, a virus can penetrate deeper, which is why those with pre-existing conditions are so vulnerable.This coronavirus pathogen is aggressive and can easily overtake a weakened body.For this reason, it is wise to keep your immunity in tip top shape for the foreseeable future.


Traditional Chinese Medicine was apparently used in over 60,000 patients with coronavirus in China. It was also given to healthcare workers to support their defenses while they worked the hospital front lines. As many of you know, acupuncture supports immune function and specific points are indicated for prevention and treatment of respiratory illnesses. Treatments are focused on supporting the wei qi and dispelling toxic heat and pathogens,according to the stage the patient is in. For the new coronavirus, the most appropriate and safe application are specific point combinations used with moxa and or cupping for prevention and recovery phases.  In China, patients who were hospitalized were given strong herbal infusions in addition to western medications. Here in the US, some of these herbs are now completely unavailable and our culture does not allow for such complementary services in hospital settings.  


What Can We Do to Arm Ourselves in the Prevention Phase?


Other than the CDC guidelines, here are a few helpful ideas:


Diet: Do not underestimate the power of food! Indulging in rich foods and alcohol can be comforting during isolation- but consider moderating this with healthy meals that pack a punch with fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. Think of foods that contain vitamin C and zinc (red meat, pumpkin seeds, ginger for instance) as well as anti-inflammatory properties (cold water fish, turmeric). Refined sugar and white flour are not the best choices, as they promote inflammation.


The lungs dislike dryness, and they are soft and spongy in texture when healthy. So, keep drinking fluids and staying hydrated. Immune boosting teas like peppermint, eucalyptus, turmeric and ginger are great for the lungs and inflammation.


Supplements and Herbs: There is no cure or official treatment for the coronavirus and there are no supplements or herbs sanctioned to prevent it. I am not a believer in excessive supplementation, but vitamin D and any other remedial vitamins should be continued (like magnesium or osteoporosis therapies, etc). There are Chinese herbal remedies that tonify immunity and these require prescription if you qualify- please ask me if interested.


Exercise: moderate exercise is great for immune health. Excessive exercise is not. Brisk walking, jogging outdoors, exercise videos at home, yoga classes online, etc., are helpful for body and mind, so do them regularly. It reduces stress, moves qi and blood.  


Emotional/mental health: I am concerned with the number of people who feel lonely, anxious and depressed at the present time. It is important to keep perspective and stay positive, and I understand how challenging this is. Here are some suggestions if you haven’t tried them yet:

-schedule regular calls with friends, family and neighbors to check in and to connect. This is good for all. Every person needs contact!

-face time with loved ones- seeing people’s faces in realtime enhances the experience of connectedness.

-get outside every day, rain or shine. Go to a park, explore a new neighborhood. Get out there and move, and breath fresh air!

-write down one thing every day that you are sincerely grateful for. This will help keep perspective

-do something daily that brings you a deep sense of joy- whether it’s a hobby or a bubble bath, or whatever- do what brings you satisfaction. Itwill counter negative feelings.

-meditation: creating space for yourself to be in a moment of silence- it brings awareness in everyday life, with everyday challenges,even now.


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