Improving health best defence during wait for vaccine

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Chronic stress can decrease the body's immunity. Photo: Getty Images
Social distancing may remain necessary during the 18 months or more we’ll have to wait for a coronavirus vaccine.

This can feel like we have little control, but there are several evidence-based protective measures we can take in the interim to ensure we are as healthy as possible to fight off infection and prevent mental health problems.

If we are going to restrict and change our lifestyles for 12 to 18 months while we wait for a vaccine, and want to protect ourselves better now and in the future, we could address unhealthy lifestyle factors. They not only affect our recovery from viruses and respiratory infections, but are also the biggest cost to the quality of life in most countries.

Maintaining optimal health is our best defence against a pandemic until a vaccine is available.

We identify three modifiable risk factors:

Diet. Research shows better nourished people are less likely to develop both mental and physical problems. Certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and D and zinc, have been identified as essential for improving immunity across the lifespan. A better diet is associated with a lower chance of developing mental health problems. Eat real whole foods — fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and healthy fats — and reduce intake of ultra-processed foods.

Exercise. Being physically fit adds years to your life — and quality of life. High cardiorespiratory (lung and heart) fitness is also associated with less respiratory illness, and better survival of such illnesses.

How do you get fit? Set aside time and prioritise walking at a minimum, and more vigorous activity if possible, every day. The more the better, as long as you are not overdoing it for your individual fitness level.

Stress. Stress impairs our immunity. It disrupts the regulation of the cortisol response which can suppress immune function. Chronic stress can decrease the body’s lymphocytes (white blood cells that help fight off infection).

How do we lower stress? Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, cognitive-behaviour therapy, optimising sleep and eating well can all help in mitigating the negative impact of stress on our lives. Taking additional nutrients, such as the B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium, iron and zinc has a positive impact on stress levels.

Modifying lifestyle factors won’t eliminate Covid-19 but it can reduce the risk of death and help people to recover. — The Conversation

Julia J Rucklidge is a professor of psychology at University of Canterbury and Grant Schofield is a professor of public health and director of the Human Potential Centre, Auckland University of Technology.

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