SELF-CARE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
“May you live in interesting times.”– Chinese Proverb
These are interesting times indeed. Though we’re not even two months into the Year of the Rat, this animal known best as a carrier of plagues has already made an indelible mark on the world. Whole countries are shut down, the stock market is in a tailspin, and many facts are getting lost in a mire of hearsay. It may seem as if 2020 itself has been cancelled.
I believe that the key to meeting the headwinds of this coronavirus calamity is to separate the signal from the noise; to parse out the true and helpful information from the fear-inducing hype and misinformation that has so dominated our attention of late. As you know, my mission and core value is to safeguard your health. Now more than ever I am doing my best to impart helpful, healthful information with the aim of keeping you well and out of danger.
I’m guessing you’ve already seen plenty of information about handwashing, social distancing and the like. I’d like to add some additional tools to your toolbox for these challenging times that are unique to my profession. If you have any questions or comments about any of what follows, please reach out and I’ll be happy to chat.
Viruses, Pandemics, and Chinese Medicine
Having a history of several thousand years means that Chinese medicine has already lived through countless deadly epidemics. There are many foundational texts in the Chinese medical canon about how to treat these conditions, and one of the ways modern-day China has been effectively dealing with the coronavirus is through the traditional formulas found in those books. I’d be happy to talk to you about these and share some further information if you like. For now, I’m going to start with the assumption that you don’t have symptoms and would like to stay well, so let’s focus on prevention.
Be Careful Where You Get Your Information
Have you ever played the game “Telephone?” Players form a line, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it into the ear of the second person in the line. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the last player is reached, they announce the message they heard to the entire group. The first person then compares the original message with the final version. Although the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player, usually with amusing or humorous effect.
In this time where we are so interconnected through technology and social media, we are literally playing Telephone every day, and when what is being whispered is about health and disease, the resulting distorted messages can be dangerous. With that in mind, I would like to dispel some of the rumors and memes going around in relation to this virus. Below I’ve listed a bunch of them. Rather than going into great detail and making this post even longer than it already is, suffice it to say that all of the following have proven false:
- Gargling with saltwater can flush out the virus.
- Ozone therapy cures coronavirus.
- Holding your breath can prevent you from getting it.
- The coronavirus lives in the throat. Drink lots of water so the virus is pushed into the stomach where the acid will kill it.
- Sucking in hot air in a sauna or with a blow dryer can kill the virus.
- The virus only affects old people.
- The thermal scanners at the airport will catch everyone with the coronavirus.
- You can get COVID-19 from your pet or give it to them.
- The virus is spreading quickly through gas pumps.
- Drinking a bleach solution will cure the virus.
- If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without discomfort, you’re fine.
- Drinking lemon water will keep you from getting sick.
Those are just a few, and there are and will be many more. Although everyone’s intentions are good, spreading false information about a pandemic is akin to yelling, “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. Before you pass along some meme that allegedly started with a noted pathologist or a doctor in Italy, fact check it. Simply Google the meme and search “Is it true that…” at the beginning or check the Snopes website. Stomping out false information helps to stop the virus.
Health Is The Best Medicine
According to Chinese medicine, our sleep habits, the way we eat, and our exercise habits are all inextricably linked. Do one of those three well and the others will be positively influenced. Eating poorly? It will affect your sleep. Having trouble sleeping? Change your eating habits. You get the point.
As we go through several of the ideas below, keep in mind that these are not all-or-nothing propositions. Each of these suggestions is linked, like holograms of one another. Systems theory states that a change in any one part of a system will change the rest of the system. So if what follows seems overwhelming, don’t fret—just try one or two of these recommendations and the rest of the system will change for the better.
Avoid overconsuming foods that cause “dampness.” In Chinese medicine, dampness is the translation of a term that refers to an overaccumulation of fluid. Swelling, cysts, excess phlegm and mucus, and too much fluid in the lungs (pneumonia) are all forms of dampness. Chinese medicine doctors treating coronavirus in China have classified it as a “damp plague,” a pathogen that thrives in “damp” environments. By making our bodies less “damp,” we become less hospitable hosts to this particular virus.
Generally speaking, avoiding sugar, alcohol, and dairy products are my top three recommendations, as all of these tend to increase “dampness” in the body. Eating and drinking cold and raw stuff can also create dampness by overburdening our digestion, so it’s best to only eat and drink things that are room temperature or warmer and to predominantly consume cooked foods. Avoid iced drinks, opt for steamed or roasted veggies over salads, and trade that smoothie for a bowl of soup or a hot tea. Overeating in general also creates excess dampness, so it’s best for your digestion to eat until you feel 70% full rather than overstuffing yourself.
For more on this topic, see Damp Accumulation: the Likely Cause of What Ails You and A Dietary Response to Staying Healthy During an Epidemic.
A Bit More On Sugar: There are an abundance of studies on how increases in sugar intake lead directly to decreases in immune response, and there have already been studies showing that people who have difficulty controlling their blood glucose are at higher risk of getting the worst COVID-19 has to offer. So, though you may be stuck at home and tempted to pass the time with snacks, find something other than donuts and ice cream with which to soothe yourself.
Use your spice rack: Many of the herbs and spices in your spice rack have antimicrobial properties and can also help to eliminate the dampness I spoke of above. Basil, black pepper, cardamom, clove, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel seed, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and thyme are all examples of spices that can support digestion, fight germs, and decrease dampness. Looks for recipes with some of those in them. You can also drink fresh ginger tea throughout the day. Known for its warming, antiviral properties, cut a few slices of ginger root and steep it in hot water with a cover on it to protect the volatile oils at least 5 minutes.
SLEEPING & REST
Get plenty of sleep. Even before this coronavirus crisis changed our lives, sleep disorders were one of the most common reasons people sought medical care. With increased stress and uncertainty, even those who previously slept well may come to find it challenging to get adequate rest.
Do some research and you will find all kinds of misinformation about how to get enough rest, how much *is* enough, and other “facts” that may make sleeping all the more difficult. The bottom line is that some sleep is better than none, and while it is a common refrain that we all need 8 hours of sleep, the truth is that not everyone has the same sleep needs. What is beyond dispute is that our immune system functions much better when we are well-rested, and not getting enough sleep seriously impairs its performance. Stanford sleep researcher Matthew Walker recommends giving yourself a non-negotiable sleep *opportunity* of at least 8 hours every night. That means getting in bed and shutting off the lights at least 8 hours before you plan to get up the next morning. If that seems impossible, emulate the Spanish, who will soon displace the Japanese as the country with the greatest longevity on the planet: Take a siesta. Even lying down for 20 minutes can have a profound positive effect on your immune system.
If you’re still unable to sleep after valiant attempts, don’t just take prescription or over-the-counter medications. In addition to causing dependence, these medications may cause excess sedation which could increase your risk for contracting COVID-19. Instead, schedule a telemedicine session and we can talk about other solutions.
Make time for relaxation and stress management techniques: Life happens. There will always be stressful events that trigger our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response). That is ok and can even be useful in some circumstances. The important thing is to give ourselves the chance to calm down and shift back into parasympathetic activation (rest and digest mode), which allows our immune defenses to work much better. Whether it’s a hot bath, playing with a pet, stretching, hiding from your children, listening to calming music, using a meditation app, or following along with a guided relaxation or self-hypnosis video on YouTube, make time on a regular basis to do whatever soothes your nervous system and helps you relax.
Get regular, moderate exercise. Regular exercise helps keep our immune system healthy and builds lung capacity and endurance. Breaking a sweat on a regular basis allows our body to excrete toxins that don’t get cleared as well through other channels. Many of us will be stuck in our houses for a while until all this shakes out, but that’s no excuse. There are a ton of free online resources for indoor exercise. Check out The Body Coach on YouTube, or Pop Sugar’s free workouts. Are you an avid cyclist or runner? Indoor training with apps like Zwift are like virtual reality workouts that you can do with other people. Most come with free introductory periods and many local gyms are also now doing their classes online.
Just make sure you’re not overtraining and exhausting yourself. You always want to leave some energy in the tank in case your body needs to mount a big immune response.
Brush Bathing: In Chinese medicine, infirmities that invade from outside the body are said to come in as a result of our bodies being in a vulnerable state. “Wei qi” is the name given to the energy that floats just over the skin and serves as your outermost defensive shield. When we strengthen our immunity, we are strengthening it from within and without. Brush bathing is one way of consistently bringing strength to your exogenous immunity.
Anyone who has been to a Korean or Japanese bath house may have experienced brush bathing. It normally starts with a basic rinse of the whole body with water, followed by using a rough brush on all of the exposed surfaces of the skin until the skin turns red. This is not a soft loofa I’m talking about; rather, a rough brush that’s a bit uncomfortable at first, perhaps the rough coarseness like the bristles of a foot brush. After the brush bathing is finished and the body is red, is it again rinsed off, followed by a customary shower or bath.
The belief behind brush bathing is that bringing fresh blood evenly up to the surface of the skin strengthens and spreads the wei qi in such a way that it aids in protecting you from viruses and infections. And while I know of no studies that have been done on it, there’s an abundance of anecdotal evidence from hundreds of generations of grandparents, and I recommend you include it as part of your normal bathing ritual.
Check out this video from my YouTube channel and note that we carry essential oil for dry brushing at the clinic.
Practice qi gong movements that strengthen your respiratory system and boost immunity: Qi Gong (pronounced “chee gung”) is the term for practices that combine movement and breath to improve health and wellbeing. If you’ve ever lived near a large population of Chinese people, you may have seen them in the park in the early morning doing these kinds of movement practices. Many forms of qi gong are based on Chinese medicine principles and can be used on their own or in addition to acupuncture and herbal treatments. Here are two short videos of simple qi gong exercises you can do at home to strengthen your lungs and support your immune system. These videos are available for free on YouTube.
Peter Deadman teaches Qi Gong to tonify and regulate the lung
Master Liu He teaches immune boosting Qi Gong
One More For Your Mental Health! A friend and fellow acupuncturist in Spain has already been on lock-down for over a week, with three more government-mandated weeks still remaining. Going out for walks or bike rides is prohibited—he can only leave home to buy food or medicine, and can’t even walk the dog for more than a kilometer. Part of what has kept him well is creating healthful habits and tying them to the clock.
There’s a lot of traditional Chinese medical literature that speaks to the benefits of keeping a consistent schedule, and modern research on “Blue Zones,” the places in the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives, also bears this out. Although my friend in Spain can get up whenever he wants, go to bed whenever, eat and exercise if and when he likes, he has imposed something of a schedule on himself. He gets up at the same time every day and makes sure his first activities—before social media or the news—have to do with taking care of himself. Meditation, journaling, exercise, a good breakfast. Then he can dig into the randomness of the day, having first taken care of his basic health needs. He doesn’t watch too much news, just enough to know what’s going on; doesn’t check how far down his retirement has gone. And he makes sure to get to bed around the same time every night regardless. You can do the same.
One of my teachers once told me that your top priority as a human being is to keep yourself healthy and well so that you can best be of service to others. This coronavirus crisis is unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes, and our physiology and mental health have no precedent for it. Whether or not you fall into the highest risk categories for getting Covid-19, one of the best ways you can be helpful is to be responsible; to keep yourself and those around you healthy and safe. To that end, it is my hope that you will take some of the advice above and put it to good use. Also remember that I am happy to help in your journey to keep you and those closest to you out of harm’s way—just pick up the phone or shoot me a text or email.
Given the potential seriousness of the virus, I am not comfortable telling you whether or not I think you should go to a doctor and/or get tested. Rather, if you are showing symptoms, I will tell you that you should! Short of that, I have access to a full line of herbal medicines that I can drop ship to you or you can pick up from the dropbox outside our clinic, as well as many other suggestions that may help. In the end, my most sincere hope is that you’ll stay well throughout this time. I’m here to help.