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General News · 29th April 2020
Maureen Williams ND
At our meeting of our island's health promoters last week, the negative impacts of long-term social distancing on physical and mental health arose as a significant shared concern. Since physical distancing is crucial for continuing to manage the COVID-19 crisis, finding effective ways to mitigate these impacts may help enhance personal and community resilience. To this end, I wanted to offer the following, which is taken partly from some work I've done regarding stress, general health, and COVID-19 for a collaborative project with a group of health science writers. If nothing else, it may sever to remind you that you're already doing great things to protect and increase your health!

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Social Isolation and Immune Function

Social distancing is the most effective way to personally and societally decrease the risk of harm from the COVID-19 virus. But it’s not without a downside: when social distancing leads to loneliness, it can harm immune function.

The community-wide health effects of loneliness are likely to be among the most important long-term fallouts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine have been widely practiced as strategies for slowing community transmission of the infectious coronavirus. While these measures have been helpful in previous infectious disease outbreaks and appear to be slowing the rate of new COVID-19 cases, they can increase feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair, especially in those without strong social networks.

The evidence for links between loneliness, a form of psychological stress, and poor health is particularly strong for heart disease and mental health problems. In older adults in particular, loneliness has been linked to increased cognitive decline and dementia, health care use, nursing home admissions, and mortality. Some research has even found the perception of low social support is associated with increased likelihood of respiratory infections such as the common cold.

A growing body of research shows loneliness is related to disordered stress responsiveness and, like chronic stress, is associated with widespread low-level inflammation. Because COVID-19 exerts its most dangerous effects by triggering a massive inflammatory response in the lungs, anything we can do to reduce the inflammatory status of the body—including building and maintaining a strong social network—may help to increase our resilience.

Social distancing is too important to abandon right now. So, what can we do to mitigate its negative effects?

· Take time every day to build connections with friends and family. A strong social support network can buffer perception of stress and is one of the key factors for maintaining stress resilience throughout life. As a characteristic of resilience, social support helps to protect against the negative impacts of stress on immune function and inflammation. Although individuals differ in the amount and type of social interaction they benefit from, studies have consistently shown that social integration through contact with friends and family and membership in community groups improves physical and mental health and extends lifespan. Phone, email, and video technologies give us many tools for staying socially integrated while being physically apart.

· Incorporate stress-reducing practices like meditation. Meditation helps regulate the stress response, reduce chronic inflammation, and maintain a healthy gut microbiome, and numerous studies indicate its potential benefits in treatment and prevention of diverse health disorders. Studies in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have shown practicing meditation not only improves patterns of cortisol release but also triggers epigenetic changes that might also contribute to its positive impacts on the stress response.

· Stay physically active. Exercise appears to stimulate anti-inflammatory and anti-stress reactions in the body. Engaging in regular exercise improves the body’s ability to adapt to stress and has been correlated with better recovery from illness and surgery. Exercise is associated with better sleep, less anxiety and depression, and lower stress reactivity in the nervous and cardiovascular systems. A review of the research concluded that approximately 50 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise is associated with the greatest mental health benefits compared with lower or higher “doses”. Clinical evidence also suggests strength training may also improve anxiety, depression, and sleep.

· Walk in the forest. Forest bathing, the practice of walking slowly in the forest and inhaling fragrant chemicals emitted by trees, has been found to reduce feelings of stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, inhibit activation of the stress response and promote relaxation via the nervous system, lower blood pressure, and strengthen some aspects of immunity.

· Grow some food and flowers. Gardening has stress-relieving effects that are not only related to its physical nature. Researchers have noted positive changes in the gut microflora of people exposed to organic gardening materials (ie, dirt). In addition, some evidence indicates the simple presence of diverse plant life in our immediate environment may promote healthy microbiome composition. Because of the close relationship between the microbiome and immune function, these impacts may partly explain the reported anti-inflammatory effect of gardening.

· Is it time for a pet? Having pets is associated with less depression and loneliness, better social interaction, and reduced anxiety and stress. Several studies have noted that people with pets have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, and are less likely to suffer fatal cardiac events (heart attack and stroke) compared to people without pets. While some of these benefits may be due in part to increased physical activity among those with dogs, people with cats also exhibit lower risk of cardiovascular mortality, probably due to better mood and lower stress reactivity.

· Take breaks from social media. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-20 has been shaped by the 24-hour news cycle and social media. Rumors and misinformation have flourished online, spreading panic and confusion faster than the coronavirus, and fueling fear, racism, conspiracy theories, and hoarding. Misinformation has caused confusion around disease statistics, treatments, preventive measures, and disease transmission, and have increased the burden of stress. Repeated exposure to news about the crisis, as well as amplification of conflicting and inaccurate information by the media, has contributed to a heightened level of stress and anxiety that some have called “headline stress disorder”. Like any repetitive stress, news exposure-related stress takes a toll on health. Limiting our exposure to news and selecting reliable sources of accurate information can help us avoid this type of stress and stay healthy.

· Have a cup of tea. Include adaptogens and nervines like milky oat tops, lemon balm, lavender, linden, and chamomile.

(The original article is published by Life Extension Foundation at https://www.lifeextension.com/protocols/emotional-health/stress-management, although material specific to COVID-19 has not yet been added [as of 4/27/20].)