Updated: Sep 21, 2020
As a person with obesity, and associated health conditions, what can I do to build resilience, to boost my immune system and reduce my risk during this coronavirus pandemic?
Since C19 has bestowed itself upon us and wreaked havoc in many peoples lives it has never been more clear to me about the importance our immune system plays in protecting us from harm. Some politicians and scientists believe this coronavirus could be just the beginning of an era of pandemics. If so strengthening our immune systems should be one of our key lifestyle goals.
It has become evident that, in the main, people who are at the most risk from the virus are people with pre-existing underlying health conditions. According to the WHO (1) such conditions include:
chronic inflammatory bowel disease
chronic renal disease requiring dialysis
chronic respiratory diseases
immunosuppression due to medication or to HIV infection
previous thromboembolic disease
severe mental disorders
any chronic condition requiring frequent medical intervention (inc obesity)
chronic haematological conditions.
It’s fair to say that these conditions most likely come about due to a blend of genetics, environment and lifestyle behaviour. It transpires that the rather vague ‘any chronic condition requiring frequent medical intervention’ may well include obesity. Medical Doctors in New York are convinced that obesity makes people vulnerable to coronavirus perhaps due to its link to many chronic conditions, including inflammation.
‘Though people with obesity frequently have other medical problems, the new studies point to the condition in and of itself as the most significant risk factor, after only older age, for being hospitalized with Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Young adults with obesity appear to be at particular risk, studies show….Abdominal obesity, more prominent in men, can cause compression of the diaphragm, lungs and chest capacity. Obesity is known to cause chronic, low-grade inflammation and an increase in circulating, pro-inflammatory cytokines, which may play a role in the worst Covid-19 outcomes.’(2)
This should be a concern for the West due to the high incidence of obesity. In 2019 the NHS reported that there were 13 million people obese in the uk (3).
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that lifestyle behavior, environment, and genetic factors all have a role in causing people to be overweight and obese. Dr Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist, suggests that 95% of disease is actually lifestyle behaviour and stress related. Stress is often linked to the stress of modern day living and the workplace but it is also linked to unresolved trauma and there is a growing body of research that connects childhood trauma to obesity for some people. Childhood trauma includes:
Bullying or humiliation (either as a child or an adult).
Chronic and intractable illness, whether chronic and lifelong, or terminal.
Chronic mental health issues.
Chronic physical pain.
Doxing and online harassment.
Emotional harassment, abuse, and neglect.
Having a minority status, such as ethnic minority or LGBTQ individuals.
Experiencing severe disappointment.
Failure to do something that was anticipated.
Living in severe poverty.
Living in a dangerous neighborhood
The death, sudden or expected, of a loved one.
Surgery, both planned and unexpected.
Secondary trauma that occurs witnessing, or hearing about, the trauma of others.
Do you recognise any of these? While not all traumatised people become obese studies have found there is a higher incidence of obese people with a background of childhood trauma (4), the impact of which can sit in the mind for a lifetime causing constant underlying ‘systemic stress’. By adulthood it becomes an automated process as the body has got used to unconsciously or non-consciously processing these emotions and excessive hormonal toxins through the body, one outcome being the storing of body fat. The person may not feel stressed per se because their body is used to that way of operating, it’s the bodies familiar operating mode, but high cortisol levels over time means fight flight survival mode is switched on in the body, causing a faster heart rate and suppressing the digestive system as well as immune system and low pervasive levels of inflammation. All of which increases the likelihood of lifestyle behaviours which can make a person more vulnerable e.g.‘comfort eating’ to make themselves feel better and declining physical activity. Indeed sedentary behaviour is viewed as one of the biggest health risks in the uk causing many serious disease and deaths (5)
What about the people who do not have a history of trauma? Well this may be down to genes (7,8) and lifestyle management. Sedentary lifestyles may well just happen due to patterns of working behaviour, ie working too many hours and not making enough time for exercise and eating well.
Whether due to trauma (impact of environment upon us) or due to lifestyle management and genes, unless addressed, people living with obesity are vulnerable to a condition known as metabolic syndrome, which includes a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. These conditions include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels (6). Other research also suggests an association with dementia later in life (7).
So what is the relevance to the topic of Coronavirus? Until now these conditions were ‘slow burn’ health issues to work on over time but now, the stark reality is that Coronavirus has made these issues a higher risk than we previously thought. People need to act now to address these issues to reduce their risk.
Things you can do to protect yourself, to build resilience, to boost your immune system andimprove your digestion, so that the good food you do eat is more effectively processed, and to slow your heart rate down?
1. It is not currently the governments message to shield if you are obese but if you have the associated underlying health conditions as mentioned above shielding or self isolating should be considered. That said is you do go out, clearly taking the head of the government on washing hands after going out to the shop and for exercise, with a mask on, is a must.
2. Develop good lifestyle habits - that support your body to build physical resilience and ultimately have more feel good hormones circulating around your system. NeuroSelfCare is a mobile app that refers to following lifestyle pillars that you can be working on every day and evaluate yourself against:
Ensure a good night of quality sleep and rest which should include meditation to support periods of quiet mind
Eat good food that reduces inflammation (ie not processed, gluten, high carbs) and saturated fats/trans fatty acids as well as ensure a varied diet which increases antioxidants and supports diversity within the gut microbiome (think rainbow veg). Don’t smoke and reduce alcohol as they damage body and brain cells.
Develop a pattern of breathing well and often
Ensure you take your fitness hour outside (or inside) which generates heart rate variability and brain frequency variability - ie 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity 5 days per week - the heart and brain need this variability. You can also stretch using gentle methods like Pilates or yoga.
Brain training - do activities which increase your feel-good hormones. Whilst it is recommended to do daily exercise, which brings in feel good neuro chemicals and lets go of stress hormones, if exercise is difficult for you you can also complement it with do things like Havening Touch which generates feel-good chemicals too and neurochemicals that help to reduce stress hormones.
Take steps to improve your social and physical environment to make you feel better. To improve your relationships whilst living in close confinement bring compassion, tolerance and humour to the mix.
3. Let go of trauma - If trauma was a feature of your childhood its important to recognise that unresolved emotions may still be sitting on your mind, more specifically in the amygdala, resulting in a concoction of toxic stress hormones in the body. Its therefore imperative to let go of such unresolved and unhelpful emotions as part of the strategy to address obesity and become more emotionally resilient. Havening Techniques can uniquely help to quickly and easily let go of unresolved emotions and systemic stress. NeuroSelfCare can help us develop lifestyle habits that support the flow of more feel-good life enhancing neurochemicals and reduce stress hormones to support us to optimise our health and wellbeing.
4. Attitude - You may be aware of an inspiring book called ‘mans search for meaning’ which charts the challenges and learnings of a psychiatrist, Dr Victor Frankyl, whilst a prisoner of war in WW2 at Auschwitz . Perhaps one of the most challenging life experiences anyone could have, and yet the take on this book is, that no matter how challenging life is, a core ingredient to resilience is having an attitude of seeing life through the lense of appreciating beauty no matter how small, a deep sense of meaning and purpose as well as quiet compassion (that is human- centredness, connection and growth). If we include at least some of these ingredients into ours days we will be enriched.