Right now, most of us have some sort of shelter-in-place rule as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic. That probably means working at home and even spending most of our time inside. And that’s a dramatic shift from how most of us normally live.
With the wrong habits and a poorly managed schedule , this can affect your immune health in a negative way.
But these aren’t normal times, and we’re all doing our best to adapt to a new environment. Being in an office during your workweek creates a routine and order that helps maintain discipline. Going to the gym or a yoga class provides a structure that makes sticking to your workout easy.
You don’t always have that routine and structure when you work from home.
Many of us are facing newfound hurdles that can throw a major wrench into our already-busy schedules. Maybe you’re trying to manage your normal workload while home-schooling your kids. Or you’re finding that endless temptations and distractions can quickly sabotage your productivity.
You’re not alone — we are all managing a completely new routine that can feel overwhelming.
That’s why I emphasize to my patients — who I’m seeing virtually right now, by the way — the importance of establishing and maintaining a consistent routine. Not only does it help your mental health, but it also will keep your immune system strong as we weather the world’s biggest pandemic challenge since the Spanish flu of 1918.
A strong, structured routine benefits your health and happiness in so many ways.
When you have a system, you know you can get most things done. In that routine, making sure to factor in enough time for sleep is critical to keep your immunity up to beat. Falling asleep at a specific time ensures you get great sleep and wake up refreshed to tackle the day ahead.
You make smart food choices that support gut health and you’re able to fit in some kind of exercise that improves your mood and wellbeing.
All of these little wins add up in big ways. You find that you have more control over things than you might initially think. If you don’t believe me, think about when you don’t structure your time .
In that scenario, the day flies by as you get that nagging feeling that you haven’t done the things you need to. And you probably spend so much time going back and forth between text messages and emails, that you finish the day feeling mentally exhausted.
You might mindlessly graze on junk food while you’re reading Facebook, which only amps up your stress levels. You complain that you don’t have the time or energy to exercise. All of these things cut into your sleep levels, creating a vicious cycle that increases your stress and anxiety, while decreasing your body’s defenses.
In turn, these things pack a powerful punch straight to your gut — or immune system .
TWO THINGS TO TAKE-AWAY
1 – The gut is the gateway to your immunity.
2 – Lack of sleep chips away at your ability to fight off infections.
What affects your gut affects your entire body. This is because the gut microbiome doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This complex system interacts with inflammatory, metabolic, and circadian clock systems.
When you structure your time, you structure how your gut and immune system work in a positive way.
FOCUS ON THESE THREE THINGS .. that we all have control over
1 – SUSTENANCE
2 – STRESS
3 – SLEEP
How you structure your time can dramatically impact all of these, which in turn can shape your health and wellbeing for better or worse. Let’s look at all three in detail and how you can manage them well.
A lot of us are stress eating right now. Stress eating often involves mindless eating, and more specifically, mindlessly eating unhealthy foods. It might not feel like it at the moment, but our current situation will end. Let’s move forward lean and healthy, not packing on extra weight and sabotaging our health.
Maintaining a regular eating schedule will help when you’re working from home .
Your immune health, your gut, and your waistline will all benefit when you keep structure and consistency. That includes not reaching for snacks or fasting between meals, which improves blood sugar and insulin sensitivity — two very important processes that help maintain a healthy weight.
Studies show that regular meal timing and consistency can benefit you in many ways. Doing so can lower inflammation levels, improve how well you sleep, make your body more resilient to stress, and improve your gut bacteria. All of that can support a healthy immune system.
Trust me, I know how easy it is to graze all day long when you’re working. But even with healthy foods, constant grazing can take its toll on your gut and overall health. 1
THREE WAYS TO STAY HEALTHY WHILE AT-HOME
1 – Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time . Prep as much as you can to make things easy. If you need to, portion out snacks ahead of time.
2 – Get delivery*. Right now, restaurants are really suffering. One way to support your local businesses is with curbside pickup or delivery. You can manage portion sizes, and letting someone else fix your food can give your day some excitement.
3 – Create a kitchen curfew. Being at home all day gives you constant access to foods. Chances are, if foods are readily available, you’re more likely to graze. Have a substantial dinner and close down the kitchen for the night! Take any evening snacks to the living areas. This is a great time to experiment with intermittent fasting, which has so many benefits for gut health, immune health, weight loss, and more.
* TOP TIP – Order more than one day’s worth of meals , and follow…
STANDARD CONTACT PROCEDURES
1 – Throw out delivery bags
2 – Wash your hands
3 – Eat off your own plates
4 – Store food in your own containers
When you eat healthy foods within a certain time frame, you’ll find the scales are moving favorably in your direction. You feel better and look better.
If you’re a fasting newbie, you don’t need to go crazy here. Even an overnight 12-hour fast can work wonders here. That means you eat within a 12-hour window and don’t eat during the remaining 12 hours. You’ll be sleeping for part of that time anyway. Fasting has so many benefits. Doing so can positively impact your gut microbiome, lowering gut permeability and improving inflammation 2 .
A happy gut means a healthier immune system!
Once you get over the initial hurdles — fasting can be hard in the beginning — you can enjoy the benefits that fasting can create. Some patients even enjoy fasting: They have more energy and mental focus when they fast regularly.
Keeping a strict eating schedule that incorporates some type of fasting will improve the quality of your gut microbiome and strengthen your gut barrier 3 . As a result, you’re less likely to have problems like leaky gut. Because most of your immunity lies within the gut , you maintain a strong immune system.
I haven’t met many people who didn’t struggle with stress before this pandemic. But for just about everyone, those stress levels have been dialed up to 11. More than any other time, this current situation is creating the perfect opportunity to develop a resilient mindset that manages stress .
A little bit of stress can make you stronger, but that stress response should eventually taper down. Feeling nagging, low-key stress — which many of us do right now — can worsen nearly every disease on the planet.
When you don’t manage stress levels, your health takes a big hit. You increase your risk for problems like heart disease. 4 Equally alarming, other areas of your health can be affected as well, most notably the gateway to your immune system and immunity — your gut .
I see this all the time with my patients who struggle with gut problems. Your brain and gut are very intricately connected. When one is out of balance, the other is quick to follow. 5 Think about a time when you felt anxious, depressed, or stressed out. Did you find yourself running to the bathroom more often or otherwise experiencing gut issues?
That’s the gut-brain connection!
And it used to happen to me a lot when I was younger — way before I got my gut in order using the protocol I put together in my Gut C.A.R.E. Program™ .
Research shows the stress response can alter the natural balance of healthy bacteria in your gut, causing the gut ecology to shift in favor of a more hostile group of bacteria. Stress also delivers a massive hit to your immune system . One meta-analysis looked at over 300 studies about immunity and stress over three decades. Researchers concluded that chronic, low-grade stress can damage your immune system. 6
Stress can suppress the immune system’s ability to respond to infections .
When you’re stressed out, you’re also more likely to make other unhealthy choices — including binging on junk food or reaching for a third glass of wine — that impact your immune health, gut, and more. 7 So, in order to step-up your immunity, stress management is a key component of an immune-boosting strategy. And the best way to manage stress is to structure time in your day that is dedicated to activities that lower stress.
Little measures can go a long way to manage stress levels. Here are my go-to
YOGA . One of my favorites since it can help you quiet your mind so you can feel and then release the tension stored in your gut and other places in your body. You don’t need to do it long: Incorporating yoga as part of a daily routine can take just 10 minutes.
SCHEDULE* time for breaks. Take five minutes out of every hour and do something fun. Call a friend, step outside to get some fresh air, watch a funny YouTube clip, play with your pets, or do some deep breathing. (Learn more about that in tip three)
MOVE often. You don’t even have to call it exercise. Just get your body moving. Most of us are sitting throughout the day, whether that involves working or scrolling your news feed. Even doing some pushups or squats throughout your day will benefit you tremendously.
*TOP TIP – Set your phone or other electronic device to remind yourself to pause, breathe, and find gratitude for the present moment
Several of my patients have told me they aren’t sleeping well right now. Many of them are glued to Fox, CNN, MSNBC, or whatever their poison is, which builds anxiety and fear that cuts into their sleep cycle.
Sleepless nights spell terrible news for your gut , immune health, and so much more.
When you don’t get enough sleep, your body makes fewer immune cells called cytokines that target infection and inflammation. Your body creates and releases cytokines when you sleep. Not getting good sleep can spell bad news for your immune system. 8
Studies show that when you don’t get enough sleep or high-quality sleep — both of these matter — you’re more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. If you do get sick, poor sleep means you don’t recover as quickly . 9 That’s because poor sleep can be a stressor on the immune system. Researchers found that poor sleep can even reduce your body’s response to the flu vaccine, making you more susceptible to getting sick. 10
When you don’t sleep well, your gut takes a hit.
You throw off your gut rhythm by adversely affecting the balance of favorable and unfavorable bacteria and compromising the gut wall. 11 This can lead to things like constipation or diarrhea in the short term, and over time can even affect insulin signaling. 12
But even if your circadian rhythm seems normal and you are spending eight hours a night in bed, if you are waking up during the night, the overall quality of your sleep suffers. Scientists call this poor-quality sleep “sleep fragmentation.” Just as missing out on sleep affects the gut , sleep fragmentation can also adversely affect the gut microbiome. 13
In other words, when something is off — in this case, sleep — your gut feels the impact.
Poor sleep can also mess with your fat-regulating hormones like insulin. You’re more likely to graze throughout the day because you’re hungrier. And you’re not exactly making gut-friendly food choices! 14 All of those things add up to weight gain.
Staying up late at night, watching TV, surfing the web, or looking at social media on your smartphone, all mess with your melatonin secretion, and this can spell horrible consequences to your immune system.
If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, consider taking a melatonin supplement. Melatonin has been well-studied for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. As the study that I mentioned shows, melatonin limits virus-related diseases, making it ideal for COVID-19 . Melatonin can help you better manage anxiety and sleep better. 15
THREE TOP TIPS: HEALTHIER SLEEP
1 – Avoid Blue Light at Night
Once upon a time, we got most of our light from the sun — NOT TODAY.
On average, adults spend about half of their waking hours staring at screens. 16 That screen time — staring at laptops, TV, phones, and tablets for hours — can mess with your body’s biological clock, impacting sleep levels but also contributing to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. That’s because blue light suppresses melatonin, which helps regulate circadian rhythm . Blue light can help you stay more alert during the day, but at night it can impede sleep levels.
Researchers compared the effects of 6.5 hours of blue light and green light exposure. They found that blue light suppresses melatonin for about twice as long as the green light. Blue shifted circadian rhythm patterns twice as much. 17
I encourage patients to turn off electronics about two hours before bedtime . Read a physical book, take a hot bath, do some meditation or yoga, or find what helps you relax and unwind. If that’s not always possible — I know how addictive those Netflix shows can be! — invest in a pair of glasses that block blue light. Studies show wearing these before bed can significantly improve sleep quality. 18
2 – Meditate Before Bed
Meditation is a great way to end the day and sleep more soundly . Even meditating a few minutes before bed can help your body better relax.
Meditation also improves control of the autonomic nervous system. Doing it regularly can activate parts of your brain that control sleep. Meditation can also increase sleep-supporting neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin. 19
It can even reduce nighttime cravings and help you relax before going to sleep. Once you get into this habit, you will find that your sleep is more restful and you will wake up feeling refreshed. Personally, I have the best sleep when I take time to meditate for 20 – 30 minutes before I retire for the evening.
HOW-TO MEDITATE BEFORE BED TO BETTER YOUR SLEEP
- Find a place in your home that is peaceful and provides a comfortable location to sit, ideally on a cushion so that your sits bones are supported and your back is straight
- Turn the lights down , and light a candle. You can put the candle across from you in your line of vision as a point to focus on.
- Commit to an amount of time you’ll sit in meditation: 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes and set a timer so you don’t have to think about it.
- Soften your eyes as you look at the candle or close them (as I prefer to do when I want to go inwards), and start tuning into your breath.
- Take a deep breath in, hold it in for a moment, then exhale.
- Develop a rhythm : 4 second inhale; 4 second hold; 8 second exhale; repeat
- Let thoughts roam freely in and out of your mind, but don’t hold on to them or follow them like Alice down the rabbit hole of your ever-active mind.
- Bask in the break the stillness gives you until your time is up.
A meditation before bedtime lowers your blood pressure, regulates your heartbeat, calms the nervous system, and sets the tone so your brain can enter the healing state that restful sleep is for the body. By the way, remember to blow out the candle before you go to bed.
3. Get Early Morning Sun
The way you start your day will make a big impact on your sleep patterns. And the best way to do that is with sunshine. Research shows that phototherapy can provide the following:
LIGHT THERAPY BENEFITS
- CIRCADIAN RHYTHM DISORDERS,
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- SAD (seasonal affective disorder)
…and MORE !
Among its benefits, sunlight can boost levels of your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin can also optimize levels of melatonin and improve your circadian rhythm.
The source is critical:
Get light from the sun, not artificial light.
Timing matters too. Aim to get sunlight in the morning, within the first hour after you wake up. If possible, get 30 – 45 minutes of direct sun exposure. If a walk around the park or lake isn’t possible, opening your window in the car or office can also give you some morning sunlight. 20
Try Something New
One final idea about structuring your time — try something new!
Right now, you might find yourself in a pattern of the same activities day in and day out — including meals. Variety can beat boredom and improve your mood.
Rather than focus on the lack of, like not being able to do or eat your favorite meals, find the opportunity within the limitations imposed upon us. Without a commute for most of us, you have gained time you can spend in a variety of activities to shake things up and enrich your day.
Understandably, even with keeping stress at bay and getting your ideal sleep, putting into place a healthy immune-boosting diet can prove more difficult than the first two combined. From queuing up outside markets for groceries, to discovering your options are limited if not sold out, each week can be a bit of a toss up.
To maintain the optimal levels of the vitamins and nutrients required to step-up your immunity is no easy task, let alone getting variety in your diet to avoid the boredom that leads to mindless grazing while having to work from home. Meal replacement smoothies make the most efficient way to meet that challenge head on and provide support for immune health.
But you also want to choose the right meal replacement .
Unfortunately, many commercial brands contain poorly balanced formulas, don’t provide the right delivery system, and contain gut-irritating ingredients such as dairy and gluten. These and other problems mean that you’re not always getting the right amount of these nutrients to support immune health.
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Managing the quality of your sustenance, stress, and sleep are all part of how to Structure your Time to Step-up Your Immunity!
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