For those of you reading this blog during the coronavirus outbreak, my aim is to give you some useful information to help your support your optimal health. This applies during this time, but is also important on a daily basis – our respiratory and immune health can determine our quality of life. Self-care is a key part of the kind attention and self-compassion that gives us the resources to be able to care and look out for others.
It can also provide reassurance that you are taking the self-protective action that can help quell a sense of fear that can come from feeling out of control. It is important to be able to sit with and meet feelings of vulnerability (please see Brene Brown’s work on this!); we can notice what we can control, so we can develop some ease and adaptability around that which we cannot.
This ease and calm within the nervous system (and therefore the whole mind-body) is a crucial part of immune and respiratory health. This calm parasympathetic tone of the nervous system is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ state; it is where we heal, build up resources and can be nourished.
The opposite sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ state is energising and motivating, but if dominates our experience can wear down resources and keep us in inflammatory and survival states. This can show up as poor resistance to infection, over-reaction of the immune system and tight, shallow breath – as well as insomnia, IBS, fatigue, anxiety, depression and other ‘stress-related’ conditions.
These whole body states are intricately bound up in our emotional experience and mental responses to those. As Dr Gabor Mate (author of When the Body Says No) states, “The brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular the immune system.”
Self-compassion and self-care are vital in these uncertain times – fear and panic ripple outward to keep us in the ‘constant alert’ state that leaves us with little energy and natural self-protection in the long-run. This is a great time to read Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion, which has many such resources.
Our respiratory system – this is how we take in vital oxygen and release the bi-product of respiration (creating energy) in each of our cells, as carbon dioxide; the balance of these two gases is vital for all cells, tissues and body system functions. It’s helpful to not just look at the architecture of our breathing, but also the way we breathe in terms of our physicality, our chest, diaphragm, our throat. The way the air moves around and inside our head and nasal passages and the mouth, but also in terms of how the nervous system feeds into this. Our nervous system states (as described above) have a massive implication on the quality of our breath, how much oxygen we are able to take in, how much our mucus membranes and passages are able to heel and repair and stay fully able to have their natural self-protective immune measures functioning.
Our immune system – this is a complex network of unique molecules, cells, organs and systems all working together to operate a defence system against invaders:
The immune system has developed a broad range of defence mechanisms including inflammation, phagocytosis, antibody synthesis, etc.
Our immune systems have two branches:
Innate immunity – a more ancient, broader system that is ready to protect us from any perceived danger at all times. There is lots we can do at home to support our innate immunity, which may have an affect on the symptoms and severity to which new exposure to a disease affects us. Specifically with respiratory diseases, health of the lungs and their oxygenation capacity is an important aspect of health at all times – testing the lungs is a key marker of overall health.
Acquired immunity – this is the more modern branch of the immune system; the one that learns to defend against specific invaders such as viruses, bacteria and fungi it has met before, with dedicated cells (antibodies) created by the memory of the first exposure for a quick and effective response the next time they show up. This is the mechanism behind herd immunity and vaccinations; exposing us to a pathological (harmful) agent so we can develop acquired immunity.
So we can’t necessarily know whether we have acquired immunity to a particular pathogen, but either way, supporting innate immunity is always within our capacity; through diet, lifestyle, exercise, the quality of our interactions with others and addressing those unconscious patterns in life that can keep us reacting from fear states. The latter is what therapies and trauma-releasing practices look to help us understand and move through – to feel the deeper sense of safety that frees us from simply going into survival reactions over and over again.
This mindful quality of living, particularly Mindfulness of Breathing (which we will cover next week) has a large body of research to show how it brings down innate immune responses on high alert. Inflammation markers are used to measure levels of stress in the body as inflammation is a survival reaction that comes along for self-protection in the fight or flight response. Inflammation is the action that stops us bleeding to death when wounded in the fight or the fleeing. It also signals for immune components to be brought to the site of wounds to prevent infection.
Stress modes keep up inflammatory responses, which lower our resistance to other infection when chronic and long-term. They are often at the root of complications with other diseases eg the ‘cytokine storms’ that affect those worse hit (or who die) from Covid-19. Cytokines are the immune messengers that set off the inflammation cascade.
When looking to support innate immunity through appropriate immune response (or immune modulation). It’s important to look at both nutritional elements, stress levels and breathing when looking to support our innate immunity. All body systems are intricately connected and as 70% of our immune capacity (as lymphatic tissue and antibodies) is located in the gut and signals back up to the lungs, digestive health is for immune and respiratory health.
Looking after our whole health – physical, mental and emotional – ripples through all aspects of our health and our quality of life.
We will continue this subject in three parts – next time we will look at the breath, then the week after diet and lifestyle support.