Category Archives: Pandemic

Am I Watching Too Much TV?

watching tv

It has been nearly 11 weeks since our household went into quarantine. We’ve gone out to grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, attend to the dog’s health, and go to the post office. Otherwise, we’ve had to content ourselves with activities and entertainment available in our Home Sweet Home.

For the majority of our confinement, I’ve been on a tear to complete household projects that had been lingering on the “to do” list forever. I had quite a lot of them, so it has kept me quite busy. But as I neared the end of that first wave of activity, I started watching more TV. A lot more. So, I decided to explore the subject to see if that was a healthy response to our circumstances.

According to a 2019 Nielsen study, Americans spend a great deal of time in front of screens. (See Note 1.) On average, we watch a smidge over four hours of television per day. We log another six hours on the Internet via our computers, notebooks, SmartPhones, and tablets. Add in another hour-and-three-quarters on the radio and forty-five minutes on game consoles and you’ve got quite a lot of media stimulation! But here’s the kicker: During a national crisis, we tend to up our media consumption by 40-60%. And we’re that much more attuned to social media to bridge the gap in missed face time.

Is all this screen time good for us?

Brain imagining scans show that excess screen time results in a deterioration in structural integrity. (See Note 2.) Gray matter atrophies in areas that govern executive functioning (planning, prioritizing, organizing, regulating impulses), reward pathways, and empathy. Compromised white matter affects internal connections between the right and left lobes as well as the higher (cognitive) and lower (emotional/survival) brain centers. As a result, we’re less adept at critical thinking, less sensitive to others, and more prone to addictive behavior.

Screen time has been associated with increased of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes as a function of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess midsection body fat, and high cholesterol/triglycerides. (See Note 3.) Such risks proved to be dose-dependent and were not moderated substantially by outside physical activity. Moreover, watching TV two or more hours per day and snacking while viewing has been associated with increased risk of obesity. (See Note 4.) And, of course, if we’re working full time and watching a lot of TV, we may not make time for exercise.

But doesn’t TV relieve stress and help us chill out? Assuming the content imparts happy or peaceful images, that argument likely holds true for limited engagement. But protracted screen time may be associated with impaired emotional health. Decades of data collected by the General Social Survey demonstrates that happiness has been linked favorably with social activities, religious affiliation, and reading and negatively with television. (See Note 5.) Of course, correlation does not prove causation. But, it certainly warrants moderating one’s screen time to see if less results in a better mood.

So, what should I do?

First and foremost: Exercise! For optimal cardiovascular health, Dr. Dean Ornish recommends stretching at least 20 minutes per day plus 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. That regimen should be supplemented with weight training for healthy bones and firm musculature. Exercise is good for the body and good for the brain.

Second: Meditate. I’ve written several posts on the benefits of meditation. This practice gains increased importance during times of uncertainty and stress. We cannot change the past nor control the future. We can train ourselves to live in the moment with a calm, clear, centered outlook. That perspective will alleviate stress and place us in the best position to make good decisions.

Third: Read. The Pew Research Center found that readers are drawn to books for pleasure, personal enrichment, and the joy of escaping into an alternate reality. (See Note 6.) Researchers at Emory University also found that “reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.” (See Note 7.) In other words, reading gives the brain a nice workout!

Fourth: Just do something. Cook. Garden. Knock off projects on the “to do” list. Learn to play a musical instrument or perfect skills on ones you already know how to play. Learn a foreign language. Make some art. Write a poem. Play cards or board games with family members. Give your screens – and your eyes – some rest!

References:

  1. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2020/staying-put-consumers-forced-indoors-during-crisis-spend-more-time-on-media/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
  3. https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/30/2/153/1542221
  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00379.x
  5. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-008-9296-6
  6. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2012/04/05/why-people-like-to-read/
  7. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/brain.2013.0166

Whole Food Plant Based Diet Boosts Immune Function

covid-19This week’s reporting on COVID-19 tells us that over 1.5 million US residents have tested positive for the disease and over 90,000 have been confirmed to have died from it. Such figures fail to count those who have not presented symptoms sufficient to warrant testing nor those whose deaths fell outside the net of COVID-19 tracking. The elderly and those who are immunocompromised represent a disproportionate percent of deaths. And there is no end in sight.

As a member of a household with above-average risk of severe infection, I’m paying close attention to actions we can take to help our bodies prepare for the “fight of their lives” should it come to it. A prime focus centers on our diet. Here’s why…

Scientists tell us that the COVID-19 virus enters the body principally through the nose and mouth; it uses lung tissue as its initial breeding ground. So, the first line of defense against the invader must be the mucosal membranes of the oral cavity and respiratory tracts. These membranes fight infection by secreting Type A antibodies (called secretary immunoglobulin A or SIgA). According to a study published by the University of Western Sydney, we can boost our SIgA response by consuming mushrooms. Healthy volunteers who added one cup of mushrooms to their daily diet showed 50% more Type A antibody secretion than the control group. [See Note 1.]

Should a virus break through mucosal membrane fortification, the body’s innate and adaptive immune responses go into action. Our innate immune response avails itself of natural killer cells that target pathogens, including viruses responsible for common respiratory infections. The adaptive immune response designs and produces antibodies that are custom-tailored to combat specific invaders. For proper functioning, the adaptive response must be sufficiently nimble to ramp up production during the window of opportunity in which the infection can be contained without going on overdrive and recklessly attacking its own vital tissues.

I used to think that the immune system was something that was genetically pre-determined. You either had a good one, or you didn’t. But it turns out that its functioning has a great deal to do with the quality of the microbiome in our intestinal tract. As discussed in a prior post, the microbiome plays an active role in digestion, vitamin and amino acid production, and metabolic regulation. With advancing technology, scientists can now trace the extent to which the microbiota and immune system work symbiotically to provide for the body’s response to microbial threat and maintenance of overall health. [See Note 2.] In short, a well-functioning microbiome provides the means for favorable gene expression and serves a crucial role in immune homeostasis. To that end, we must pay close attention to what we eat.

vegan dietHere are a handful of evidence-based recommendations:

Eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. While immune function tends to decline in older adults, one study considered the possibility that older adults are simply getting too few servings of fruits and vegetables daily. It traced the efficacy of vaccine-induced antibody response in two groups of older adults: one ate 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and the other only 2. The former demonstrated a 2.5x boost in immune response versus the latter. [See Note 3.] Word to the wise: Eat a colorful assortment of produce to maximize phytonutrient diversity and make your meals interesting.

Make sure your diet includes plenty of fiber. Undigested complex carbohydrates elevate production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that serve as energy sources for the gut microbiota and intestinal epithelial cells. Epithelial cells serve as gatekeepers that permit absorption of healthy substances into the body and block entrance to harmful ones. To that end, load up on whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Add immune-boosting superstars to your diet, notably mushrooms, bitter greens, garlic, green tea, and kiwifruit.

Add a tablespoon of ground flax seeds to your daily regimen. They’re loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and E, all of which are crucial for immune health.

Avoid highly processed and fried foods as they increase inflammation, deplete nutrients, and dampen immune response.

Finally, a study published through the CUNY School of Public Health explored the health advantages of a strict vegan diet over vegetarian or healthy omnivore alternatives. [See Note 4.] It found that the vegan microbiota showed reduced levels of resident microbes with pathogenic potential and a greater abundance of protective species. The vegan microbiota was also associated with reduced inflammation and lowered the risk of arteriosclerosis.

Notes:

  1. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/boosting-immunity-while-reducing-inflammation/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5541232/
  3. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/boosting-immunity-through-diet/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4245565/

What Science Has Told Me About COVID-19

As an alumnus of UC San Diego, I’ve had the privilege of attending two webinars recently on the coronavirus pandemic courtesy of Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, a professor and researcher at the UCSD Medical School. I’ve also checked out a couple of articles that inform my current perspective. Here’s what I discovered.

The Chinese Health Ministry has shared data regarding infection rates and disease severity. Risk factors for morbidity include older age, hypertension, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and obesity. Researchers are evaluating the degree to which drugs used to treat these conditions might have an impact on the presentation of the disease.

covid-19 age distribution and morbidity rates

While this chart is instructive, the US experience may deviate given differences in general health and lifestyles between the populations. Morbidity may also be affected by access to healthcare facilities for the gravely ill.

The disease takes root initially in the lungs. It takes awhile before viral agents manifest in the nasal and pharyngeal cavities, the sites where current tests check for infection. As such, a person could test negative for COVID-19 simply because the virus has not yet migrated to the upper respiratory tract.

Viral shedding begins 2 or more days before symptoms appear and persists throughout the course of the disease (see below). Widespread testing in Iceland revealed that half of the persons infected with COVID-19 did not manifest symptoms whatsoever. Bottom line: You, your friends, family members, co-workers, et al may feel fine yet you could still be carriers of the disease and infect others. Keep your distance and wear personal protective equipment!

covid-19 in throat and sputum

This unfortunate reality plagued a 120-voice community choir at its final rehearsal on March 10, 2020. Sixty choristers showed up for practice, none of whom had the slightest indication of illness. Chairs were set apart widely to give each singer ample breathing room. No one touched or hugged other members. Yet 45 attendees took ill, 27 tested positive for COVID-19, and two died from complications related to the disease.

You don’t have to be in close contact with an infected party to contract the virus. The virus can survive in aerosol form (i.e., suspended in the air) for upwards of 2 hours. It can also remain viable on inanimate objects for hours to days after deposit from a human host. If someone else touches the infected surface and then touches his or her face, the virus can establish itself in the new host. Word to the Wise: Wash your hands vigorously immediately after contact with a suspect object. Disinfect surfaces. Don’t touch your face!

Most states have placed restrictions on its citizens’ movements, closed non-essential business establishments, and denied gatherings in excess of 10 people. They’ve asked folks to “shelter in place” to the maximum extent possible. They want to tamp down the spread of the disease and make sure that our health care systems can accommodate persons with severe viral symptoms. Here’s why:

covid-19 hospital readiness

I don’t know if we’ll be able to hold infection rates to 20% over an 18-month period, but our household will do its part to make that objective a reality.

Meanwhile, there are multiple immunology groups around the country working on vaccines as well as treatment options for those who become infected. UCSD is active in this pursuit. Moreover, the UCSD School of Engineering is exploring options for 3-D printing of face masks and the use of UV light to sterilize used masks. They are also looking at ways to speed the production of ventilators.

A return to normalcy rests in the hands of able scientists and researchers. As Dr. Schooley said: “The virus will continue to circulate unless we get a vaccine to get it under control.

De-Stress With Mindfulness

My last post focused on the pandemic and the actions that my household is taking in response to it. This week, things have gotten more serious. Monday, our governor issued an executive order that calls for home isolation except to secure food and prescription medicine. Workers associated with essential services may go to work; all others must telecommute. It’s a troubling time.

In the midst of all this turmoil, I attended a virtual class on stress management and the immune response courtesy of my local Yoga/Tai Chi studio. Master Brian started the session by reminding us that we cannot control external circumstances. In fact, it creates stress and strain if we try to control them. We’ll get tossed about in waves of thoughts and emotions tied to outside events and information. We’ll lose our ability to stay grounded, to see things clearly, and to take right action. And we’ll weaken our ability to combat infection disease should we be exposed to it.

say no to stressThese observations resonate clearly with a post I wrote two-plus years ago entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. It provided high level findings from Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book by the same name. In it, he notes that chronic stress gives rise to hypertension, excess fatty acids/glucose/cholesterol, digestive disruption, bone disintegration, immune system suppression, memory decline, and sleep deprivation. In short, it damages vital systems, weakens the body’s defense mechanisms, and elevates the risk of illness and death.

While I’m seeing products that purport to bolster immune response fly off the shelves, I’m not hearing many folks talk about stress management and its role in bolstering immunity. Yet I suspect that managing stress is a far more effective strategy for immune system support than loading up on supplements.

Our exposure to news outlets and social media isn’t helping. It’s all gloom and doom. I get it; the pandemic is frightening. Its global impact has been devastating, and there’s no end in sight. We may need to hear how bad things are to get with the program on making sacrifices to keep ourselves and others safe. And yet a steady diet of that kind of reporting is not good for stress management. If you’ve already got the message, it’s probably best to be a little less informed.

be mindfulWe need to create space between all that external stuff and our conscious awareness. When the gap is small, things that happen outside can hit us and knock us off our feet. They can take over our consciousness and stress us out. When the gap is large, we can simply watch what’s happening and remain unaffected. We can live in a state of total presence. We can let go of expectations tied to the external world and focus on the power and centeredness of our interior life.

Admittedly, I’m not stellar when it comes to practicing presence. I get distracted easily, and unfavorable news can cause me to ruminate and worry. So, I’m making a point of developing habits and practices that run counter to my ingrained tendencies. I’m journaling in the morning to get the noise out of my head, onto paper, and then into the “circular file.” I’m tuning in to my daily Yoga-Tai-Chi (on-line!) class to encourage the practice of presence. And I’m establishing routines that create a sense of normalcy despite living in decidedly abnormal times. It all helps.

I’ve read and written about meditation but haven’t started a practice of it. It’s an auspicious time for me to work on quieting my body and mind. One step at a time. One day at a time.

A Pandemic Hits Home

This past week sent shock waves through our nation once again. I’ve experienced them before. I witnessed the oil crisis of the 1970s with long lines at every gas station. I lived in the SF Bay Area during the Loma Prieta earthquake and its aftermath. We’d moved to Raleigh NC in time to catch Hurricane Fran and the devastation it wreaked on our town. And I joined the nation in mourning the loss of life and sense of security with the terrorist attacks of 2011. I know the anxious feeling that uncertainty brings, and I tell myself that we shall get through it. But I surely do not like it.

covid-19The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic one week ago. Federal, state, and local governments have been taking action to restrict travel and establish a measure of social distancing in an attempt to contain the outbreak. As a country, we are scrambling to establish appropriate testing protocols and capacity to identify and (I hope) quarantine affected parties. We have a pressing need to flatten the growth rate of infection so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system. And yet some folks do not take the disease seriously based on the relatively small numbers of confirmed cases reported to date.

Here’s why I take it seriously:

  • Confirmed cases are likely grossly underreported given the relatively small numbers of tests performed to date.
  • Many people present mild symptoms and, therefore, do not realize that they are carriers of the disease.
  • The virus appears to have staying power on surfaces that have come into contact with an affected person, thereby increasing its transmission rate.
  • Death rates are disproportionately high, especially for older persons. (My husband and I are older adults!) Those with severe symptoms often require hospitalization to avoid becoming a statistic. They may require a lengthy convalescence and may not recover fully.
  • The growth rate of cases has been exponential; demand for hospital intervention can rapidly outpace capacity.

I had an especially nasty bout with the flu 5 years ago. While it did not rise to the level of hospitalization, I have a keen sense for how “severe symptoms” present and the reality of never quite getting back to “normal” again. I have no desire to experience that again!

We’ve opted to practice social distancing and home isolation. We’ll venture forth to address necessities, e.g., to secure food and prescription medicine. We’ll maintain a discrete distance from others when out and wash our hands thoroughly upon our return. In short, we’ll err on the side of caution to protect ourselves and others.

Meanwhile, we’ll take the opportunity to attend to some long-standing projects that have been on the “to do” list but just never gurgled up to high priority. For example:

  • We’ve reached out to our attorney to update our estate plans. We have been meaning to do it for ages. While I don’t anticipate them having to go into effect, we’ll feel comforted in knowing that we’ve done a yeoman’s job preparing for worst-case scenarios.
  • We’ve updated our emergency suppliers to hold us over if we need to shelter in place for 2-4 weeks.
  • We finished planting all the trees and shrubs for our updated front and back yards. We’ll pay closer attention to them going forward. It’s great exercise!
  • I’ll be catching up on sewing projects that have been nagging at me for weeks (if not months!)
  • We’ll finally get around to going through our closets and garage to identify things that we no longer use or need. I’m not sure when we’ll be able to dispose of them, but at least the hard work of going through everything will be behind us!
  • We’ll both catch up on “office work” that proves time-consuming, mildly tedious, and worth doing.
  • We’ll exercise consistently, eat well, and get plenty of rest.
  • We’ll make the most out of the quality time that we get to spend together.
  • We’ll practice gratitude for all the things that we have and be mindful of others whose predicaments are more precarious than ours.

I’m still unsettled by the uncertainty that surrounds me. But I will do my best to keep this household healthy and upbeat. Fortunately, having a blissfully ignorant, unerringly jubilant Scottish terrier helps!