Hi, I’m Dr. Chad Larson. Unfortunately Covid-19 is still a thing, and I wanted to speak to some risk factors for Covid-19 that you might not be thinking about, because they aren’t being discussed by our public health experts and officials who are disseminating information. This is important regardless of the vaccine debate, whether you’ve been vaccinated or not. That doesn’t really apply to these important risk factors. Because we know that the vaccination we have is what we call a leaky vaccine. People can still get Covid with the vaccine. They can still pass it on. It does seem to decrease some of the severity of the virus, some of the symptoms of Covid. But you can still get it and you can still pass it on. It’s still an important part of the discussion that when somebody gets vaccinated, they’re not perfectly armored to decrease completely the chance of giving and getting Covid.
So, I wanted to speak to some of these things. From the CDC’s website we learn that there are two main risk factors for being hospitalized, for getting a harsher outcome of Covid. Number one is obesity, and I think that’s been number one throughout the whole Covid era. But number two is anxiety and fear disorder, and that’s the one I want to speak about today. I’ve already talked quite a bit about obesity and metabolic syndrome, and how that combination is the number one risk factor for a poor outcome of Covid. But I haven’t spoken much yet about the fear and anxiety part of it.
Really what it comes down to is stress management. Stress management is kind of an old term, and I wish we had a better term for it because that one’s almost too broad. Still, I want to speak about it in terms of three main pillars that you can incorporate into your life right away. And if you suffer from any of these, then you really should work hard to try to mitigate them in order to decrease your overall stress load and improve your resilience to getting Covid.
First, let’s remember that there are two different things here. There’s SARS-CoV-2 which is the virus, and there’s Covid which is the condition or the disease. These two are not really interchangeable, even though you hear them used as if they were. But technically they’re not. The virus is the virus, and the condition is Covid-19.
Speaking to the subject of stress management, there’s actually a triad of types of stress. There’s mental-emotional stress. That’s what we think about when we say, “Oh, I’m stressed out from all the news.” That’s mental-emotional stress. Then there’s physical stress. This can be an unresolved injury, headaches, or some sort of physical ailment that’s making the body work harder or giving you constant or frequent symptoms. And lastly there’s biochemical stress. Biochemical stress includes things like blood sugar dysregulation, or an ongoing infection other than Covid, or something going on internally that can create stress. These types of things can be stressing the system biochemically.
As for the three pillars, one of the things that you can do for stress management specifically is diet. I’ve talked about diet of course when it relates to metabolic syndrome and obesity, but how does it relate to stress management and the stress and fear disorder that’s the second leading risk factor for being hospitalized with Covid? Well, it pertains to that biochemical side of the equation, one of the key stressors. Because a key fact is that many of us are eating inflammatory foods. Think of sugars, processed grains, and other overly processed products. I’ve had past episodes on ultra-processed foods and how common they are. I spoke about the recently published study from Tufts University that looked at the diets of teenagers and found that over 60% of the teenage diet is ultra-processed food. And this was observed across all socioeconomic levels, which tells us that it’s a choice. Even families who could provide healthy, fresh food are choosing to have diets high in ultra-processed food. In that video I talked about the ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat meals, the frozen pizzas and frozen burritos, the packaged lunch products that represent much of this processed, fake food diet. That’s a considerable inflammatory trigger for the system.
That’s one aspect of how diet relates to stress. Another one is blood sugar dysregulation. When your blood sugar goes up and down dramatically, if you’re choosing foods that cause big spikes in your blood glucose levels, that presents a stressor to the system. Then your blood sugar drops down, which presents another stressor to the system. These kinds of diets are significant stressors. And that’s on top of mental-emotional stress, and possibly some physical stress that you may also have. The more of these stressors we can manage, the more we can decrease our overall stress load.
These are things that are in our locus of control. The things that you choose to eat are very much within your control. It can be a bit of a process, if you follow a standard American diet which is rich in processed oils and ultra-processed foods. But you can start making meal-by-meal switches into healthier whole natural foods. So, that’s number one of my key components for reducing stress and mitigating the fear and anxiety risk factor for Covid.
-Dr. Chad Larson
Number two on the list is sleep. I don’t think there is anything else we can do in our life, in our diet, in our lifestyle, that will do more for stress management than sleep does. There’s a miraculous, magical process that happens when you go to bed at night. It’s something that selection pressure has maintained. Because, if you think about it evolutionarily, sleep doesn’t make sense. While you’re sleeping you’re unprotected, you can’t forage for food, you can’t make babies. There are lots of genetic and biological reasons why sleep is something that should have gotten worked out of the gene pool. And yet it doesn’t. It maintains. And frankly it maintains through every life form that you can think of. There’s always some version of sleep that happens. It’s just really important to basic biology.
We need sleep. I won’t go into all the different layers of sleep: rapid eye movement and non-rapid eye movement, REM and non-REM. There are some really cool nuances between those different things. But just on the topic at hand, you really need to do what you can to optimize sleep. From a stress management standpoint, there’s a rewiring of the neurons that happens at night. There’s management and balancing of the neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Those have a lot to do with our perceptions of stress. I’ve talked a lot about the HPA axis, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and the adrenal hormones feeding back to the brain in a kind of feedback cycle. That whole system gets sort of re-nourished and regenerated and rejuvenated at night. Nighttime is when growth hormone comes out and does its fixing, repairing tissues. There’s such a rejuvenation process, not only of the brain which is maybe the most important thing, but in the rest of the body as well. So I can’t emphasize it enough, and that’s something you would hear from most experts who understand neuroscience and neurobiology. There’s nothing we can do to replace sleep. There’s no shortcut, there’s no bio-hack. You just have to sleep. And if you need seven hours of sleep, you really need to be in bed for eight hours of sleep. That’s kind of what it takes. Really key to do that.
Obviously there’s some distraction management that you should consider at night. Most experts think that you want to decrease the blue light exposure from your handheld devices a couple hours before bedtime. Start to use low-lying lights in the house; you don’t want to use a lot of overhead lighting as the night goes on. Because, if you think about it, we can make our home environment seem like it’s one o’clock in the afternoon on a spring day. We can modify the climate in our house. We can modify the lighting. But although we can do that, it’s not normal for our chronobiology, for the timing and how our bodies are supposed to be relating to the outside world. So, late in the afternoon as the sun is about to go down and the evening starts to set in, bring the lights down in the house a little bit. Instead of using overhead lights mimicking the sun, you want to use low-lying lights that mimic the horizon. Use lamps on the countertop or desktop, those kinds of things. These are basic distraction management techniques to help set the body up for proper sleep at night.
So sleep is number two on my list of things that you really could and should do to mitigate fear and anxiety disorder, which is the number two risk factor for a hospitalization outcome of Covid-19.
The third thing on the list is exercise, physical movement, whatever you want to call it. Some people just have an aversion to the word exercise and it just gives them stress and anxiety. But we can just broaden it to “movement.” Most people have something they like to do that involves movement. Maybe they’re not going to be a marathon runner or a gym rat, but there’s like a million other things they can do. You can go for a walk in your favorite place in nature. Maybe it’s a park. Maybe it’s by the ocean. Maybe it’s somewhere out in the woods. Maybe it’s a museum; go for a walk in your favorite local museum. It’s just getting out and moving. Maybe you want to randomly do some push ups during the day.
But even if we go with the government recommended weekly amount of exercise, a hundred and fifty minutes per week, you can break that up however you want to. Maybe it’s three fifty-minute sessions. A hundred and fifty minutes per week is very doable, even in the busiest schedules, and even for people who really don’t like this kind of movement. Take a Tai Chi class, take a yoga class, Pilates, whatever. Just do some kind of motion, some kind of body movement that you like, that you think you can be compliant with, can sustain, can actually enjoy. It’s supposed to be fun. Take up tennis. Take up pickleball. Take up golfing. Just something where the body moves on a regular basis. This is really key.
So those are the three things. You want to optimize your diet with whole, natural foods. You want a broad variety of vegetables, and you really want to feature greens. You want to feature the sulphur based foods which are great for detoxification of the system. Your brassica family of foods which are things like cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, kale. And then you want to have mushrooms, which are fantastic immune system modulators. You want to make sure you get your dark colored foods. That’s where all the polyphenol antioxidants are, in foods like beets, blueberries, blackberries. Make sure you’re getting good grass-fed, pastured, high quality animal protein regularly. Healthy fats. There’s a gazillion recipes out there in which you can combine these things to make meals that taste really good, using lots of dried herbs and stuff like that. That’s not the point of this particular discussion today, but there’s a lot of information out there on how to do a good, healthy diet. And remember that this is for stress management.
Again, number two on the list was sleep. It’s just impossible to overemphasize it. You’ve got to get proper sleep. You’ll be amazed how much better you’ll feel in general, and especially from a stress standpoint. And then the third thing is that we gotta get moving.
These are things you can start incorporating today, right now, to address that number two risk factor, fear and anxiety disorder. I don’t hear our health experts giving us clear and consistent information about it, yet it’s number two on the list. It’s a major problem and it’s something that an increasing number of people are dealing with. So, hopefully this helps. I will keep reading the studies and bringing you the information. Until then, keep it real.