Although COVID-19 has fundamentally altered our society, Asheville chiropractor Donald Acton hasn’t changed his message. “The key to staying healthy is a healthy immune system,” he says.
And across the broad spectrum of health care, practitioners of conventional Western medicine as well as alternative and complementary therapies agree: Scientific studies show that people with healthy immune systems are less likely to suffer life-threatening complications from COVID-19.
Abbas Rakhshani of the Asheville-based Yoga Wellness Center sees building a strong physical and mental constitution as an effective way to stave off the ravages of any pathogen that comes along.
“The universe is continuously in the process of renewing itself,” says Rakhshani, who has a doctorate in yogic sciences. “A hurricane destroys the weak vegetation and makes room for the new. So does the forest fire and any other natural disaster. In my personal view, a pandemic is not much different.”
Both men believe that the therapies they offer help strengthen the immune system, and the benefits aren’t limited to combating COVID-19.
“Your body doesn’t need help to be healthy,” Acton maintains. “It just can’t function at 100% when something obstructs the process.”
Those obstructions can be chemical (e.g., drugs, whether over-the-counter or prescription) or mechanical (stress on the nervous system), he explains. Other important factors include adequate rest, a nutritious natural foods diet and regular aerobic exercise, which promotes a healthy circulatory system.
Mary “Cissy” Majebe, who founded the Chinese Acupuncture and Herbology Clinic in Asheville, sounds a similar note. She cites three practices that can strengthen immune response: long walks (an hour or more, and they can be leisurely), eating a healthy diet and getting sufficient sleep. Majebe has also posted a video on YouTube about how to respond to the threat posed by COVID-19.
“It’s a big difference getting something and cooking it yourself instead of pulling up to a drive-thru window,” she says. “There is no diet that’s perfect for everyone, because people’s bodies are different. But eating well, getting outdoors for an hour a day and sleep are three things everyone can do without going to a doctor.”
Stresses and remedies
But if these providers’ messages haven’t changed, some practitioners’ lives definitely have.
Dr. Aneela Cox of Integrative Family Medicine in Asheville was working at a clinic in Tucson, Ariz., when the pandemic was declared in March. Staff immediately mobilized to cope with the virus, and since so little was known about it, the protocols kept changing as new information came in. The clinic seemed to be in a constant state of flux.
Then Cox’s mother, who has asthma, was diagnosed with the virus. “I noticed that my emotional health was suffering,” says Cox.
To bring things back in balance, she joined an online meditation group three times a week and then started her own heart-centered meditation group. She stepped up online communication to stay connected with friends and family, saw an acupuncturist once a week and made sure she got enough rest, ate sensibly and exercised regularly.
“In my opinion, using a multidisciplinary approach to boost our well-being is key,” Cox says now. “With my recent move from Tucson to Asheville, I’m taking the opportunity to meditate, eat healthy, exercise and spend time in nature.”
Majebe, meanwhile, also cites another COVID-related issue.
“Social isolation is a big problem,” she says, noting that her mother, who is 90, is struggling with that. “We have to ask ourselves what can we change, what can’t we change and what can we let go.”
But while that added stress also has an adverse effect on the immune system, says Majebe, those basics — adequate sleep, healthy foods and exercise — can mitigate the harm.
For the same reason, Cox recommends maintaining social contact at a distance, either in a large indoor space with few people in it or outdoors. Insufficient social interaction, she points out, can contribute to depression and anxiety, which also tax the immune system.
What the science says
Scientific studies support these alternative practitioners’ advice.
Getting outdoors increases the body’s production of vitamin D, and studies have shown that people with adequate levels of this essential nutrient are suffering fewer life-threatening complications from COVID-19. Worldwide, about a billion people have a vitamin D deficiency; although estimates vary, at least one-third of all adults in the U.S., and a higher percentage of older Americans, are said to be deficient. Taking a supplement helps. Other higher-risk groups include office workers (who may spend less time outdoors), people with darker skin, women (especially pregnant women and nursing mothers) and people who wear sunscreen. The same holds true for those with high blood glucose levels, regardless of whether they have diabetes.
High glucose levels at hospital admission are associated with higher death rates. Hyperglycemia is linked to higher levels of inflammation which, in turn, can lead to the often-fatal cytokine storm. Eating fresh foods that are low in carbohydrates can help lower blood glucose levels.
Obesity is also a risk factor for dangerous COVID-19 complications, underscoring the importance of a healthy diet and exercise.
In addition, Majebe urges patients to think about strengthening any areas of weakness in the body, even if they don’t show up in lab test results. This, she says, can be accomplished via specific herbal treatments. “If you get a lot of respiratory infections, you need to think about strengthening your lungs,” she advises. “But you also need to look at other systems. COVID attacks lungs, hearts, livers, kidneys, digestive systems — everyone seems to have a different response.”
In fact, a recently published study in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that patients hospitalized for COVID-19 who then develop kidney problems are more likely to die and less likely to regain kidney function if they recover from the disease. The study also found that people admitted to intensive care units were more likely to develop kidney problems than people who recovered without developing serious complications.
Because we know so little about the virus, stresses Cox, we need to keep our immune systems strong. We also need to follow Western medical practitioners’ advice: Wear a mask when not at home, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently and thoroughly.
In addition, Rakhshani recommends meditative practices and massage.
“My practice focuses on ayurvedic medicine and yogic sciences from India,” he explains. “Our ayurvedic massage boosts the immune system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Our mind-body therapies achieve the same goal through breathing practices, physical exercises and meditative techniques.”
Majebe, meanwhile, says that people should take steps to fend off a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections this winter.
“We don’t know how this will act during the cold months, but we need to be prepared,” she maintains. “I recommend vitamin D and zinc supplements to strengthen the immune system, in addition to eating healthy, exercising outdoors and getting enough sleep.”