During the COVID-19 pandemic, self-care is more essential than ever to help build and maintain a healthy immune system. Your immune system plays a complex and elegant role in promoting wellness with the vital task of helping the body to identify and respond effectively to viruses and other pathogens.
In UT Southwestern's Culinary Medicine Program, we coach participants on lifestyle patterns that promote balanced nutrition, physical health, mental health, and overall wellness. Achieving optimal wellness requires dedication to six consistent lifestyle patterns or pillars, and it helps to begin by focusing on one pillar and building up progressively healthier habits in all areas.
For many of our participants, the most challenging – and fun – pillar to master is developing a healthier relationship with food.
1. Eat and cook well
Food nourishes the body, and the process of making it can nourish the soul. For example, pizza may not be the healthiest food, but spending time with family while you make it can be a tonic for your mental health.
During the pandemic, minimal grocery store trips make it tricky to cook healthy meals. With a little creativity and planning, you can create nutritious, delicious meals using shelf-stable ingredients.
Get tips to build a healthier relationship with food and discover easy nutrition tips in my quarantine cuisine blog.
Oatmeal Peanut Butter Bites
Dr. Jaclyn Albin, Director of UT Southwestern's Culinary Medicine Program, provides an easy, healthy snack for the whole family, using ingredients you may already have in your pantry.
2. Move your body
Exercise similarly benefits both our bodies and minds. Even 10 to 15 minutes of movement can burn some calories and reduce stress related to work, family, or the pandemic.
Sheltering-in-place means we may have to rethink our daily movement options. For example, I'm used to standing and walking often at the clinic, so I reconfigured my dresser at home to function as a standing workstation.
You can also do squats and lunges while you're on conference calls if you aren't on video. Or try a free workout video online – your gym might offer its own series at no charge right now.
If your neighborhood isn’t crowded, go for a walk, run, or bicycle ride. Just make sure to keep at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. Enjoy your yard if you have one. My children had a blast discovering caterpillars in ours last week. The fresh air and sun will do you good, and it will help you with the next step: sleep.
3. Get enough sleep
Many Americans get inadequate sleep even under the best circumstances. It’s important to “sign off” and allow our brains to rest before trying to sleep.
Two hours before you go to bed, reduce your screen time. I’ve swapped my phone for a novel during the pandemic, along with a cup of hot tea. It's soothing after a long day. You might try taking a hot bath or setting up a corner in your home as your own relaxing space.
A couple other sleep habits to follow include:
- Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule
- Avoiding caffeinated or alcoholic drinks in the evening
- Exercising earlier in the day
Related reading: Get more sleep with good sleep hygiene
4. Stay connected to others
Humans are wired to connect – even my favorite introverts need some level of human contact! We need one another right now, maybe more than ever. Although we are following physical distancing guidelines, we can still share the details of our day with friends and family via video conferencing services.
Get creative. Several of our medical students and internal teams have a Zoom dinner once a week. Consider reaching out to a loved one you haven't heard from in a while. Send a care package or a simple postcard to someone on your mind.
Also, remember the needs of your housemates. It can be challenging to spend so much time with the same people each day. Sometimes you need to sit down and play a game or do a puzzle together. Other times, you might need a little alone time in separate rooms. Be mindful of each other and connect in gracious, patient ways.
Staying engaged helps improve your mental health
Dr. Kipp Pietrantonio, a Counseling Psychologist at UT Southwestern, talks about the importance of staying connected to friends and family through virtual technology, and engaging with projects at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. Show gratitude
Things may look bleak, but there is still much to be thankful for, even in this time of crisis. My family has started a tradition at dinner in which we each pick a rose (something good about the day), a thorn (something that was challenging), and a bud (something we are looking forward to). We discuss these topics as a family, reflect, and talk about solutions together.
6. Control your stress levels
Chronic stress raises our cortisol levels, which in turn suppresses immune function. Recognizing when we feel stress and taking small steps to reduce it are excellent lifelong skills to learn and practice. Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and journaling can be powerful tools to lower stress.
There are apps you can use to guide meditation and breathing, but you can also do it on your own. Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and close your eyes. Take five deep breaths and with each one, breathe out a little longer than you breathed in. This simple step has been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
Another thing you can do right now is limit how much news you read or watch. While it’s important to know what’s going on outside your home, watching the news all day can increase anxiety levels. Tune in to reliable sources only once or twice a day.
Finally, self-reflection is incredibly important. Remember to be patient with yourself. If you don’t get something done today, forgive yourself and try again tomorrow. Your mind and body will thank you.