There is much we have yet to understand about how viral illnesses arise, infect, spread and ultimately recede. But that does not mean we can’t take concrete steps to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our healthcare system at large.
Practical Tip #1: Getting Insight Into Illness With Heart Rate Variability
Early recognition of an impending illness gives us power and comfort. It allows us to:
- Self-isolate earlier, protecting our loved ones.
- Focus on healing through sleep, nutrition and supplementation, and
- Avoid unnecessary stresses like heavy exercise or alcohol.
By doing all of the above, we can reduce the severity of our illness.
If your HRV is relatively stable, early recognition can come from simply sticking to routine morning HRV tracking.
As many of you have told us, morning HRV can often predict the symptoms of flu-like illnesses – sometimes before you’ve felt the symptoms at all. This is because HRV is very sensitive to inflammatory pathways – including changes driven by the innate immune system as it ramps up to combat runaway viral replication. Often, your morning HRV will change abruptly and surprisingly, signaling the onset of illness.
Check out the below video for an HRV demonstration in our own real-world experience of over 200 HRV readings:
Practical Tip #2: Deep Breathing to Combat Stress and Worry
First, we need to understand how stress impacts your nervous system.
A perceived acute stress triggers a cascade of hormones, neurotransmitters and other chemicals that stimulate your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to prime you for “fight or flight”. In this “fight or flight” mode, your body prioritizes resources against the perceived threat. Other needs are deemed unnecessary in this emergency situation – like digestion, sexual function.. and fighting the onset of infection.
The actual mechanisms are comprehensive, incredibly complex and still being understood. But the key takeaway is to avoid being chronically (and unnecessarily) in this “fight-or-flight” state, suppressing your immune system.
Unfortunately, when we are bombarded with bad news, our routines are disrupted, and our loved ones are at risk, avoiding a “fight-or-flight” state is easier said than done.
Monitoring your HRV each morning while at-rest will give you insight into the state of your nervous system. If you’ve noticed any gradual decline in morning HRV scores, or more yellow or red morning readiness readings, these could be an indicator that your stress load is increasing and your sympathetic nervous system is more active.
If your SNS is overactive for too long, your immune system may suffer, leaving you more vulnerable to illness.
Regardless of your state of stress, your breath is a powerful regulator of your cardiovascular and autonomic nervous systems.
More specifically, nasal diaphragmatic breathing.
Most of us have “learned” as adults to take 12-18 breaths per minute, often using our chest to power the inhales and exhales through our mouths. Unlike this mouth breathing, slow diaphragmatic nasal breathing has several major benefits:
- It provides oxygen to the lower lobes of the lungs, which are imbued with parasympathetic (“rest and relax”) nerve endings.
- It produces nitric oxide, a bronchodilator and vasodilator that helps to lower blood pressure and improve oxygen absorption.
- It stimulates the vagus nerve, the primary controller of the autonomic nervous system.
The right kind of breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, changes your mindset, improves your mental state, and increases your HRV – all of which boost your innate immune system.
In general, following these four steps will form a basic foundation to proper breathing:
- Breath through your nose, using your belly and not your chest and shoulders
- Exhale more slowly than you typically do, but not to the point of exertion or discomfort
- Focus on your breath (I like to softly repeat “rising” on the inhale and “falling” on the exhale) to help clear the mind
- Try it for just 10 breaths, especially when you perceive that stressful event
At any point, you can find “guided breathing” readings in our app to help guide you through the process. In the near future, we’ll be launching more advanced programs to guide you further.
Over time, you’ll find gratitude and satisfaction at being able to use breathing as a tool to deploy “in-the-moment” at any moment – including if you feel overwhelmed by the current public health crisis.
Take a minute now and try this deep breathing for yourself.
Practical Tip #3: Supplementary lifestyle advice from experienced physicians
We interviewed Dr. Patrick Hanaway here (link) to understand what lifestyle changes (diet, supplements, exercise, etc) might be helpful to combat viral illness.
Dr Hanaway is a board-certified family physician with a medical degree from Washington University and residency training at the University of New Mexico.
He spent a decade as the Chief Medical Officer at Genova Diagnostics. Following that he became the Chief Medical Education Officer for the Institute for Functional Medicine as well as the founding Medical Director at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He still serves as a Research Collaborator there.
He is the past President of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and co-founded Family to Family: Your Home for Whole Family Health with his wife here in Asheville, NC.
Dr. Hanaway also helped lead the COVID-19 Taskforce for the Institute for Functional Medicine, aggregating the rapidly growing body of relevant research and empirical findings and translating into practical steps.
The content presented in this post and podcast is intended as an information resource only. None of it is intended to be medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult with your medical practitioner or provider before attempting any new treatments.
We hope these tools help you stay healthy and well (in body and mind).