There are so many ways that COVID-19 made and is still making us sick. For those who did not start out healthy when the pandemic caught us all by surprise, now is the time to adopt life-long habits that lead to better health. To borrow a line from the current administration, we can all Build Back Better. By taking a greater interest in self-care and finding the right doctor, we can work in emerging well from COVID-19 and build a healthier body and mind post pandemic.
As we reflect on the past and look toward our new futures, this is the time to take a serious assessment of our health and to make needed changes. Whether you avoided viral infection or are a survivor, many are suffering from numerous physical, emotional and cognitive complaints. The solution lies in whole-person, natural medicine approaches that shift the body’s healing toward essential lifestyle factors that encourage our inborn capacity for healing.
It’s paramount to reverse the remarkably common and largely preventable chronic diseases. But, where should you start? Finding a medical partner who can educate and inspire self-agency toward better health habits, while also recommending an individualized, natural, whole-person medicine plan, is just the ticket.
- You need a provider who takes the time to understand all your complaints and who appreciates your symptoms in context with the rest of your health.
- A doctor should recognize that your underlying ailments and comorbidities can be modified so that you are less susceptible the next time you are exposed to an infectious disease.
- You should have a practitioner who will partner with you, as guide and teacher and who has a science-based medical education and behavioral-medicine expertise.
A licensed naturopathic physician fits the bill for all these wants and needs. If you have never considered adding a licensed naturopathic physician to your health care team, this article outlines why such a person would be a valuable addition to your medical and health team.
The four main areas where a naturopathic physician can help:
- Addressing the role of stress and how it creates and maintains emotional and physical illness,
- Treating underlying chronic disease,
- Tending to the immune system so that it operates optimally,
- Bringing new ideas for the treatment of long-hauler COVID-19 syndrome.
Chronic Stress: The Universal Symptom of the Pandemic
For many people, both those who have had COVID-19 and those who have not, negative health impacts from the overarching, far-reaching stress of the pandemic continue. Grief over lost loved ones, the inability to be with family and friends, the defeating news cycle, ongoing political unrest, the impact of varying degrees of COVID-19 restrictions, loss of work, school routines and income, as well as social isolation, all play out over the landscape of physical, emotional and cognitive health challenges.
With unrelenting stress, our capacity for adaptation is compromised. We’re not bouncing back because we have not had the chance to heal.
It’s a biological reality that chronic stress leads the hypothalamus gland to stimulate the adrenal glands, which in turn generate and release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones raise heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and glucose levels and, sadly, also lower immune function, all of which create risk factors for numerous symptoms and medical diagnoses.
Beyond the physical ailments, we know that COVID-19 has had a big impact on psycho-emotional health. Naturopathic doctors have tried-and-true approaches to treat anxiety, depression, irritability, and insomnia, all part of the fallout from unmitigated and ongoing stress.
Naturopathic doctors can help you raise your threshold for feeling stress and dissipate existing stress, which are worthwhile goals all the time.
The main approaches that help include: exercise, mindfulness, hobbies and creative expression, an attitude of gratitude, a good cry, a good laugh, time with loved ones, and feeling connected to other people in community settings.
Getting out in nature – a park or greenspace – yields substantial health benefits starting with melting away stress. We have an entire nature podcast series coming up on this topic.
How Lifestyle Changes Can Help with Emerging Well from COVID-19
We’ve learned a great deal in the past year about how chronic disease and underlying comorbidities, like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, asthma and obesity, can put one at higher risk for damaging COVID-19 outcomes. This is an important part of your health care because COVID-19 is not gone yet, and in fact, we will likely continue to see this and related viruses for years to come.
All of the mentioned conditions place individuals at greater risk for worse outcomes from COVID-19, as well as many other ailments. Research shows that conditions such as diabetes are preventable and treatable with naturopathic medicine. If there was a time to address prediabetes and diabetes, it is now through diet and exercise, and other natural-medicine approaches.
Similarly, nutritional deficiencies may lead to various chronic ailments. This can and should be corrected with dietary modifications.
In the last six months, studies have confirmed that vitamin D deficiency is associated with higher risks of contracting COVID-19 and greater risks of complications if infected. There are many other illnesses connected to vitamin D deficiencies, including higher mortality risk from certain cancers. More than half the world’s population is vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D supplementation is inexpensive and carries few side effects. However, not all physicians regularly test for vitamin D deficiency. Ask your doctor to do so.
Enhancing Immunity with Lifestyle Changes
There are many other integrative and naturopathic medicine approaches that make good sense based on our better understanding of susceptibility and how this virus spreads. Stress reduction, ensuring adequate sleep and dietary recommendations related to food and supplementation all play a role.
Tending the immune system always makes good sense. When you address underlying medical diagnoses and maximize lifestyle approaches, you will support enhanced immunity.
Even as COVID-19 becomes less of a threat, a well-functioning immune system serves us well. The immune system is a marvelous, complex, agile, elegant, and essential part of the human body. It performs amazing feats, including fighting off infection, mounting brave attacks on foreign entities and recalling previous biological insults to prevent reinfection. With the clarity of a sharpshooter, the immune system distinguishes between pathogens and a myriad of our healthy cells.
And sometimes it goes sideways. If the immune system is not working well enough, one suffers from more frequent or more serious infectious diseases. When the immune system is overworking, allergies or autoimmunity may develop.
If this happens, a licensed naturopathic doctor can help you create a more balanced immune system by working to remove allergens, by enhancing the robustness and diversity of your microbiome, and by applying natural medicines that support digestive and endocrine function, which also impact immunity. Naturopathic physicians also work to help decrease your stress response, which when overtaxed, wreaks havoc on immune capacity.
What about COVID Long Haulers?
Among those who contracted COVID-19, as many as 34% of COVID survivors report having neurological and psychological symptoms. Studies also point to post-infection cardiovascular complications even in young adults.
Naturopathic doctors are seeing positive results with long-haul COVID patients by working to rejuvenate immune function, decrease overall inflammation, support a robust and diverse microbiome, and reverse autonomic nervous system dysfunction due to ongoing stress.
By calling on the underlying principles of naturopathic medicine, prescriptions may be individualized to a patient‘s unique needs. They may include a healing, anti-inflammatory, appropriate-for-you diet, while addressing any nutritional deficiencies or potential food sensitivities. Adequate hydration, sufficient, regular and restful sleep and exercise as tolerable are keys to healing. You may also be sent for a consultation with cardiologists and pulmonologists, as indicated.
Individualized nutritional supplementation or botanical medicines may be called for to address specific or synergistic biochemical issues. Self-prescribed supplements are not advised as the immune system is not functioning properly and the wrong botanical or supplement may only complicate matters.
Body-mind approaches to help normalize one’s activated stress response from the infection are a part of the important science of psychoneuroimmunology. For post COVID patients, treatments may include physical therapy, respiratory therapy, and talk therapy. Depending on the severity of the situation, a physician may also prescribe pharmaceutical medications as appropriate when other options have been exhausted.
It will be a long unwinding road for many. However, there’s no better time to start than now to find health as we are emerging from COVID-19.
How do we Build Back Better?
- We take a good look at the stresses in our lives and our stress response.
- We create plans to reduce stress as much as possible, or at the very least to shift our response to it.
- We address underlying chronic disease states and with the help of an expert, do our best to mitigate or reverse those ailments.
- We tend to our immune system’s function and work, and if necessary, get help to treat long-hauler COVID-19.
It’s a perfect time to assess where we are and adopt a course of action to help us achieve our health goals. If we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with clear action steps to come back better, our health and vitality will restore to levels better than ever.
Looking for good tasting ways to support your immune system as you re-enter daily life, download INM’s Food As Medicine, Immune Support eBook.
This article is sponsored by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
Dr. Rothenberg is a contributor to INM and practicing licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg is the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 2017 Physician of the Year. Dr. Rothenberg's writing can be found on NaturalMed.org, Better Nutrition's Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, and The Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.