Mad Cow Disease, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola, Cornoavirus – in an age of global connection through the ease of jet setting, it is reasonable to be concerned by the speed and virulence at which bacteria, fungus, and virus can spread between populations. In the instance of all of the aforementioned diseases, (which have all been declared pandemic, or possible pandemics needing serious monitoring, just within my lifetime), the “scare” largely comes from the fact that they were all conditions which governing bodies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and/or the World Health Organization (WHO) didn’t have any foresight of or plan for. I don’t just mean travel restrictions and quarantine containment, I also mean biological defense in terms of vaccinations, antibiotics, understanding of natural immunity etc… because in all instances they were newly identified strains of disease – new enough to the human population that the spread of them was at first happening faster than the knowledge, understanding, and thus ability to “control” them was.
In the face of a highly unknown, but potentially very lethal agent, we are certainly right to take any/all precautions for our own health and the health of our loved ones. But I have to wonder how many people stop to think about the fact that these health agencies, medical professionals, and the news media always start their “precautions/preparedness” list off by telling people they need to be washing their hands with hot water and soap, and avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth (and should they touch their faces they should go right back to washing their hands). These two basic rules are proven to halt the spread of most illness causing bugs! So do we only pay close attention to this when there is a looming pandemic threat? Think about it, how mindful are you of these practices in your day-to-day life, regardless of whether it is “cold and flu season”, regardless of whether you’re feeling ill or have been around someone who was? I have a sneaking suspicion that these guidelines must be repeated over and over again because on average the easiest fall-back habit is to NOT be mindful of these practices.
Did you know that there are many countries in the world where they do not even know about hand washing? They do not know it is important. They do not teach it to their children and communities. And/or they do not possess the resources of soap and clean water to be used for the practice with any consistent basis. Is it any wonder that many, if not all, of these pandemic threats we’ve faced over the past few decades have origins back to animals and/or economically disadvantaged communities with much less infrastructure or knowledge about hygiene for the sake of public health?
But, lest anyone use aforementioned considerations as an argument to justify xenophobia, consider the flip side of the cultural spectrum. Here we are (or assuming so for the likely readership of this blog) in a country where the majority of us do indeed have access to clean water and soap on a daily basis, we have education and trained medical staff and governing authorities who, on behalf of the benefit of the entire population, tell us repeatedly the importance of these simple but critical measures. Yet how many of us can say we really, consciously, consistently (i.e. regardless of pandemic threat scares) practice it? …What sort of excuse do we have really?
Of course while this hygiene practice may be at the top of the list of verified precautionary measures, there is still a huge elephant in this emergency room that we DO NOT talk about enough in our culture. That is the intimate trifecta link between Stress, Inflammation, and the Immune System! I believe the more that we can all understand the connection between these three process of the body, the more that said knowledge is power to maintain better health, even in the face of pandemic threat.
When the body is under any kind of mental, emotional, or physical stress – whether it be of positive origin (such as excitement and/or anticipation like an upcoming vacation, going skydiving, or welcoming a new baby into the family etc.), or be it negative (e.g. stressing over finances, career, relationship etc.) – our inherent wild mammalian bodies behave as they are biologically meant to, by pumping us full of stress hormone chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, in order to signal a “fight or flight” response. This is a survival mechanism, but while it is happening many other systems in the body have to take a back seat (including our immune system!) We did not originally come about in a world of constant media bombardment, long-distance travel and communication, air/water/soil pollution, engineered foods, fossil fuels etc, so when we are under such persistent, chronic stress, our body has little chance to recover and rebuild, and we begin to suffer long term health deficits as a byproduct to these stressors.
Stress and inflammation tend to be similar to a “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” sort of scenario. Stress triggers a rise in inflammation markers in the body, which contributes to more physiological breakdown – including of the immune system. But chronic inflammation causes the body to produce more stress-response hormones. It is a vicious cycle, but either way the immune system still takes a hit.
So lets recap – What all do we have likely working against us?
(Besides any irregularities in our hand-washing habits that is.)
- Environmental stresses – Meaning exposure to persistent air, water, or soil pollutants. Upheaval and damage to your way of life as caused by extreme weather events. This category could also include the toll it takes on our body to be constantly so germ-phobic that we expose ourselves to noxious cleaning chemicals by spraying everything down with sanitizers constantly, or the over-prescription of antibiotics – both of which doesn’t allow us much of any chance to build up any natural immunity to anything in our environments.
(Note: Environmental stress may be a big contributing factor as to why the Swine, Bird, SARS, and now Corona viruses – all predominantly respiratory illness – came from China initially; which is a highly dense populace that has far less stringent environmental controls on their air quality. That is to say, with poor air quality comes less healthy immune/respiratory function, and with dense population comes more ability to spread illness, so voila! the makings of a perfect storm for pandemic to get a foothold.)
- Societal stresses – meaning the pressures of politics, cultural or religious expectations, educational demands (finals, thesis writing, getting good grades etc), career demands, finances, gender expectations, racial conflicts, or contrasting opinions on “behavioral norms”.
- Familial stresses – meaning strained relationships with spouse, siblings, parents, or children. Keeping food on the table and a roof over your family’s head. Worrying about caring for everyone else and sacrificing your own health in the process.
- Physical/Emotional/Mental stresses – being any injury to the body, dealing with and trying to overcome any trauma, over-working the body (even if the intention is positive – such as going to the gym – you can still over do it of you’re not careful), bottling up issues and not getting help for them, or even something as simple as not getting a regular good night’s rest.
All of this is to say that if immune strength and protection from super-bugs is what we are worried about being prepared for, then there is clearly a vast range of immune impacting concerns to be taken into consideration. It is not that doing a relaxing meditation to unwind from stress is magically going to protect you from a pandemic, but NOT making efforts for stress reduction and inflammation response control in your life does contribute to a gambling roll of the dice for your immune system, should you be faced with any germs. So consider nurturing a lifestyle habit of less hypersensitivity, less reactivity, less outright fear, and instead seek calm, peace, and objectivity.
The other biological immune booster we need to be aware of is the health of our gut. 70% of the cells that make up our immune system are in the lining of our digestive tract, which means most of our ability to build immunity and have a healthy immune response, starts with gut health balance. What is this mainly referring to? Well, bacteria mostly. What an amazing accomplishment of nature, that our body functions by way of using “good” (beneficial, symbiotic) bacteria to ward off and help fight the “bad” (pathogenic, pandemic) ones we may get exposed to! Of course, even though most of these beneficial probiotics live in our digestive system there are also some beneficial bacteria found in the lungs, the sinuses, the mouth, and on the skin – in other words the “bad” bacteria we get exposed to have to fight to travel through multiple entry points of our system, encountering many road blocks along the way, just to get settled in and begin a full-on infectious invasion. The stronger those road blocks are the less likely the germs will stand a chance of taking hold. Have you ever come down with the flu and wondered why someone else in your household did not? Even news of this Coronavirus is saying that some people are carriers for it but never know they have it because they get no symptoms, while some people only get a mild head cold, while others get an extreme manifestation to the point of it being life threatening! It is not something unique, special, or odd about the Coronavirus, (or any other pathogen), rather it is about the unique response to said pathogen by each individual’s immune strength and physiology.
Recall all of that talk about stress and inflammation linking to immune function? Well, the imbalance of healthy gut bacteria (called dysbiosis) contributes to inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract, which is a physical stress on the body. Or, someone who is under stress may be more likely to not take care of themselves – eating less healthy foods, not sleeping well, having no time to exercise etc… – which makes gut imbalance a possible side effect.
Several studies by microbiologists are finding that by examining the contrasts of the digestive system microbiome between urban and rural dwellers, even across various countries and continents, all point to some repeatedly interesting findings. In many cases the rural dwellers tended to be exposed less to chemically treated water, highly processed foods, and antibiotics than the urban dwellers. If they consumed more whole-foods based diets they inadvertently were consuming more prebiotic fibers which helped to boost the strength of the probiotic colonizing bacteria in their guts. Additionally, the rural dwellers had higher exposure to a wide variety of bacteria from the soil, water, and air around them, which could actually be beneficial in helping their body build more natural immunity (i.e. immune strength). Consequently, findings show that the rural dwellers had lower over-all instances of chronic illness and of “Western diseases” that affected the urban dwellers.
*(For further reading on some of these studies see links at the end of this post.)
Of course with everything the best balance of truth is usually somewhere in the middle. You don’t want your kids to be smeared with cow dung and eating daily doses of dirt per say, but neither would it be ideal to chemically sanitize their microbiotta and immune systems into oblivion either.
So, with the hand washing and hygiene control measures being the #1 line of defense in stopping spread of pathogens, it stands by the old adage of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. But all the hand washing, or practically drowning yourself in elderberry syrup or Tamiflu, will only go so far if you’re constantly stressed, sacrificing your total health and well being and quality of life, crashing your immune system, living in fear of pandemics. It is ok to be cautious, but maybe try cautiously optimistic? Don’t just wait for the CDC to tell you so – Remember, that any and every day is a good day to take care of your health!
*For further interesting reading on some microbiome studies check these out:
Book: “Farmacology”, by Dr. Daphne Miller