Updated: Mar 13, 2020
Strengthening the Lungs and Immune System in the face of a global scare
Throughout the history of the world, humans have faced pandemics, diseases which affect whole countries or the entire world. Sheepishly I admit, I have not even heard of some of them, but it would be impossible to live in the modern world without hearing about the current corona virus, COVID-19 .
While it is not confirmed how COVID- 19 is spread, generally corona viruses are said to be spread through respiratory droplets. According to the world health organization common signs of any corona virus infection include "respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death". Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread of corona viruses in general "include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing." (- World Health Organization). These are called NPIs or Non-Pharmaceutical-Interventions.
This is a time (like all times) when I look to some of the information that I have learned from sources and societies with old medicine systems, like Ayurveda, full of other NPIs, who have dealt with many epidemics and pandemics over history. I look for preventative health and ways to protect the immune system and the particular tissues, and in this case, strengthening lungs.
As of March 10, 2020, the death toll for COVID-19 worldwide is 4,269 of which 3,136 have been in China. Keep track here.
Many of the cases have been mild. And so with the information that we have, the question becomes, what other measures can we take besides the NPIs mentioned above to protect ourselves, or in the unlucky case of contracting the disease, survive and thrive onward.
Strengthen the Immune System
Creating a strong immune system is a huge topic of interest in Ayurveda, the science of life knowledge and longevity. Both western and eastern medicine agree on the following measures (taken from health.harvard.edu)
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables
Maintain a healthy weight
If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation
Get adequate sleep
Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly
Try to minimize stress
Very important note: Ayurveda does not share the same view on what a "healthy body weight" is. Health is individualized in Ayurveda and does not share the views of beauty standards mixed that are used in the west but has a completely different view of body tissue health.
And further, there is full agreement between Ayurveda and western medicine that the immune system, "Like any fighting force... marches on its stomach. Healthy immune system warriors need good, regular nourishment."
The micronutrients we mostly need are found in vegetables. Ayurveda would say that the perfect diet is not a cookie-cutter science. However, some general statements can be made like to follow a diet rich in vegetables and plant matter, and a lifestyle that suits your general constitution. (Vata, Pitta, or Kapha). Further, it would say to eat foods that are Ojas building foods, which are nutrient dense and building like pumpkin seeds, sesame sees, ghee, dates, soaked almonds, cashews, fleshy fruits, figs, high antioxidant foods, sweet potatoes, whole grains, bone marrow broths (for meat eaters), coconut meat or water, good quality oils, milk if it is unprocessed, warmed, and spiced. Learn more about Ojas in future posts! You would choose which of these to focus on as per your dosha and your particular needs. The anxiety alone during a time of pandemic can so provoking to the system, that eating a grounding and regular diet may become more necessary than even before. And if one contracts a virus or any other taxation on the system, good nutrition is key to fighting effectively.
Gut and Lung Connection
Tailoring your diet specifically for your needs and optimal health and wellness is the work of a seasoned ayurvedic health counselor or ayurvedic doctor. Western and eastern medicine agree upon the connection between the gut and the lungs, though the reasoning for this remains undetermined in allopathic medicine. According to digestivehealthinstitute.org persons with asthma should also avoid dry, cold leftover food; and this is absolutely in keeping with ayurveda. It is further written there that "As many as 80 percent of asthmatics suffer from abnormal gastroesophageal refulix compared to about 20-30 percent of non-astmatics... When acid neutralizing drugs are used (PPIs, H2bockers, and even antacids) bacteria from the intestines are more likely to overgrow and survive in the small intestine and the stomach. Reflux can cause these bacteria to enter the esophagus and potentially the lungs and intestines... People on acid blocking meds are more susceptible to respiratory infections ..." Moral of the story in my view? It may be notable to mention that if you are on these meds, you may want to talk to your doctor about your medications and also your natural medicine/ ayurvedic practitioner about a diet specific to GERD.
The Role of Inflammation?
Not much can be said conclusively about the corona virus and the world's best western scientists certainly are on the job! So this section is more of a hint as to how I would personally be taking into consideration for myself, not a general claim or protocol. Taken from this disturbing but factual article from National Geographic which marks what the corona virus does to the body at its worst, particularly to those who die of it, University of Maryland professor Matthew B. Frieman is quoted making comparisons between the workings of SARS, MERS (other corona viruses) and COVID-19. He notes that due to the fact that many patients develop pneumonia in both lungs, it is possible that like SARS, COVID-19 attacks cilia cells, cells in the lungs that help to brush off pollen and other invaders. When the cilia cells are killed, they make further debris in the lungs. And the body's inflammatory response goes on over-drive much like an autoimmune response killing not only infected areas but healthy lung tissue, creating holes and scars, further lung damage, and that is what kills people. Could this indicate a need to follow a diet more specified to auto-immune disease, which is highly anti-inflammatory, to lower the body's current inflammation? For many reasons, managing stomach acid and eating more fruits and vegetables and less heavily fried, acidic, overly salted foods, sounds like a good idea to me. Covering many bases are foods like aloe vera gel, brussel sprouts, basil, turmeric root, cilantro, fresh ginger, papaya, pomegranate, cooked kale, spirulina, cooked cabbage, coconut oil, parsnip, sweet peas, bok choy, and garlic. There are also ayurvedic herbal blends that work together to lower inflammation.
Strengthen your lungs & Mind your Mucous
If you have signs of a respiratory illness, certainly get tested and listen to your doctor's orders. *DISCLAIMER: The following thoughts are not for those quarantined with active corona virus, but are the passing on of common information for those with mucous or phlegm who want to strengthen breathing and lung strength.
Some of the aforementioned Ojas building foods will be too mucous forming. So whether you are sick or not, pay attention to the mucous that you have and if you find you have thick mucous, reduce coconut and dairy, as this causes more phlegm storage in the lungs, is kapha provoking. With regular thickened mucous, focus on natural decongestants, pungent aromatics like cloves, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon to melt it and dispel it as well as a kapha pacifying diet of largely pungent, bitter, and astringent vegetables.
When mucous is green or yellow, this generally means there is an excess of pitta (possible infection) in the lungs and so a pitta pacifying diet to counter the hot, penetrating, sharp quality of the mucous and possible sensation of burning in the throat. Spices like coriander, fennel, cardamom, and fresh ginger, as well as bitter greens and natural antiseptics/anti-infectives like neem could be used.
Other lung strengthening herbs and blends include: #1 Talisadi! Also sitopaladi, tulsi, and pipali.
Nasya and Neti
Did you know that the Neti pot has its roots in ayurveda and yoga? In yogic texts, it is called jala neti and has been termed saline nasal irrigation in western medicine. Studies sited by the NIH show its effectiveness on some upper respiratory conditions like acute, chronic, allergic rhinosinusitis, and mixed results for viral upper respiratory infection (URI). Considering the high demand for hand sanitizer and call to keep hands clean and away from the face, it seems only wise to keep the nasal passages disinfected as well. Learn the science and watch a video showing how to practice neti here.
The FDA warns not to use regular tap water which can contain bacteria. Look for water that says “sterile” or “distilled.” Filtered water can also be used if it is strongly filtered with maximum pore size of 1 micron.
If using tap water, it must be boiled for 3 to 5 minutes then allowed to cool down, ideally to the same temperature of your tears. Test it on your hand to ensure you do not burn the inside of your nose. Even if it is stored in a sterile container, do not use the same mixture for more than 24 hours.
Much less widely studied, but touted for benefits much more far reaching than even sinusitis due to the application of a wider range of substances, is one of my favorite ayurvedic practices, Nasya. Look for future articles on this incredible practice which uses herbs and oils rather than water and salt, and reaches deeper into the sinuses than Neti.
Manage Stress and more with Yoga & Pranayama, Yogic Breathwork
Now is an excellent time to up-level your yoga and pranayama practice, in a sanitary environment and temperate room. The mass scare that has taken over world through our connection to media and fast information can be in itself harmful to the immune system. According to the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, Yoga is extraordinarily helpful in the management of prevention of a host of related diseases by down-regulating the HPA axis that which is triggered by stress, and results in the release of cortisol and catecholamines (fight or flight response). It is important that we remember our practices are not only for toning muscles but are essentially for regulating and upgrading our nervous systems. Over time, reducing the hyperactive response to stressors that many of us face in this climate can help reduce the risk of "diseases such as obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, depression, substance abuse, and cardiovascular disease". Read more. Lowering stress is undoubtably proven helpful for the immune system.
Let's all take a breath.
Worried about practicing kappalabhati (which rhymes with kappala-snotty) in public? Want to practice pranayama at home? I have a resources prepared that allows you to skip tracks and tailor your practice recorded in 2016, entilted Breath. Download it here or a breathwork and yoga asana sequence here.
Moral of the story?
Control the controllables. But don't forget how important relaxation response is for general health. There's a lot that can be done to strengthen your system in the unlucky event that you contract a disease like the corona virus.
Wishing you a lifetime of good health.