It’s been a turbulent few months to say the least. And alongside continued and unprecedented interest in supporting immune health, thoughts are also turning towards post viral recovery. Supporting the body’s ability to recover from infection is always an important consideration, and during these uncertain times it’s empowering to bring your awareness to what you can do. Principles of functional medicine remind us that every one of us is unique and has our own individual health story. Not everyone however will be working 1:1 with a practitioner to benefit from fully personalised recommendations. The good news is that when it comes to recovering from illness or infection there are some universal considerations that most people will benefit from. Our aim in this article is to share these with you. In a world where so much seems out of our control, let’s focus on the things that we can take control of.
1. Prioritise sleep
There’s a good reason why fatigue often accompanies illness and infection, and why it can persist for many weeks beyond what may seem like a reasonable time. Fatigue is your body’s way of making you rest so that it can divert energy and resources towards recovery and repair instead. It’s important to listen to your body; now is not the time to carry on as normal, instead you need to take it easy and nurture yourself. Keep your schedule quieter during the day and don’t rush back to full time work until you feel ready for it. Prioritising regular good quality sleep is absolutely vital too, and arguably the most important way you can support this recovery process. In a 2019 review article published in Nature Reviews Immunology, Michael Irwin writes, “the discovery of reciprocal connections between the central nervous system, sleep and the immune system has shown that sleep enhances immune defences and that afferent signals from immune cells promote sleep.”1 If you ever needed a strong reason to make a priority of getting regular good quality sleep, then this is it. Find out more on supporting healthy sleep here.
2. Avoid alcohol
Many people drink alcohol to relax and overcome feelings of stress, and whilst this may seem to bring an immediate calming and stress-relieving benefit, the overall impact of regularly drinking too much is commonly a negative one. News that alcohol sales have soared during the last few months makes it more important than ever to bring greater awareness to the negative effects of alcohol when it comes to immune health and recovery from illness. Regular consumption of alcohol may impact mood, energy levels, disrupt sleep and may even promote neuro-inflammation. Whilst the mechanism of alcohol-related neuro-inflammation is still not well characterised, the possibility of this is certainly something you want to avoid during and following illness. The general debate over whether a bit of alcohol is better than none at all continues to run, however, we’d suggest avoiding alcohol completely if you’re recovering from illness and infection, and until you feel optimally better, due to its sleep-disrupting, energy-depleting and potential neuro-inflammatory effects.
3. Balance stress
One of the biggest anti-nutrients known to man, chronic stress rapidly depletes key nutrients needed for recovery and repair. In addition, chronic stress may suppress the immune system and promote peripheral and neuro-inflammation;2 both of which may be unhelpful for recovery processes. Now is the time you need nutrients to be easily accessible to fuel recovery, and this is also the time you want immune function at its best and inflammation under control. Needless to say, it’s crucial to take action to reduce stress if this is a concern for you. Start by identifying and then reducing any significant ongoing stressors that you can. The next step is to build in more time for self-care. And finally, increase your intake of key nutrients such as magnesium, B vitamins, zinc and vitamin C and adaptogenic herbs such as Asian ginseng, Rhodiola rosea and Cordyceps mycelium to support a balanced stress response.
4. Increase diversity of plant foods in the diet to support gut microbiome
The gut microbiome has become a hot topic in recent years and research is gathering pace to demonstrate just how crucial this internal ecosystem is to overall health. We now know that the impact of diet on health is often mediated by the gut microbiome. So, whether a particular food will have a positive impact on health is often dependent on having a healthy, thriving and diverse gut microbiome. There is therefore little point in loading up on superfoods if your gut needs some attention first. A great way to improve the diversity of the gut microbiome is to increase the amount and types of colourful plant foods you consume in your diet. A wide variety of plant foods may nurture different types of beneficial bacteria and support a thriving, health-supportive ecosystem that in turn will help you get the most of your diet. Aim for 40+ different types of vegetables, fruits and herbs in your diet each week.
5. Balance inflammation through diet and key nutrients
Acute inflammation is an essential process needed in the initial stages of illness, yet if it persists and becomes chronic this may be problematic for optimal recovery. Chronic neuro-inflammation in particular has been linked to post viral fatigue and is an important target in post viral support.3 Including in the diet, anti-inflammatory nutrients such as EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) & DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is a great starting point. These can be found in rich supply in nuts, seeds and their oils and oily fish (Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon, Herring). Refined sugar and dairy products may promote inflammation and may be best reduced or avoided during this recovery time. Key botanical considerations include curcumin, rutin, quercetin, rosemary and ginger. Vitamin D also has an important role to play in balancing inflammatory processes. It is widely considered that vitamin D supports balanced inflammation by regulating the production of inflammatory cytokines and immune cells4-8 and it is vital to ensure that levels are optimal.
Bringing together the foundations of wellness for optimal recovery
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to optimal recovery, and no quick-fix or magic pill. Nourishing and nurturing your body back to optimal health following illness involves bringing together many different aspects that together provide the foundations for wellness. The good news is that together these 5 different areas provide a great starting point to significantly influence your body’s ability to recover, rebuild and recuperate.
1. Irwin MR, Sleep and inflammation: partners in sickness and in health. Nature Reviews Immunology 19, 702-715(2019)
2. Liu YZ, Wang YX et al. Inflammation: The common pathway of stress-related diseases. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017; 11: 316
3. Yamato M, Kataoka Y. Fatigue sensation following peripheral viral infection is triggered by neuro-inflammation: who will answer these questions? Neural Regen Res. 2015 Feb; 10(2): 203-204
4. Pfeffer PE, Mann EH, et al. Vitamin D influences asthmatic pathology through its action on diverse immunological pathways. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2014; 11: S314–S321.
5. Chambers ES, Hawrylowicz CM. The impact of vitamin D on regulatory T cells. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2011;11: 29–36. 10.1007/s11882-010-0161-8
6. Siffledeen JS, Siminoski K, Steinhart H, Greenberg G, Fedorak RN. The frequency of vitamin D deficiency in adults with Crohn’s disease. Can J Gastroenterol 2003; 17:473–478.
7. Ulitsky A, Ananthakrishnan AN, Naik A, et al. Vitamin D deficiency in patients with inflammatory bowel disease: association with disease activity and quality of life. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr 2011; 35:308–316.
8. Sadeghian M, Saneei P, et al. Vitamin D status in relation to Crohn’s disease: meta-analysis of observational studies. Nutrition 2016; 32: 505–514.
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