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The last five months have been... HARD. For most of us, living through a pandemic is a first, and as with all “firsts,” we’re trying to figure out how to navigate this new world, and it’s been a challenge. But what if we shifted our perspective to one of gratitude, and looked to the pandemic as a teacher? It’s taught us how to be helpful neighbors. It’s taught us the importance of community. It’s taught us how important it is to take care of our mental health. And it has taught us that it’s time to improve our individual and collective health. We have seen major inequalities in who is affected by the virus—vulnerable elders, low-income communities, and people of color are taking the brunt. And we have watched life as we know it come to a grinding halt. How would things be different if we were healthier as a whole? Having a healthy society means that we have the collective resilience to better weather the storm, whatever that storm may look like.
The numbers are telling: The majority of those who have had the most severe illness or who have died from Covid-19 have had at least one underlying health condition, such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, lung disease, hypertension, and/or cardiovascular disease. These are all incredibly common conditions—pandemics in their own right—that have been accepted as the norm in our society. We all know someone (or multiple someones) that has one, or several, of these chronic health issues. Seems pretty normal, right? But it’s not normal, and these health conditions pack a one-two punch— they each come with their own standalone risks, and when you introduce a virus, they make it that much harder for the body to fight it off , increasing the risk of severe illness and even death.
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us just how important the health of the host is.
The numbers are telling: The majority of those who have had the most severe illness or who have died from Covid-19 have had at least one underlying health condition, such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, lung disease, hypertension, and/or cardiovascular disease. These are all incredibly common conditions—pandemics in their own right—that have been accepted as the norm in our society. We all know someone (or multiple someones) that has one, or several, of these chronic health issues. Seems pretty normal, right? But it’s not normal, and these health conditions pack a one-two punch— they each come with their own standalone risks, and when you introduce a virus, they make it that much harder for the body to fight it off, increasing the risk of severe illness and even death. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us just how important the health of the host is.
Society hasn’t always been burdened with chronic health problems, so how did it become our modern-day narrative? First, it’s important to remember that optimal amounts of nutrients are absolutely necessary for our bodies and minds to thrive, but collectively, we fall woefully short, and too many suffer from chronic vitamin and mineral insufficiencies, including important ones like zinc, selenium, and vitamin D—the very nutrients that our bodies need to stay healthy and fight infection. Many factors are at play, but an industrialized food system, and the processed food that goes with it, has led to a slew of nutritional deficiencies and insufficiencies. Years of conventional farming practices has stripped the soil of important minerals, making the food grown in it nutritionally anemic. Additionally, a near ubiquitous exposure to toxins and pollution causes our bodies to quickly burn through critical nutrients. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As we work to build a more resilient food system and less toxic world, we can also work to build our own resilience—and become rooted in health.
The food you eat can make or break your health. You likely already know what you shouldn’t eat (highly processed foods, fast foods, sugary foods and drinks, refined carbs) but what should you eat? What does a healthy diet look like? It starts with fresh produce. When you hear experts say “eat the rainbow,” this is what they are referring to. Colorful fruit and veggies are full of phytonutrients that promote good health. Those flavanols, polyphenols, and anthocyanins you always hear about? They’re found in fresh produce, especially in organic produce, which contains higher levels of these health-promoting phytonutrients compared to conventionally grown. Aim to eat as many types of vegetables as you can every day, but make it work for you—do you love smoothies? Pack them with vegetables. Maybe big salads loaded with colorful veggie toppings are your jam, or you love the caramelized flavor of roasted vegetables. Eat those things, every day. Discover the veggies you never knew you loved by trying new veggie-centric recipes (naturalgrocers.com/recipe-finder is a great place to start).
To round out your meals, include quality protein and healthy fats. Examples of healthy fats include olive oil, pasture based butter, coconut oil, avocadoes, olives, and nuts. When it comes to animal protein, look for humanely and sustainably raised products to optimize nutrition. A diet abundant in produce, along with healthy sources of protein and fats, will support healthy blood sugar balance (key to maintaining overall health) and a healthy weight while also supplying ample amounts of disease fighting nutrients. Additionally, when you invest in buying foods grown in a sustainable way, they are not only better for you, they also support the process of building a more resilient food system.
As you begin (or continue) your journey to healthy eating, there are several key supplements to include in your routine that will further root you in health. A multivitamin will fill in the gaps where your diet falls short. Even if you generally eat a healthy diet loaded with organic vegetables, it’s hard to get optimal amounts of certain vitamins and minerals through food alone. Decades of chemical-intensive conventional agricultural practices and pervasive air pollution have severely depleted our soils, stripping them of beneficial vitamins and minerals, leaving little for vegetables to take up as they grow, while at the same time increasing the body’s need for nutrients. Multiple studies have found declines in a number of important nutrients in vegetables and fruit, including calcium, magnesium, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamins A and C.1 Look for a multivitamin that provides zinc, selenium, and vitamin A as retinol.
Magnesium is one of the most important nutrients in our bodies, and is especially important when we experience stress. When magnesium levels are low, stress takes over and we cannot relax, our brains play a repetitive refrain of anxious thoughts, and our muscles tighten and may even spasm. The heart, brain, bones, respiratory system, nervous system, joints, and immune system are also prone to dysfunction. But when there is sufficient magnesium, our cells function properly, and when our cells are healthy, we are healthy. Playing a foundational role in more than 600 biochemical processes, magnesium supports healthy blood pressure, strong bones, healthy blood sugar and insulin levels, muscle tone and relaxation, neurotransmitter production, mood, memory and cognition, and energy production.2 3 4 5 Because of decreases of this important mineral in our food and a host of modern-day magnesium drains (stress, chronic disease, prescription drugs, refined and processed foods, and alcohol), nearly everyone has suboptimal levels; in other words, just enough to prevent an outright deficiency, but not enough to promote optimal health.6 You will need to supplement with extra magnesium, as multis do not supply sufficient amounts of this important mineral.
The sun vitamin, vitamin D, ranks up there with magnesium as one of the most important nutrients to human health. It affects just about everything, from the bones and the brain to the cardiovascular and immune systems. In fact, we are seeing just how critical optimal levels of vitamin D are in enabling the immune system to mount a robust defense against Covid-19.7 8 9 Optimal blood levels of vitamin D can also decrease the risk of osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, several types of cancer, and autoimmune diseases.10 But like magnesium, vitamin D deficiencies are widespread—research has found that nearly 42 percent of U.S. adults are deficient, with the highest rates found in African Americans, at 82 percent, and Latinos, at 69 percent. Optimal levels of vitamin D are considered to be between 30 and 50 ng/ mL. The amount of vitamin D you should supplement with varies greatly by the individual; it is recommended that you have your levels tested to find out if you have a sufficient level. It usually takes between 2,000 to 5,000 IUs daily to optimize your levels.
A thinking brain needs the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. Your brain and eyes require them to function, making vision, attention, memory, learning, focus, concentration, and positive thoughts possible. They also keep the cardiovascular system in tip-top shape by supporting flexible arteries, healthy blood flow and blood pressure, and healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Because our diets have shifted so dramatically, leading to a virtual nonexistence of EPA and DHA in the foods we eat, our inflammation levels are out of control. In fact, a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that a low intake of the omega-3 fats was one of the main dietary risks for death.11 These omega-3 fats reduce inflammation and play a significant role in protecting the body from diseases that are either caused by or worsened by inflammation, from arthritis and asthma to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. They also have a positive effect on mood and mental health, particularly depression.12 13 14 Additionally, several studies on DHA have found that daily supplementation reduces aggression and anger in general, especially during times of stress. 16 17 18 19
Healthy lifestyle habits complete the trifecta for being rooted in health. Regular movement, time spent in nature, practicing gratitude, nurturing your relationships—these are all forms of self-care that will go a long way for both your mental and physical wellbeing. It’s also important to assess the products that we use every day in our homes for cleaning and those that we put on our skin. These products can be sources of environmental pollutants that take their toll on health and put an extra burden on our already over-burdened detoxification systems. Make the switch to nontoxic products to reduce your chemical exposure. Buy organic food as much as possible to reduce your exposure to agricultural chemicals, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and when it comes to meat, choose grass fed and/or organic whenever possible. An added bonus when you buy organic and grass-fed foods is that you are also supporting a more resilient food system that will benefit everyone in the long run.