Here we are together in this unprecedented moment in human history. It is a time marked by dissonant juxtapositions: the breathtaking spring with the clearest of skies, the dazzling green of trees leafing out, the brilliance of wildflowers beginning their display and the birdsong ringing out through the quiet, all set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 nightmare playing out across our country. It is a time of great disparity in the experience of sheltering in place; while some of us continue our essential work, others can work from home, grateful for the slowing of society’s dizzying pace, while still others are on the brink of financial devastation. It is a time of trepidatious anticipation of what may ripple through our local community, of heightened appreciation that there are no guarantees in this life: each day is a gift to cherish, and any one of us could die tomorrow.
How do we embrace life in this rarified moment? How can we see self-care and staying at home as a radical act of community care? How can we ensure, now and in the future, that we are resilient in navigating chaos and disruption? How can the discipline of present-moment awareness thwart the spread of this virus?
As the number of cases in Marin continues to climb and the coronavirus draws nearer to those we know and love locally, we must bring our most vigilant awareness to hand-washing and face-touching. This virus is not hardy—it is easily killed with soap and water—but it takes advantage of our human tendency to touch our face. A lot. Transmission can occur through touching a surface with the virus on it, and then touching our face: putting our hand to our chin, rubbing our nose, our eyes. After touching a surface, as soon as possible wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer (home recipes abound on the internet) and do your best to avoid touching your face at all times. Wash your hands with the loving attention that such a potentially life-saving act deserves. Notice the impulse to touch your face. Refrain.
Wearing masks when we go out is a sign to our friends and neighbors that we are protecting them from the droplets produced when we speak, cough and sneeze. The wonderful community-building efforts to sew and distribute masks brings us together, increases protection and helps make mask-wearing a social norm. Please remember that wearing cotton masks does not make it safe to be physically close to people, nor protect you from someone who is ill. Social distancing remains key in this effort.
Diligently staying at home or taking walks outside while consistently observing social distancing of at least six feet is one of the most important ways we can protect our community. If you feel your resolve weakening, think of the beloved people, young and old, who could be put at risk. Minimize trips out into the world. When outside of the home, see every touched surface as potentially hazardous. We have the power, collectively, to keep the spread of the virus slow enough so that our health care providers in our community (myself included) and in our hospitals can keep up with the care that is needed. Please, please do your part.
I see deeply nourishing self-care as another radical way of protecting our community. As we support our immune system and increase our odds of having only mild to moderate symptoms, we reduce the strain on the health care system.
One of the most potent ways of supporting our immune system is to get eight hours of deep sleep each night. Our immune system is regulated by many hormones impacted by the sleep-wake cycles and our circadian rhythm. Immune system activation and strength of response to invaders like viruses are boosted during our sleep phase, as is healing. Studies have shown that people getting fewer than six hours of sleep have more significant and a longer duration of viral symptoms when subjected to a cold virus. In this time of slowing down, align yourself with natural cycles of light and dark by minimizing light in the evening and limiting your exposure to screens after dark. Wake with the light of dawn, not the alarm, if possible. Aim for “winding down” and getting into bed by 10 p.m. These foundational practices will optimize the number and function of the immune cells in your body and give you better protection.
Stress and anger also suppress the immune system. Studies have shown that after one episode of anger, immune function is lowered for six hours. Other studies have shown that those in happy marriages subjected to the cold virus become less ill and recover faster than those in argumentative marriages. Fortunately, mind-body practices like meditation and mindful time in nature have been found to improve our immune function and relax us. Under stressful circumstances, adopting a regular relaxation practice is good medicine.
Here in West Marin, we are so very fortunate to be surrounded by nature. As the spread of Covid-19 through West Marin comes closer, spending as much time outdoors in the fresh air and spectacular beauty will support our immune system in so many ways. Sunshine increases vitamin D levels and trees release anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial phytochemicals. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, people treated in open-air hospitals, where they were kept warm with layers of blankets and hot water bottles, had as much as a 40 percent lower mortality rate than those treated indoors. Times and hospitals have changed, but this fact remains: Fresh, cool, circulating air is good for our lungs and our immune systems.
In my home, as we prepare ourselves for the possibility of someone becoming sick, I am thinking not only of which room they could be isolated in; but also about how to make a comfortable, warm and cozy place outdoors, at least for stretches during the day, away from others. Could you make such a place, should the need arise, outside of your home? Now is a great time to prepare.
Spring in Northern California abounds with ways in which nature offers nourishment. Wild greens like miner’s lettuce are loaded with vitamin C, especially when eaten fresh. Making a tea from the fresh new leaves on the abundant blackberry bushes supports the immune system and lowers our blood sugar. Bitter greens like wild radish, young yellow dock, and the leaves of young milk thistle can all be sautéed, added to a soup, seasoned with immune-boosting onions (so many wild ones out right now!) and garlic. Now is also a wonderful time to harvest stinging nettle and add it to your nourishing creations. Nature provides so many nourishing foods that support our optimal health and immune function.
This surreal moment of both great beauty and great challenge invites us to reflect on what role we can play to be of service. It may be as simple as getting a good night’s sleep, taking good care, and exploring a relationship with the natural world.
Anna O’Malley, M.D., works with the Coastal Health Alliance and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden. She is uploading resources, from integrative medicine recommendations to immune-boosting recipes and foraged nourishing greens at naturainstitute.org and is holding Zoom calls each Wednesday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. RSVP to [email protected]