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The Biology of Fear and its'​ impact on our immune system

We are living in strange times, it's hard not to panic or feel overwhelmed when the news is constantly filling us with fear. #Covid-19 is not a far away threat, it is or will affect each and every one of us in some way.

Whilst this is daunting, many things will make the situation worse, panic and fear are spreading faster than the virus itself, mass situations like this can bring out the best or the worst in humanity and we can influence how we behave, in turn our behaviours can impact on our health and immunity.

The biology of fear

It's getting scary, there's no doubt about that, we tend to take our health for granted despite there always being numerous ways we can get ill. When faced with a situation where our health is threatened and news of this drip fed at every angle, we can no longer avoid our mortality and that isn't a nice feeling. The problem is we can make the situation worse for ourselves; Our brain's instinct is to take a risk and inflate it, this is part of our survival response, we are programmed to focus on the worst case scenario, this may be helpful in some situations but it is most certainly not helpful now. Fear prepares us to respond to danger by impacting on several body functions: -

  1. Digestive system - if you are prone to IBS you may feel your symptoms are getting worse, stress, fear and anxiety shut down the digestive system (to enable you to deal with the immediate threat) this is unhelpful when there is prolonged stress as you need to continue living (and eating) day to day.

  2. Heart rate - another biological response is that our heart rate increases to enable better blood flow to our muscles should we need to run away (think fight or flight). Again, this is unhelpful in a prolonged time of fear.

  3. Emotions - surely we are seeing evidence of this? fear interrupts our rational thought processing, fear can make us selfish, subject to intense emotions - negative emotions are often easier to conjure than positive ones.

Fear and Immunity

So, how does all of this impact on our immunity?

Negative emotions and prolonged exposure to stress, fear and anxiety can have a profound effect on our immune system. In a study in Medical News Today, there were notable increases in inflammation markers in individuals exposed to prolonged/excess stress. High levels of inflammation are linked with many health issues and chronic conditions.

There's the very real risk of stomach ulcers (think back to the digestive response to stress).

Then there's the issue of oxidative stress and this is where nutrition can really influence! Without going too much into the biology oxidative stress occurs when there's too much Free Radical Activity and not enough Antioxidant activity occurring in the body. Increased stress increases free radical activity.

Antioxidants & Free Radicals

There's many a reason why nutrition can boost your immunity - the most obvious one is around increasing your intake of antioxidants - these combat the free radical activity by donating (the antioxidant) a spare electron and minimising the damage that the unstable unpaired electron (free radical) can cause. Most natural fruits and veg contain antioxidants, we often think of an orange as being the best source, whilst it's true that Vitamin C is considered a free radical scavenger (it goes looking for damage) strawberries, kale and broccoli all have more vitamin C than an orange!

Balancing Fear

No one can say "It's going to be alright" but let's not let our brains run away with the worst case scenario either - what can we influence? Our immunity and our lifestyle - see my top tips below!

  1. Diet - never underestimate the power of nutrition to either help or harm your body. Boost your antioxidants, increase the health of your Microbiome, avoid inflammatory foods such as excess sugar and processed foods, keep hydrated. In doing all of the above you will help your body naturally manufacture the neuro-transmitters required to balance your mood, keep you calm, alert but not panicked and enable you to relax.

  2. Exercise - it goes without saying that this is good for us! Physically we are designed to move and our body does need to for physical health (weight, cardiovascular, cardio-respiratory, bone-density etc) but the mood benefits are of the most important right now, try to incorporate what activity you can (gyms are full of germs so do anti-bac) I always recommend being outdoors as we get the added benefit of vitamin D along with the endorphins and increased chances of a restorative sleep.

  3. Mindset - where possible avoid excessive scrolling through social media, stick to fact based media outlets and even then minimise exposure. Remember, our brains are designed to focus on the worst-case scenario. There's a lot of negativity in social media land!

  4. Boosts - I have taken the serious step of cancelling my Gin Club delivery for this month and instead purchased some essential oils to diffuse in the home and some antioxidant boosting super juice.

  5. Enjoyment - don't let Covid-19 take away your enjoyment of each day, go outside you will see the signs of Spring,

  6. Self-Isolation - if you are stuck at home do something you never usually have time to do; read a book, watch a box-set, sort online photos! Anything other than endless scrolling and scaring yourself!

  7. Children - it's difficult to get the balance right with children, what to tell them, how much to tell them. They need to be aware of their own actions (washing hands, sharing drinks etc) but remember children will also by default, create their own worst case scenario so ensure you have open channels of communication with them and not just say 'it's all OK" let them voice their fears then work with them on managing them.

I know this is all very much uncharted territory for all of us but we can try to influence our own actions - in turn our actions will influence our immunity (for the better or the worst).

About me

My message is to promote awareness of the food and #health link rather than following campaigns that could be misleading.

Nutritional Therapist

Award-winning Author

Food writer

Presenter on Early Years TV Food

Keynote speaker

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