A Functional Medicine Doctor Shares the 4 Wellness Practices We Should All Prioritize During Social Distancing

Photo: Getty Images / Dean Mitchell
The United States has been in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic for nearly six weeks now, and it's safe to say that most people's lives have been completely changed by the measures required to combat COVID-19. Things that were part of our normal routines—commuting to work, visiting friends, going out to movies or dinner, travel—have now been put on hold indefinitely, as people across the country continue to shelter in place in an effort to flatten the curve. Our normal habits and rituals at this point seem like a thing of the past.

However, there is still absolutely a place for wellness in your daily life, even when your that life is currently taking place within the confines of a 600-square foot apartment. Taking care of yourself has never been more important, which is why we turned to Casey Means, MD, a functional medicine doctor and chief medical officer of the digital health company Levels. She shared with us the healthy habits for social distancing that should be part of everyone's wellness practices right now. They might seem simple and straightforward, but in a time like this when everything feels uncertain, going back to the basics is the best bet.

1. Pack in nutrient-dense foods

There are no known foods or supplements that will ward off COVID-19 (despite what some influencers might claim), but fueling your body with the nutrients it needs can help keep your immune system strong—and that’s always important, Dr. Means says.

“Now is the time to be eating fresh, unprocessed foods that load your body with healthful nutrients,” Dr. Means says. “[They] serve as molecular building blocks and information to let the body function properly.” For example, selenium (found in Brazil nuts) is used to make selenoproteins, she says—a type of protein that helps curb inflammation and bolster the immune system. Sulforaphane in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale, she adds, helps your body fight inflammation-inducing oxidative stress.

Thus, Dr. Means recommends focusing on eating a wide variety of vegetables (a minimum of eight to 10 servings per day), low-glycemic fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, spices, herbs, and probiotic-rich foods to give your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy. She also says it's a good idea to limit inflammatory foods like processed vegetable oils and refined sugar to help keep your body humming along.

2. Manage your stress

This is definitely easier said than done, given both the stress-inducing state of the world right now and the fact that many of our normal coping mechanisms (seeing friends! taking a workout class!) are off the table due to social distancing. But Dr. Means says prioritizing stress management is more crucial now than ever, since stress can impact your mental health, your digestive health, and even your immune system.

While you’re sheltering in place, Dr. Means suggests trying different stress management techniques, like meditation or going out for a solo nature walk. “Being in nature can help individuals get to a state of deep relaxation which can boost immune function in a number of ways and help with metabolic health,” she says, pointing to a 2015 study where researchers discovered a link between overall well-being and exposure to nature.

Deep breathing is also an effective way to ease stress, Dr. Means says. “Deep breaths stimulate the diaphragm muscle which is attached to our main nerve of relaxation, the vagus nerve,” she explains, which can help you calm down in the moment. Try sitting quietly and inhaling for six counts, then exhaling for four counts through the nose, she says. You can also try an exercise with a meditation app, like 10 Percent Happier, Calm, Headscape, and Insight Timer.

3. Break a sweat

Spending time indoors can make you feel less inclined to work out, especially when your usual routine of heading to the gym or your favorite barre class is off-limits. But Dr. Means says exercise should be one of your most important healthy habits for social distancing, especially since this is a time of very high stress.

“Regular exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on immune function, and everyone practicing social isolation can benefit from fitting in physical activity each day,” she says, pointing to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. It's also great for mood, stress relief, and even inflammation.

So yes, you can't make it to your favorite studio right now. But there are tons of great online resources for at-home workouts right now, from streaming studio apps to Well+Good's own YouTube channel. You're welcome.

4. Get quality shut-eye

No discussion of healthy habits for social distancing would be complete without talking about sleep—which is one of the most important things anyone can do for better overall physical and mental health. “Sleep is intimately tied to immune function, and now is the time to double down on getting at least seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night,” Dr. Means says. “There is a huge body of research showing that reduced sleep duration and disturbances during sleep can lead to systemic low-grade inflammation, predispose to chronic diseases like heart disease and dementia, and increase our susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections.”

If you’re having a tough time getting some quality sleep, then Dr. Means suggests making a few changes to ensure you snooze peacefully, like keeping digital screens and pets out of the bedroom, wearing earplugs, cutting off caffeine early in the day, and/or going to bed earlier. (Managing stress and getting in exercise can help improve quality of sleep, too.)

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