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Health Hack #56 - In Preparing For A Potential Return to Lockdown

It doesn’t take Nostradamus to acknowledge the strengthening possibility of soon returning to another draconian lockdown. No gym access, no theatre access, no indoor dining. Potentially right back to the “essential business” distinctions, where most of Main St. is forced to completely shut down, and residents are highly encouraged to stay at home. Cases are spiking in our area, New Jersey has already taken steps towards emulating our spring lockdown measure, and Pennsylvania is grappling with the notion of doing the same. We shall see.

While walking my dogs the other morning, a neighbor of mine passed us by, wrapping up his daily jog. Our exchange was brief, but marked by a foreboding send-off as we continued moving in opposite directions. “It’s going to be a long winter”, he said.

There are a few key (and obvious) distinctions separating a wintry lockdown from a spring one. Spring lockdown brought neighborhoods to life. With work commutes and errand-running largely gone, the neighborhood stroll immediately became a daily pastime. By way of having dogs, I quickly came to know virtually everyone in the neighborhood. Even those without dogs were out and about daily, meandering through the suburban streets. My parents likened their neighborhood to looking somewhat like a parade on beautiful early spring days. The city proved no exception.

At home, DIY, landscape, and construction projects popped off everywhere. We dug into our first at home gardening foray, as did our neighbor on one side of us, and our neighbor on the other side. If outdoor space allowed, it seemed a foregone conclusion that you’d be nurturing some type of plants, if only annual spring flowers. The lockdown definitely brought us closer to our own, private slice of earth, wherever it was.

Vitamin D, acquired most potently via sun exposure, is a key combatant to viral invaders, and a free immune enhancing wonder-drug, courtesy of Mother Nature. The plants that we tend to at our homes rely on it’s assistance to kickstart the magical process called photosynthesis, which can be analogized to its ability to help maintain our bone, cognitive, and cardiovascular health.

A winter lockdown will negate the desire of many to be outside. This is a problem. It’s compounded by other changes in nature that really make winter the hardest season to endure. From my observations, Seasonal Affective Disorder affects far more people than those who are knowingly carrying its diagnosis. It’s not a household name disorder and many are therefore unaware of its existence, instead oversimplifying their personal symptoms by assuming that they simply hate winter.  

There is a very obvious evolutionary narrative as to why this might be so rampant. Yes, the days are shorter (thanks in part to the stupidity of Daylight Savings Time) and the air is colder, but why might those conditions be automatically associated with depression? Well, what we perceive to be harsh pales in comparison to how our ancestors had it, especially those further and further from the equator. Winter embodied the season of peril. No fruit left to consume. Ground frozen over, vegetation sparse if not completely non-existent. What we know as cold season today might more aptly have been coined death season long ago, and these worries and associations are deeply embedded in our unfathomably complex neurology. It’s likely not so much that we dislike cold air as much as it is that we sense the overwhelming capabilities of winter, and the dangers that it presents.  

In a previous article (Why Metabolic Disease is so Rampant) we explored the mechanisms by which our modern day food supply is in complete misalignment with our ancestral roots. In short, very seldomly did we experience high glycemic food sources in vast abundance throughout our lineage. Today, every aisle in the supermarket is filled with them, at all points in the year. Long ago, an autumn harvest would have likely marked a high point in accessibility to nature’s sweetest foods, like apples. We evolved insulin resistance as means of surviving those harsh winters. By binging on sugary foods heading into winter, our inner machinery was purposefully ineffective at partitioning glucose (this is known as insulin resistance, as opposed to its inverse, insulin sensitivity, which is marked by a keen ability to dispose of glucose quickly and is rightfully upheld as the pinnacle of metabolic health in our modern day environment), which meant that we easily stored fat. This gave us the ability to live through a winter mostly devoid of food, not unlike the hibernating bear. But nowadays, unless we strive rigorously to improve our insulin sensitivity (by mechanisms like exercise, quality sleep, and diet), we’re still left carrying some of that ancient insulin resistance. When we pair that with a diet involving processed foods or even an extreme excess of real foods (like sugary fruits, for example), suddenly the mechanism gifted to us to help survive the winter long ago becomes the same mechanism by which we become inflamed and unwell today.

Why revisit this idea? Well, that’s another compounding factor that we face today, and it’s potentially disastrous capabilities are far more heightened this time of year. What do we innately reach for when we’re mentally off, or under conditions of extreme stress, particularly during the holidays? An avocado? I don’t think so. More like the cookie jar.

One thing that stood out very clearly to me throughout the spring lockdown was the gravitation most people felt towards junk food. Many fast food companies fared very well (and still are), especially those with drive thrus and those tuned into pre-ordering and delivery. Pizzarias did exceptionally well, stacked up against all other restaurant categories. Was it the price point, with concerns over where the economy would be heading? Or maybe the fact that it’s hot, thoroughly cooked foods at high germ-killing temperatures, and so maybe they’re safer to eat during a pandemic? Or possibly that those were the only places many knew of as “takeout” food, so with dining in prohibited, those were the only options on many radars? I’m sure that these all factored into the narrative in some ways. But what no one seemed eager to discuss (or maybe admit), is that when people are stressed, their train can become derailed, and they can find themselves craving junk.

In the spring, the domino effect was as follows:

Increased stress = diminished mood / imbalance of hormones = less motivation to exercise and be well = higher propensity to binge = weakened immune system and overall health.

Unfortunately, winter puts forth some very heavy compounding factors:

Increased stress + far less outdoor exposure + longings for spring weather = further diminished mood / more drastic imbalance of hormones = far less motivation and ability to exercise and be well = much higher propensity to binge = significantly weakened immune system and overall health.

This is not fear mongering. I’m just tired of the only narrative being to hide away and ride this out. That is a part of it, yes. But as we’ve seen, despite best efforts, sometimes this thing appears to be completely unavoidable. If that’s the case, then we should also be putting a lot of emphasis on how to best prepare for it’s onset. Or how to condition ourselves to someday emerge from these strange times, new and improved.  

This refresher (How to Boost Immunity During Quarantine) is very relevant, but there’s a key addendum that we’ll explore further next week. That is the power of meditation. I hope that next week’s article isn’t written during Lockdown 2.0, but if it is, I hope that this here article (and all of it’s links) has helped you better prepare for it.