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Mindfulness, care and compassion: A letter from Dr. Connie Jennings

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/ by Connie Jennings, MD

Connie Jennings, MD, is the medical director for our UK Integrative Medicine & Health program, which focuses on the interaction of mind, body and spirit to treat the whole person. Dr. Jennings shared the following recommendations on how integrative medicine practices can help with the physical and mental stress relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dear friends,

Times are tense right now in an unprecedented way. We are dealing with a level of uncertainty that makes the simplest thing difficult, but we know that from difficulty grows compassion. Maybe a reasonable place to start is by bringing care for self and care for others together.

A manageable first step is to return to the basics. One of our best defenses is to strengthen our immune systems.

Let’s take a look at some basic steps.

Activity:

During high stress times, physical activity helps us to slow down that “fast idle” we feel inside. Activity that involves a smooth, rhythmic pattern is calming to our alarm centers.

  • It’s OK to be outside right now – in fact, it’s encouraged. Try to get in 20-30 minutes a day, either all at once or broken into segments if necessary. 
  • Try a brisk walk, run or bike ride. 
  • On bad weather days, go up and down the stairs inside, walk around the dining room table a few times or use canned vegetables as weights and do some bicep curls.

Nutrition:

An anti-inflammatory diet is the most helpful to strengthen our immune systems. A good example is the Mediterranean diet, which is predominantly fruits, vegetables, lean meat and whole grains. Here are other nutritional steps to work toward:

  • Keep alcohol and refined sugars to a minimum.
  • I often remind children that our plates should look like a rainbow. 
  • Bone broth can be a good source of anti-inflammatory properties. 
    • Many commercial brands are available, but broths can easily be made by slow simmering a whole chicken or a beef roast (with bone in) for 8-10 hours.
  • Amino acids, such as glycine and glutamine, combat inflammation and help promote sleep.  
  • Some find supplements such as reishi mushroom, elderberry and echinacea extracts helpful as well as Vitamins C and D. Always check with your healthcare providers before starting supplements.  
  • Remember to stay well-hydrated. Adding lemon slices to your water boosts your Vitamin C intake.

Sleep:

  • Aim for six to eight hours of restorative sleep nightly. Those of us getting less than 6 hours of sleep nightly have weaker immune systems. 
  • The best quality sleep comes in rooms that are darkened and cooler than the temperature that you experience during the day.  
  • Try to avoid screen time for as much as 2-3 hours before bedtime. 
  • Bedtime rituals can be helpful. Some rely on warm baths, quiet music, dim lights or reading (not related to work)

Mind/Body Practices:

Meditation is an excellent tool to manage stress and maintain balance. It can be done in stillness or with movement, such as walking, Tai Chi or yoga. With meditation we produce lower levels of stress hormones and inflammatory markers. This is often demonstrated in lower blood pressure, slower heart rates and respirations.  

Studies with MRI’s show us that meditators develop positive changes in the brain in both function and structure. This population shows thicker tissue in the prefrontal cortex which corresponds with improved memory, better attention and increased well-being. Along with this, the amygdala in meditating people decreases in size and response. This lessens the constant “flight-fight-freeze” default mode that many anxious people experience. 

  • I encourage you to find a group to meditate with online or try an app that will help guide you.
  • Just 10-20 minutes a day will begin to build a healthy pathway in your brain. 

Remember –

Any work that each of us does on our inner lives affects the entire universe. This is a way to care for self and care for others. 

Being socially distanced is necessary but difficult. We know that lonely people have poorer health, less nutritious diets and difficult sleep. Reach out – send a note, an email, a gift card – maybe a virtual hug. Selfless acts are good for the giver as well as the recipient. With thoughtful acts like this we can all be isolated – together. 

With grit, grace and good sense we will get through this,

Connie Jennings, MD
Medical Director, UK Integrative Medicine and Health

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