Headstart: Using your brain to boost immunity

Headstart: Using your brain to boost immunity
STAYING STRONG: Routine, healthy eating and regular sleep patterns are critical during this period while we are self-isolating. Picture: iStock

Cognitive neurologist Sabina Brennan talks to Rowena Walsh about using your brain to boost immunity

“Our brains are what make us human and they have an incredible capacity to adapt, that’s how we’ve evolved as a species and it’s how we continue to evolve and adapt as individuals,” says Sabina Brennan, author of 100 Days to a Young Brain.

Sabina, a research psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin, is explaining how we’re capable of adjusting to our new lifestyles in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people are self-isolating and everyone, from the youngest members of our society to the oldest, are facing unprecedented restrictions to their usual liberties.

Our brains are flexible and they can change in response to a changing environment and changes in our lives, she says.

It doesn’t mean that it’s easy but we do have that capacity to adapt. What’s very important is not to be thinking too far forward and too far back, to try and focus on the present, on living the moment you’re in and trying to add value to that moment.

Our brain is involved in everything we do and that includes managing our immune systems and stress response. Stress suppresses our immune function and, now, more than ever, we need a healthy immune system to protect us from Covid-19, says Sabina, adding that it is natural to feel stressed at a time like this.

If you understand how stress works in your brain, she says, there is a lot that you can do to manage it. “Well-managed stress supports us through challenges. The problem is when it becomes poorly managed and chronic and a lot of people are at risk of that now.”

There are two parts to our stress response. The first is fight or flight, and the function of the second is to return your body back to the status quo. This is the optimum condition for keeping your body healthy, including your immune system.

“If you get stuck in the fear part, it will only escalate and your immune function will be suppressed and you won’t be able to think clearly, and this will ultimately lead to anxiety so you really need to get the rational thinking part of your brain engaged again.”

She suggests we pull back from social media — hide hashtags such as Covid-19 and coronavirus; and mute friends who are constantly talking about the virus. “In the initial stages, there was some value in talking about it and getting the information. At this point in time, really what’s best for your stress level and immune response is to return to business [as far as possible], to get on with other aspects of your life and to talk about other things.”

FUN FACTOR

Headstart: Using your brain to boost immunity

Laughter is nature’s natural stress buster, says Sabina.

“Laughing reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol. Stress can steal your sense of humour. Yes, we’re in a crisis but we don’t need to talk about it all the time. We need to talk about other things, particularly humorous things. I would suggest watching as many funny movies as you can and downloading funny podcasts.”

Routine, healthy eating, and regular sleep patterns are critical. Stress can interfere with your ability to sleep properly, but physical exercise can help.

“Get out and walk, even in your garden,” says Sabina.

Daylight is absolutely critical to managing sleep. It’s recommended to get at least 30 minutes of daylight every day, whether that means you stand out on your balcony for 30 minutes or stick your head out the window or get out for a walk, that will help to promote good sleep.

It is also critical keep our brains active and challenged during this unprecedented period in our lives, says Sabina.

She did a project several years ago with a group retired women from Cork, asking them to take on a project that involved learning but was also meaningful to them.

One woman used to knit a lot but hadn’t done it in years, says Sabina. She went to her attic where she knew she had a few balls of wool and knitting needles. Undaunted when she realised she didn’t have a pattern, she challenged herself by writing her own.

There are lots of other ways to challenge ourselves in our own homes. How many of us have several gadgets but only know how to do the basics on them? We finally have the time to learn how our technology really works, says Sabina.

She is a big advocate of online study. MOOC — which stands for massive online open courses (www.mooc-list.com) — offers a wide range of subjects from history to maths to art, and they are free to all.

Anyone, irrespective of their age, should do one of these courses if they aren’t able to continue working, says Sabina.

She also recommends that people revisit their childhood dreams and bucket lists and ask themselves: ‘Is there’s anything I can do now in this period of time while my life is temporarily on hold?’.

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