Nowadays everyone knows the importance of face masks and vaccines in the fight against COVID-19. But, here’s a secret… our brain is JUST as essential as our lungs in protecting us.
“Safeguarding the brain has been recognised by the scientific community as a priority in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing us to promote mental health and wellbeing in both the shorter and the longer term.” Martina Ratto, Beingwell Cognitive Scientist
Why is caring about our brain so important during a pandemic?
Here are three awesome reasons (the last one is probably all the reason we need but we’re being wonderfully generous with three):
Our superpower to reduce stress and anxiety
When we get the shock of a lifetime with a widespread pandemic, it’s incredibly important to draw on our inner strength. It’s been a roller coaster ride throughout the different stages of the C19 outbreak, and we’ve been asked to make monumental changes to our lives. This can impact on our mental wellbeing. And it’s totally normal to feel anxious, stressed or worried in the face of uncertainty. According to the WHO, managing stress and wellbeing is just as important as managing physical health during this time.
Good mental resilience is absolutely vital, especially when adapting to new routines, such as remote learning or working from home where the expectations are the same, but the environment and structure aren’t. To strengthen our mental resilience, we need to exercise our brain. Cognitive abilities like concentration, problem-solving, good decision making, self-control and confidence help maintain mental resilience. We can nurture these through a healthy lifestyle and targeted training (have a nosey at MyCognition for more info).
Rocketfuel for our immune system
Cognition, AKA brainpower, is shown to play a major role in regulating our body’s immune response, the defence plan our body activates towards an external attack, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus infection.
First-line soldiers towards the external attack are immune cells called pro-inflammatory cytokines. These are responsible for inflammatory symptoms, such as fever, and emerge from our inner battle against the virus. However, the level of inflammatory response varies between individuals and could be damaging for our body if cytokines act out of control. Cause of death from COVID-19 is actually due to “cytokine storms”, which fill the body with inflammatory material.
When in tip-top condition, our brain is able to regulate our inflammatory response and soften the effects of pro-inflammatory cytokines. When our brain is feeling frazzled or burned out we are most at risk. Long-lasting or extreme stress compromises our brain and its regulation of cytokines via cortisol, our stress hormone, and the immune system deteriorates. Good cognition allows us to manage stress: while we feel happier and more in control of our life, this allows regulation of cortisol and cytokines. Ultimately, good cognition allows us to enhance our immunity. If infected, people with good cognition are likely to be asymptomatic, as control over cortisol can still regulate our inflammatory response.
The golden chalice… protecting our brain health
Inflammation caused by cytokines is shown to have a negative effect on our cognition. While poor cognition makes us less able to manage stress and could weaken our immune system, unregulated cortisol and cytokines have a negative effect on our brain, ultimately on our cognitive abilities and long term mental health.
Shockingly, those who survive a severe COVID-19 infection are more likely to suffer mental illness as a result of high levels of circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines in their bodies. The cause of depression, mental health disorders, and other chronic physical health problems are often rooted in inflammation.
Safeguarding our brain during the pandemic therefore has a triple effect on our immune response, on our long-term mental health and wellbeing, and our ability to deal with difficulty and uncertainty.