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Biggest Risk Factors for COVID-19 Death are Under Your Control

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At this writing, we are in the middle of the summer season and looking at a leveling off in the number of COVID-19 cases in some parts of the United States. Let’s hope this respite lasts.

However, experts warn people should not get complacent as it’s likely that the virus will come roaring back in the fall – or sooner, if people are careless about social distancing. And it already looks like a lot of people are.

But instead of worrying yourself sick, I suggest taking this time to prepare yourself for COVID-19 and other viruses that typically spike in cooler months.

During the last few months we’ve been overwhelmed by the tragic number of people across the U.S. dying from COVID-19. But how come some people are dying from COVID-19 while others have a mild case? I wanted to get to “the rest of the story” as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say.

Here’s what I discovered about the differences between the mild cases and the deadly ones…

A recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirmed what doctors nationwide have noted anecdotally, and what I also suspected. Researchers found that people with obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure were at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19.1 These are things you can control, and now would be a good time to start.

COVID-19 By the Numbers

The study included data on 5,700 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the New York City area. Not surprisingly, underlying conditions were common.

The researchers found that among the hospitalized patients:
  • 57 percent suffered from high blood pressure.
  • 41 percent were obese
  • More than 30 percent had diabetes or high blood sugar levels
The reason I find these numbers so fascinating is that – to a certain degree – these conditions are due to lifestyle factors that are under our control. Instead of ruminating on the unknowns of this virus, why not focus on things you can change?

We’ve long touted how a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress reduction and nutritional supplementation can help you avoid many health issues.

And boy, it’s never been more important than it is in the COVID-19 era.

Here’s Your Healthy Lifestyle Wake-Up Call!

Julie Masters, chair of the department of gerontology at the University of Nebraska Omaha, discussed the issue in an online publication.2She acknowledged that we must start thinking about ways to protect ourselves against this virus until a vaccine becomes available.

“This may be a wake-up call to us to think about our own aging and what can I do to make sure I’m in the best health possible,” Dr. Masters said. “Meaning, am I getting a good diet? Am I exercising? Do I have people in my life? Do I have social connections? All those things can keep us healthy.”

I’m not a doctor, but I understand why cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are high on the pre-existing condition list for suffering complications from COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease and when lungs don’t function properly, the heart has to work harder.  Additionally, science has shown that diabetes can damage the nervous system and impair the body’s efforts to clear infection from lungs.

And conditions like high blood sugar associated with diabetes can also suppress immune cells.

But how does obesity fit into this puzzle? Recently, a team of experts in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States came together to review the evidence. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology.3 They deduced that because obesity is associated with diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease, it will likewise increase the risk of COVID-19 complications.

But you don’t have to suffer from these big three health problems-- obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure-- to be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications. Pre-diabetes and high cholesterol levels are believed to also make people more susceptible to infection, the authors point out. Fortunately, these conditions can also be brought under control through lifestyle change.

Lifestyle Changes That Can Save Your Life

You’ve likely heard many of these healthy suggestions, but they bear repeating, now more than ever.

These tips can naturally lower high blood pressure and blood sugar levels, promote good heart health and also help you manage weight.

Exercise is Medicine

Dr. Heather Johnson, a University of Wisconsin cardiologist states in a press release that when it comes to high blood pressure and elevated blood sugars, exercise is medicine.4 "Regular exercise is just as important as your medications,” she notes. “Exercise and, if needed, weight loss can decrease the amount of medications prescribed for your blood pressure and blood sugar."

Dr. Johnson adds, "If your goal is weight loss - gradually increase your exercise to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week." And it doesn't have to be completed all at once, she adds. "If necessary, divide your exercise into smaller amounts of time – ten to15 minutes per session - to fit it into your busy schedule and to allow your body to adjust to a new exercise program."

Walking just 30 minutes a day can help lower your blood pressure and manage blood sugar. And the cherry on top? It’s proven to improve vital immune function.

Healthy Eating

To manage high blood pressure, the go-to diet advice is DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). The DASH diet encourages you to reduce the sodium in your diet and eat a variety of foods rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure, such as potassium, calcium and magnesium.

This easy-to-follow diet includes lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. It also includes some fish, poultry and legumes, and encourages small amounts of nuts and seeds a few times a week. And ditch the sugary snacks and high-processed foods, please.

The guidelines are similar for managing high blood sugar. You’ll also want to control your carb intake and increase your fiber intake. Choose foods with a low glycemic index and implement portion control.5 And finally, maintaining a healthy weight will improve your blood sugar and blood pressure levels and in turn boost your immune system and help you fight off viruses.

Stress Less

Both high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels are influenced by stress. During these uncertain times, stress can lead to bad habits that are doing your immune system no favors.

Exercise in general can help manage stress, but that’s not all. Socializing with friends, listening to music, meditation and yoga are also tried and true stress zappers.

It’s normal to worry about your health during challenging times. Simply sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing and senses can help quell your anxiety.

But I suggest getting someone to train you in proper meditation techniques. Then meditate every single day. It absolutely reduces blood pressure in a safe, natural way – and high blood pressure is THE biggest risk factor for death by COVID.

And please take a break from the relentless news cycle. Sure, keeping informed is important, but too much can cause problems. Experts advise setting boundaries to prevent feeling overwhelmed by the situation.

My take-home message during the COVID-19 era is this: Don’t let fear control your life. Instead concentrate on controlling the things you can control; that means making healthy lifestyle choices every day.
  1. JAMA. 2020;323(20):2052-2059. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.6775
  2. https://www.vox.com/2020/3/12/21173783/coronavirus-death-age-covid-19-elderly-seniors
  3. Stefan, N., Birkenfeld, A.L., Schulze, M.B. et al. Obesity and impaired metabolic health in patients with COVID-19.
  4. https://www.uwhealth.org/news/exercise-blood-pressure-diabetes-blood-sugar/48638
  5. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/15-ways-to-lower-blood-sugar
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