Our entire world has been shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic since the early months of 2020. The way we work, worship, communicate, fellowship, and shop has changed dramatically. We hope the end is in sight, but nothing is certain yet.
Long-term population-based research such as Loma Linda University’s Adventist Health Studies strongly suggests that individuals who live according to principles of the church’s health message (including regular physical activity [especially outdoors], wholesome eating, adequate rest, avoidance of toxic substances, cultivating wholesome relationships, and trust in God) experience fewer of the conditions known as comorbidities. Healthy living confers some resistance to infections as well. While each principle is associated with tangible health benefits, the combination of healthy lifestyle practices provides the most benefit to overall health and well-being.
So can we say an Adventist lifestyle built upon our health message helps in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? Let’s examine the current evidence.
SLEEP: Getting good-quality sleep is vital to physical and mental health.1 Over the past few decades researchers have found that adequate sleep is necessary for the immune system to function appropriately in resisting infection. Inadequate sleep duration in otherwise healthy people is associated with an increased likelihood of developing the common cold, a viral infection. Subjects who averaged sleeping less than five hours per night had a 50 percent infection rate compared to 18 percent in those sleeping an average of seven-plus hours in the week preceding the evaluation.2 While specific data relating sleep to COVID-19 infections is lacking, it is likely safe to assume adequate rest will make a difference since studies show consistent relationships between short sleep duration and increased risk for mortality, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, coronary heart disease, overweight and obesity, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes. Thus, adequate sleep helps reduce COVID-19 comorbidities.
EXERCISE: The role of physical activity in defending us from infection continues to grow. Regular, moderate physical activity (i.e., walking, cycling, hiking, and swimming) acts as an adjuvant to stimulate immune defense and metabolic health. Consistent, moderate exercise reduces the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, with decreased death from influenza and pneumonia.3 Sedentary living contributes to excess weight, a significant comorbidity in COVID-19 infections. Moreover, a study of 48,440 adult patients in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that routine activity may help protect people who get COVID-19 from becoming seriously ill.4
DIET: Results of research on frontline health-care workers from six countries with high COVID-19 exposure are encouraging.5 Participants were surveyed from July to September 2020. The self-reported data from 2,884 participants included demographic information, dietary pattern information, and COVID-19 outcomes (568 cases). After adjusting for confounders, those who followed a “plant-based diet” had 73 percent lower odds of moderate to severe COVID-19; those who followed a “plant-based or pescatarian [includes fish] diet” had 59 percent lower odds of moderate to severe symptoms—compared to those who consumed regular diets. When participants reported following “low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets,” they had significantly higher odds of more severe symptoms. This study found no association between the dietary pattern reported and the infection rate or duration of COVID-19. These encouraging results suggest that a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may add an important layer of protection against severe COVID-19 symptoms without reducing infection rates or potential viral spread to others.
SUNLIGHT: Recent studies suggest that sunshine exposure limits the spread of the COVID-19 disrupting virus particles in aerosols (sneezing and coughing) and may inactivate the virus in outdoor environments.6 In addition, sun exposure, and vitamin D status are linked to COVID-19 incidence, fatality, and recovery rates through action on the immune system. Appropriate sun exposure (i.e., no overexposure) is beneficial. Vitamin D supplementation is recommended and beneficial when blood levels are not adequate, especially in darker-skinned individuals.
SOCIAL SUPPORT: Social support has been identified as a protective factor against COVID-19-related mental health issues.7 Examples of social support include giving comfort or providing a listening ear in the face of life challenges or distress. Healthy personal relationships are the most beneficial, but an enriching church fellowship even virtually is effective in providing social support and spiritual encouragement. The benefits go both ways, too. Ellen White wrote that “doing good is a work that benefits both giver and receiver.”8 The fellowship of believers during a pandemic plays an important role in healing, comfort, and spiritual nurture—a real boost to mental health. Additionally, studies show that diet, exercise, and sleep are great contributors to mental health and well-being.9
The Bible speaks to how Christians are to behave and personal prayer and trust in God are essential. Paul entreats all believers to “let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).Certainly this includes physical distancing, mask wearing, and basic hygiene measures. Christians should do everything possible to limit the spread of the virus, if for no other reason than the well-being of others!
The primary goal of the Adventist health message is health promotion and disease prevention. Yet there is a crossover between preventive and therapeutic measures for there is wisdom in applying measures appropriate to the circumstances. The context informs the decision. In a pandemic a healthy, wholistic lifestyle can be a life preserver, but there may be other appropriate, acute, lifesaving interventions we may need. Even so, rigorous adherence to healthy behaviors does not guarantee an absence of sickness.
We absolutely should practice and promote the health principles God has given us through inspiration and inspired scientific discovery to protect ourselves and others. Wholistic health moves us to thank God for the knowledge and creativity He gives to humans to develop technologies that strengthen us so we can continue to honor Him in troubled times. For all these blessings we thank God and praise Him with our mouths, attitudes, and actions.
Fred Hardinge is a nutrition and lifestyle specialist at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.