Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

In the world of public health, understanding the timeline of infectious illness is paramount to saving lives and minimizing suffering. In other words, there is an evolution of illness, from an exposure to a latency phase, to symptom development to resolution. It does not take place in a vacuum and some of the ways we fall ill are somewhat predictable. There are numerous tactics to reduce our risks and keep ourselves and our loved ones as safe as possible. Understanding the risk factors, shifting susceptibility, acting swiftly if exposed and taking up supportive treatments when illness occurs and during recovery, can all favorably impact the course of infectious disease.

Though not everyone seems to fully understand, following public health guidelines is imperative: wearing face coverings in public, avoiding large gatherings, frequent handwashing and sufficient testing. Beyond that, there are many places along this timeline, both pre and post-exposure, that are modifiable. We are not strictly passive physical beings with no power against a strongly infectious agent. We have some control in what we do and can take more control with accurate science-based, actionable information. It is also true, that someone can do everything possible, and still fall gravely ill, but it’s important to appreciate that our bodies are built to fight infection when given the right circumstances and time for healing. Let’s take a closer look.

We each have underlying susceptibility based on our genetic inheritance and a slew of previous environmental exposures, choices and experiences which brings us to our unique state of health. When there is exposure to a pathogen, we know that not everyone exposed becomes sick. Likewise, expression of the illness, whatever it may be, looks different for different people. Various organ systems may be impacted, to more or less degree. Some might suffer more on the psycho-emotional realm, and overall, the length and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Likewise, some fully recover, some sadly, are left disabled, or worse, some do not make it through. This reflects individual biochemical response to an offending agent. This is why not everyone gets sick with every exposure to every infectious agent. Most importantly at this moment in time, is to focus on the evidence-based ways to reduce risks. We can look at a few examples from each part of the timeline.

Let’s start with predisposition, including pre-existing illnesses. We can exemplify this with diabetes. Those with diabetes are both more at risk for acquiring and have worse outcomes when they do fall ill. Research tells us that among adults with diabetes, about 91% have Type II diabetes, which is both preventable and treatable with diet and lifestyle modification. So, if you are someone with Type II diabetes or are pre-diabetic, this would be the perfect time to bring your blood sugars into a more healthy range, through diet and exercise and other natural medicine approaches. 

Similarly, in the last six months, studies have confirmed that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with higher risks. More than half the world’s population is Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D supplementation is inexpensive and carries few side effects. We can impact prevalence by ensuring optimal vitamin D status.

Other integrative and naturopathic medicine approaches make good sense based on understanding of susceptibility and how this virus spreads. Stress reduction, ensuring adequate sleep and dietary recommendations related to food and supplementation all play a role. We can positively impact our susceptibility now by addressing underlying medical diagnoses and maximizing lifestyle approaches to support enhanced immunity. 

If you have a viral exposure, is there anything to do to lower your chance of falling sick or becoming severely ill? Some promising developments include using readily available nutritional supplementation:

Studies have shown that the mineral zinc may play an important role. We read, “Zinc may possess protective effect as preventive and adjuvant therapy” during viral infection. This occurs by “reducing inflammation, improvement of mucociliary {the little hairs that help us remove mucous} clearance, prevention of ventilator‑induced lung injury, and modulation of antiviral and antibacterial immunity.” As with many nutritional and botanical medicine approaches, Zinc is readily available and inexpensive. 

Vitamin C and Quercetin (a potent anti-inflammatory,) have been studied and show synergistically “overlapping antiviral and immunomodulatory properties.” Again, it is not hard to find these nutritional supplements and they are not expensive. If you know you’ve been exposed, consider supporting your body’s inherent capacity for healing. Look for chances to rest, to eat well, to continue light exercise, to laugh, all things that help your immune system work best. In this comprehensive paper, we have natural and integrative approaches offered at each step of the way from  prevention and infection, to recovery. Find numerous recommendations derived from the scientific literature to feel empowered by the fact that we have tools to impact severity of illness even after exposure. 

Looking out longer term, many of us know people who have had a viral infection who are now fine. Others have mild symptoms remaining, hearkening back to previously experienced ailments, worsened during their sickness. Yet other people have totally new symptoms unfamiliar to them ranging from mild to severe or life-altering.

There is also concern about the broad impact in previously uncharted psycho-emotional realms related to current times. The stress of social distancing, changes in employment and income, the instability of the moment are causing or heightening anxiety and depression. There is also some evidence that the inflammatory process in some of those who have been ill may cause post-viral psycho-emotional symptoms of great concern.

Screening for and making medical and other supportive approaches can help modify long term effect in this area and is an important angle in the for long-term follow- up. Using conventional medical approaches, physical therapy, occupational therapy, respiratory therapy, psychological screening and talk therapy alongside naturopathic medicine approaches can all be part of supporting convalescence and recovery.

Lastly, we would do well to pay attention to how public health recommendations potentially impact our long term health. In other words, choices we are making now impact our future susceptibility to both acute and chronic ailments. For instance, if you spend more time indoors and exposed to secondhand smoke, that is a problem. When your children spend more time sitting passively in front of a screen, that impacts metabolism and more. When you decide that going to the gym, if your gym is even open, is too much of a risk, you may be more sedentary now which can impact cardiovascular health, bone density, and mental health in years to come. Though many people are taking advantage of time outdoors, not everyone feels safe outdoors, so we circle back around to being more sedentary, having less exposure to the sun which can lead to further Vitamin D deficiency. Trading off some risks for others is what we all do; being aware and trying to compensate as best you can makes good sense.

We have important tools to impact susceptibility and if we fall ill, we have some tools that may well favorably impact the course of illness and recovery. 

#naturopathicmedicine #naturopathic #modifyyourrisk


  • Amy Rothenberg ND

    Licensed Naturopathic Doctor, writer, teacher & advocate for healthy living

    Naturopathic Health Care

    Dr. Amy Rothenberg was named 2017 Physician of the Year by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Her book, The A Cappella Singer Who Lost Voice & Other Stories from Natural Medicine, shares from her 30+ years of clinical experience illustrated by patient stories. Dr Rothenberg writes and lectures widely on topics in natural medicine, helping audiences understand the essential philosophical and practical approaches used in naturopathic and integrative care. Dr. Rothenberg has been a leader and advocate for the licensure of naturopathic medicine and for access to natural medicine for all. When not busy in the world of natural medicine, Dr. Rothenberg can be found in her art studio, puttering in the garden or on the ballroom dance floor!