Health

Stay-home health hassles… sorted

From roller-coaster hormones to WFH headaches, life in a pandemic has meant a few unforeseen health issues. Never fear, help is here

We don’t need to remind you that this year, Covid-19 has swept through the world like a hurricane, causing a health crisis unprecedented in our lifetime. But there have been other unexpected health issues that have emerged from living in its shadow. Maybe you broke out in spots like a hormonal teenager; perhaps your periods became more unpredictable than a British summer; or WFH life has seen you plagued by aches and pains you normally only hear your parents talking about. It doesn’t take a scientist to work out that a base ingredient of constant, low-level anxiety, mixed with topsy-turvy routines, a large dollop of inactivity, garnished with too much tech and served with a side order of lockdown = a recipe for wellbeing disaster. Which is why we’re serving up some healthy solutions.

Health hassle: WFH aches

Those of us with desk and computer-based jobs know it’s a perfect storm for posture problems. But when that desk is a kitchen table – or even a sofa or a bed – and you’ve had to work that way for weeks on end, you’re inviting trouble. ‘Laptop use classically leads to a stiff neck – you have to lean forwards over it without the right ergonomic support for your shoulders, neck, back and hips. This means the thoracic spine – which runs down your upper back – doesn’t get the chance to move much, so the joints don’t lubricate, resulting in a stiff neck,’ says Valentina Roffi, physiotherapist at sprintphysio.co.uk. And that’s if you’re using a laptop at your desk – slouch on the sofa/in bed and you’re asking for more serious back pain. ‘But one of the main problems is lack of movement – you’re not getting up to chat to colleagues, or even, say, walking somewhere to go to a meeting. So you’re in one position for a long time and you don’t get circulation going to your joints,’ says Valentina. ‘Plus, you’re not compensating with any activity you’d usually get on your commute – even using public transport to get to work means you end up walking a bit.’

Help fix it: First, the good news – you don’t have to shell out on an ergonomically designed office (or treadmill). ‘But make sure your screen is in front of you, not to the side. It should be at eye height, so if you have a laptop, ask if you can have a separate keyboard and mouse, allowing you to put the screen on a stand. This posture keeps your neck level, rather than pulling it down. And you should have the keyboard close to your body so you’re not having to stretch out your wrists,’ says Valentina. ‘One of the main steps, though, is to take regular breaks. Sit for no longer than half an hour to an hour at any one time. In between, do some purposeful movement – ie, move in a way that counteracts your working position. So if you bend forwards a lot, bend backwards to counter that. Motion is lotion when it comes to joints!’ If aches and pains don’t resolve in two weeks, or worsen, see your GP – you may need to be referred for physio.

Health hassle: Stay-home headaches

In early April, there was a spike in Google searches for tension headaches, while a May survey by The Migraine Trust showed 58% of people with migraines reported they’d been worse during lockdown.* There’s a combination of reasons, says consultant neurologist Professor Fayyad Ahmed. ‘Routine is important for managing migraines, so sleeping longer than usual or going to bed and getting up at different times, as well as eating at irregular times, can contribute,’ he says. Lack of exercise, squinting at screens or being hunched over a computer may result in tension headaches, as can – you guessed it – anxiety and stress. Plus, most of us have missed out on having holidays, says Professor Ahmed. ‘Even if you’ve had time off during lockdown, you probably haven’t been able to relax properly.’

Help fix it: Try to get into a routine – go to bed, get up, exercise and eat at roughly the same times each day. Commit to a 5:2 digital diet, having two days away from your screen. Sounds tough? The digital detox experts at Time To Log Off recommend deleting social media apps from your phone from Friday night to Monday morning, so you can only be reached by phone or video calls over the weekend. And invest in an old-school alarm clock for your bedroom, so you don’t need your phone by the bed – with the temptation of sneaking a midnight peek at social media.

Health hassle: Crisis complexion

If you’ve noticed a sudden zit blitz, you’re not alone. ‘A number of my clients are reporting new or worsening acne,’ says Dr Zainab Laftah, dermatology consultant at St John’s Institute of Dermatology (@drzainab.dermatology). And there’s a familiar culprit to blame: ‘Stress triggers a rise in levels of cortisol and hormones called androgens, triggering increased oil production and inflammation of the sebaceous glands, leading to spots,’ she explains. ‘Stress also affects sleep, an essential step in the skin’s repair process. If you’ve been snacking on processed and sugary foods as well, this can cause a surge in inflammation and oil production, too.’ And if #isolife had you using more scrubs and masks than you can shake a beauty influencer at, you may (ironically) have noticed more frequent outbreaks. ‘Some skincare products contain oil and other ingredients that can clog pores,’ says Dr Laftah. ‘Unfortunately, wearing a protective face mask can also aggravate pore-clogging and flare-ups, due to the constant pressure from it and increased heat/humidity around the cheeks, nose and chin.’

Help fix it: Strip back your skincare, advises Dr Laftah. ‘Cleanse twice a day with a salicylic acid-based cleanser if you get blackheads and whiteheads, then check your moisturiser and sunscreen are non-comedogenic (formulated not to block pores). Apply azelaic acid or retinol products at night – these help by killing acne-causing bacteria and dissolving the accumulation of dead skin cells – but build up gradually to nightly use, as they can irritate.’ You could try non-comedogenic make-up, too, which can reduce the risk of further pore-blocking. Then there are the common-sense basics – exercise both eases anxiety and boosts circulation to your skin (cleanse your face first to avoid make-up mingling with sweat and blocking pores, and wash straight after your workout). And a healthy, balanced diet, based on fresh fruit and veg, whole grains and lean protein, will support your skin. But patience is key when it comes to your complexion, warns Dr Laftah. ‘It can take six to eight weeks to see changes in your skin.’**

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Health hassle: Haywire hormones

In an Instagram survey in May, conducted by @thegynaegeek, 65% of women admitted their hormones went helter-skelter during lockdown, with cycles shorter or longer than usual, or periods heavier or lighter. What’s the science behind this hormone havoc? ‘The sex hormones that influence your menstrual cycle, and the stress hormone cortisol, are all made from a substance called pregnenolone, a building block of hormones,’ says Ms Tania Adib, consultant gynaecologist at The Medical Chambers, Kensington. ‘During periods of stress, your body prioritises making cortisol, meaning your levels of sex hormones drop. This process is sometimes called the “cortisol steal” and it can result in messed-up cycles and worsening PMS and perimenopausal symptoms. As progesterone is a calming hormone, reduced levels of that are also likely to result in anxiety.’ Perfect!

Help fix it: Get a handle on daily stress levels. ‘You need to take time to get centred,’ advises Tania. ‘Mindfulness meditation can help calm you and lower cortisol levels. You don’t necessarily just need to focus on meditation, though – mindful activities such as baking and gardening, where you’re absorbed but calm, can be just as soothing. I’d also recommend gentle exercise, such as yoga, to help relax you.’ And take a ‘daily dose of nature’ outside for fast-acting calm – research shows just 20 minutes in the green is enough to lower stress hormones.

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Managing immunity anxiety

With a recent survey finding that 10 million of us have been Googling our immune systems, clearly there’s a bit of pandemic-induced panic. And here’s the kicker: ‘Anxiety can actually lower your immunity, so follow the proven steps to balance your immune system,’ says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi, author of Immunity: The Science of Staying Well. Of course, keeping stress levels under control, a balanced diet and exercise are all important – but here are more ways to help:

1. Load up on plant-based foods
Around 70% of your immune cells are in your gut and interact with the good bacteria found there,’ says Dr Macciochi. A diet high in fibre (found in fruit, veg, whole grains and pulses) feeds the good bacteria, keeping the gut flora diverse, which is crucial for immunity.

2. Prioritise sleep
It allows your body to release important immune responses and regulates the inflammation that can reduce immunity.

3. Get your D
The sunshine vitamin is important for supporting a healthy immune system, as well as bone and muscle health. Make the most of warm days by getting outside for some autumn sunlight, and take a supplement from early autumn to April††.

Read more immunity tips here

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*See your GP if your migraines continue to be more severe or frequent than usual. **See your GP if your acne hasn’t started to improve after this time. ††Visit the NHS website for full details of vitamin D supplementation advice. ‡Available on boots.com and in selected stores. † Harper Non Fiction
Illustration: Lene Due Jensen