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Stress vs Covid-19: is the cure worse than the disease?

Although the Covid-19 virus can lead to all kinds of physical complaints, it has become clear that two groups are at particular risk – those with a genetic susceptibility and those of very old age. All other groups, however, have a serious risk of suffering from the negative side effects of the lockdowns and social distancing measures. Research shows how feelings and emotions function directly on the ins and outs of the cells in our body, including the use of DNA by those cells. Up to 200 body functions are changed depending on one’s emotions.

Recent years have seen major breakthroughs in research on man’s capacity to influence the own immune system. “Iceman” Wim Hof has shown through scientific tests that a combination of breathing techniques and exposure to the cold allows people to boost their immune system to such a degree that illnesses become more bearable of can even disappear.

Emeritus professor immunology Pierre Capel has worked with Hof and has published on related subjects. His book The Emotional DNA describes how “feelings are linked to rock-solid biochemistry, that has an enormous impact on our functioning. Not on a vague metaphysical level, but functioning directly on the ins and outs of the cells in our body, up to and including the use of DNA by those cells”.

In a video lecture Capel discusses this theme in the context of Covid-19. Earlier this year, when the virus turned out to be highly contagious and its lethality was still unknown, he feels that it was understandable that countries decided to impose lockdowns. At this moment, however, Capel notes that two patterns can be discerned. Those who will die from the virus are, first, those with a genetic susceptibility (independent of age), and second, those in the advanced age group.

In the first part of his lecture, Capel points to a vital element to understand, namely that not everyone is equally vulnerable to the virus because people’s immune system is not equally strong for all viruses. Capel explains that every person has his or her own unique combination of so-called MHC molecules, which explains why one person may have a strong immunity against yellow fever or typhus but not for corona; for others this may be the other way round. These people may get very sick from Covid-19 and, because the immune system does not properly recognize the virus, are susceptible to a second infection.

Capel then continues to explain how emotions control our body and gives the example that hospital patients whose room faces a park instead of a blank wall spend fewer days in hospital, have fewer complications and need less pain medication. The reason is that the feelings and emotions created in our limbic system control a lot of functions in our DNA. Emotions do not change the DNA itself, but the genes on the DNA can be switched on and off, and this process is heavily dependent on emotions.

With the number of deaths by Covid-19 being relatively low, we have reached the point where the negative side effects of lockdowns and social distancing measures could easily be worse than the virus itself. Capel points to research on the emotions associated with social distancing such as lonelineness. Research on rats shows that those living in groups have few and benign tumors; rats that are isolated, by contrast, have tumors that are more numerous and malignant as a result of chronic stress. More than 200 body functions are changed depending on one’s feeling of loneliness. Moreover, stress induced chronic inflammation leads to a plethora of negative effects on blood vessel formation, the immune system, and lifespan. Chronic stress on average reduces one’s life by 7 years.

Importantly, very strong emotions also activate the epigenetic system, which means that the information of a certain gene is blocked – not for a short time but throughout one’s life. As the effects can even be transmitted to one’s offspring, a very strong trauma can echo for up to three generations. Although this process can be reversed, it is very difficult to do so.

While Capel feels Covid-19 should not be underestimated, particularly by those who are susceptible to the virus or are of old age, he is very clear that the emotional and psychological impact of the corona measures has so far been grossly overlooked and should be given due regard in any discussion on the organization of our societies during a pandemic.

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