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How The Pandemic Is Changing Our Bodies

9 months, 3 weeks ago

11128  0
Posted on Feb 15, 2022, 7 p.m.

In this article Nicholas DiNubile, MD speaks with BuzzFeed and Katie Cameri about the negative health consequences of the rise of inactivity and sedentary behavior that has been occurring since the beginning of the Rona pandemic and lockdowns/restrictions/mandates. 

Whether it’s your eyes, skin, teeth, or something else, the pandemic is having an impact on bodies that has nothing to do with COVID.

During the first three months of the COVID pandemic, Lexie Michel, 23, hunkered down in her California apartment with her college roommates and didn’t do much else. After graduating, she moved to Texas and continued the hermit life as a remote employee.

Fast-forward a couple of months, Michel’s back hurt so much she had to visit a chiropractor. The diagnosis: stage 2 spinal degeneration (there are only about three or four stages, depending on who you ask). She blames her work-from-home posture, hunching over her laptop eight hours a day.

“It’s kind of crazy because I'm 23, but my chiropractor said it’s actually much more common than you would think just because of how much we're looking down at our phones and laptops,” Michel said.

The ability to work or stay at home during the pandemic is a privilege that isn't available to everyone. However, millions of people spent more time at home either because they lost their jobs or were able to work remotely, a dramatic shift to indoor life.

Now more than two years later, many people still spend more time living and working at home than they did in the past.

While pandemic-related stress, anxiety, and grief due to the more than 900,000 COVID deaths in the US have had a well-documented impact on mental health, changes in daily life, like staying home for extended periods of time, can also affect other parts of your body, including your eyes, skin, and ability to focus.

BuzzFeed News spoke to several doctors and experts about how spending more time at home can transform bodies in the short and long term.

Your eyes

Spending more time indoors is known to increase the risk of nearsightedness, or myopia. A 2021 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology suggested that during the pandemic, there were 1.4 to 3 times more cases of myopia in 2020 among children ages 6 to 8 than in the previous five years.

That wasn’t the case for kids ages 9 to 13, who didn’t experience increases in myopia diagnosis. The link is less studied in adults, but Dr. Mika Moy, an eye doctor and health sciences clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Optometry, said she isn’t seeing this trend in her older patients.

However, close work (spending hours reading or looking at something less than 20 centimeters, or about 7 to 8 inches distance from your face) coupled with low light levels are thought to play a role in increased myopia risk.

“There's other sort of generalizations, like people who live in cities tend to be more nearsighted than people who live in the country, and we think that's because we're finding there's a protective connection with the outdoors,” Moy said.

However, nearsightedness is not the only eye-related problem that’s occurring during the pandemic.

For eyes, lockdowns in March 2020 were like having to “run marathons without any training,” Moy told BuzzFeed News. “Your meetings are on the screen, your work is on the screen, and now everyone's leisure time seems to also be on these screens.”

Often people forget to blink when staring at a screen for a long time, which deprives their eyes of moisturizing tears. We’re also stressing out the tiny glands dotting our eyelids that secrete oil into our tears every time we blink. Blinking less can cause the glands to “shrink away,” Moy said, which isn’t good in the long run.

Eye drops called artificial tears can help relieve dryness, but they may not work as well as warm compresses. Moy suggests placing a warm washcloth over your eyes for 10 minutes about two times a day to feel relief.

You can also develop eye fatigue, which occurs when the muscles that control your eyes’ focus tire out after extended use; some people may get headaches or experience blurry vision as a result, Moy said.

Blue light exposure is another factor to consider, which electronic devices emit. It has one of the shorter yet higher energy wavelengths on the visible light spectrum, but experts agree there isn’t strong scientific evidence that shows it actually causes eye fatigue or damage. (Too much of it at night can make it harder for you to fall asleep, though, Moy said.)

So yes, you can get a burning sensation from staring at your computer all day, but the infamous blue light probably isn’t the culprit here. In fact, the sun produces at least 100 times more blue light than a typical smartphone, the American Optometric Association says. This means your fancy blue light glasses may not be doing much; the American Academy of Ophthalmology doesn’t recommend them. Anecdotally, however, Moy said her patients think they’re helpful (personally, I think so, too, but it may just be a placebo effect).

One pair of glasses that might help are computer glasses, or “occupational lenses,” which are prescription frames that correct your vision specifically for computer-length distance, preventing your eyes from working too hard. There are also some non-prescription reading glasses that are specifically made for computer work.

One of the best things you can do is give your eyes a break and try the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes look 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Otherwise, take some time to step outside; the fresh air helps in more ways than one.

Your skin

Although being indoors can protect you from sunburns and major risks of skin cancer from exposure to ultraviolet light, your vitamin D levels can drop because you’re not absorbing sunlight that helps your body produce it, notes Dr. Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, a double board-certified dermatologist in Texas.

Vitamin D supports immune health, muscle function, brain activity, and the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphate.

Studies show vitamin D deficiency is associated with a greater likelihood of depression, bone and muscle issues (more on that later), and other health problems. A lack of sunlight exposure, darker skin, and older age increase your chances of having a deficiency.

The good news is that at least one 2021 study published in the European Journal of Public Health found that vitamin D deficiency was no more common in patients in Italy during 2020 lockdowns compared with previous years, suggesting it may not always be an issue for those of us spending extra time at home during the pandemic.

Anyway, only a small amount of sun exposure is necessary for your body to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D. Stepping outside for “a few minutes a day is enough,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told BuzzFeed News. You can also get your vitamin D from fortified foods, supplements, and certain foods like salmon and egg yolks.

What both dermatologists have noticed during the pandemic is more patients coming in with rashes, acne, and rosacea, a condition that causes facial redness and pimple-like bumps on the skin.

Zeichner blames face masks, stress, and poor eating habits (namely, eating too much sugar). Sugar can promote inflammation in the body and drive oil production that can lead to acne breakouts, he said. Over time, excess sugar can trigger glycation — when sugar molecules attach to proteins in your skin called collagen — which can contribute to wrinkles, he said.

Regular exercise can help. It keeps your skin cells functioning as they should and prevents premature aging, Zeichner said. “The days may seem long and repetitive, but keep up with your skincare routine,” he said. “What you do now certainly will have an impact on your skin in the future.”

Then there’s a less obvious but still insidious impact on your body (and mind). People are spending more time in Zoom meetings, where staring at themselves in the harsh glare of a computer is making them more self-conscious about the way they look. Both dermatologists have noticed that more patients are asking about how to get rid of dark spots, wrinkles, and undereye bags.

Zeichner recommends wearing sunscreen, even indoors because harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun can still pierce through windows and penetrate your skin. Various stress-inducing pollutants also exist inside your home, Houshmand said, especially in the winter when central heating and lack of fresh air can dry your skin; she recommends setting up a humidifier in your home to help.

Your muscles, bones, and nerves

If you’re anything like Michel, the 23-year-old with back trouble, you too have experienced the aches and pains associated with turning your home into a workspace.

Dr. Charla Fischer, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News she’s seeing more patients come in with back pain related to poor posture while working from home.

“We sit in a bad position all day, hunched over a laptop, and the muscles get overstretched and microtears develop. Then the muscle starts to cramp because of this injury, and we get pain,” Fischer said.

But the sedentary lifestyle is more than just an achy back. It’s “as dangerous for your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon at Premier Orthopedics And Sports Medicine in Pennsylvania and American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News. “We already have a big problem in our nation with this, and the pandemic only made it worse.”

Add inactivity with a lack of vitamin D and you have a “real issue,” DiNubile said. “Vitamin D deficiency not only affects bone health, but also muscle injuries, and tears are more common when levels are low.”

Kids, for example, are getting more injuries now that they’re returning to physical activities after about two years of home confinement. “Never in my entire career have I gone two weeks without seeing an ACL injury,” DiNubile said, yet at the beginning of the pandemic, about five months passed with no injured kid in sight. “Now it’s payback. They’re starting to roll in again.”

Being sedentary could lead to loss of muscle, too, which could slow metabolism and contribute to weight gain and obesity, he added. And over two-plus years, osteoporosis, or bone thinning, could become an issue, which is particularly worrisome for white and Asian women, postmenopausal women, and teenagers (given bone health is built in teen years), DiNubile said.

That’s why it’s important to make sure your home is equipped to support your body as best as possible, and that your workspace has ergonomically appropriate equipment, like a monitor, adjustable office chair, keyboard, computer mouse, and proper back support.

You should set your monitor at eye level, keyboard at lap level, and both knees at a 90-degree angle, Fischer suggests, and incorporate standing breaks, short walks, and stretching into your daily routine to prevent future pain.

Seating arrangements without cushions and solid back support will allow your body to slouch and form a “C” curve, said Fischer, who’s also an AAOS spokesperson. Try a dining chair instead (you can buy lumbar support pillows that fit any chair), and only use your bed for sleeping, she said. “Mattresses are not designed for us to sit and do work on them.”

Your brain

Our brains are incredibly adaptive, constantly adjusting to their surroundings. But for some, shifting workplaces and social situations can have some surprising and unexpected impacts on daily life.

John Redding, 46, of Texas, said his inability to focus even for short periods of time at home has “gone from a minor nuisance to a major issue,” even with the help of medication. “I used to be a voracious reader, but I haven't read an entire book since the pandemic started.”

Sam Ling, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, told BuzzFeed News some people may be less productive at home because there are more distractions there. However, that’s not the case for everyone.

Sereena Millward, 28, told us she struggles to focus now that she’s working in an office again. “The sounds of people talking and eating at their desk grate on me, but I also can’t concentrate if it’s deadly silent.” (This feeling is called misophonia.)

That’s because a shift in how people interact from in person to online — and then back again — can be a bit of adjustment.

“There’s exhaustion that’s involved in monitoring social cues when there’s so little information available,” Ling said. Similarly, there can be stimuli overload when we return to face-to-face interactions that may be overwhelming for some.

Ling noted that retraining our brains to socialize as we used to could take some time. The brain is a muscle; the parts we don’t exercise regularly will get a little wonky.

“COVID has promoted this hermitlike life,” he said, although he doesn’t think we’ve permanently rewired our “pretty plastic” brains to solely tolerate the comfort of our homes. “On so many fronts this is one of the biggest experiments that has ever been done on the human brain.”

Pandemic home life has been a blessing in disguise for some people. It helped Abby Adesanya, 29, experience a specific (and pleasurable) bodily sensation for the first time in April 2020 as she was listening to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album alone in her New York apartment. “I was blasting the album, throwing my hands in the air, wishing I could be dancing in the clubs to this. Then I remember feeling the tops of my shoulders start to vibrate, and it spread down my arms.”

Adesanya was experiencing frisson: the chills and goosebumps often felt after listening to music or watching something in synchrony. Anywhere between 55% to 86% of people experience frisson, yet Adesanya had never felt it.

“I cannot believe my body suddenly just unlocked this ability. I don't know if it was trying to fill in the blanks for missing stimuli. But the fact it's here is so cool, even though it was a side effect of a really dark time.”

Ling said he isn’t surprised by Adesanya’s breakthrough. It’s possible when going from a hyperstimulated environment such as life in New York City to a quiet apartment that the reduction in stimuli helped unbusy her mind. It’s what meditation does for many people, he said.

Your teeth

Another body part that might have suffered during the pandemic is your teeth.

The cost and need for insurance normally prevents many people from going to the dentist, but the pandemic, because of the nature of dental work, added another barrier to routine checkups. Kelly Holst, an assistant professor at Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry in Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News this worsened dental problems for many people.

“There's only so much you can do at home. You can’t scrape off the plaque, food debris, and bacteria that harden and calcify on your teeth” without a dentists’ help, said Holst, who also noticed an uptick in patients with preexisting dental issues who are now “in a worse boat.” Pandemic-related stress and missed appointments have left some people with jaw pain associated with teeth grinding, too, she added.

Extra time at home also means more, often unnecessary, snacking, which is “notoriously bad for your oral health” and clears the way for cavities to form, Holst said. “At work, you're sort of more regimented with your food intake. At home, you kind of have that freedom to graze.”

Certain acidic foods and drinks (like citrus, strawberries, lemon water, sports drinks, soda, and alcohol) can contribute to demineralization in your enamel — the outer layer of your teeth and strongest tissue in your body — and make your mouth more acidic by throwing off your oral pH level, Holst said.

Don’t want to put down the snacks? Holst suggests you eat or drink them right away and avoid nibbling or sipping throughout the day. That way you give your mouth time to naturally recalibrate itself. Otherwise, use fluoride toothpaste, floss every day, go to your routine cleanings, and use an electric toothbrush, she said.

Your body size

Several people we spoke to said their body size experienced the most change during the pandemic. Some people lost weight, others gained.

Patrícia Romano, 26, used to struggle to gain weight (she blames genetics and stress), but when her job became remote in 2020, she stopped walking to and from work and gained 11 pounds. Instead of skipping lunch and dinner on the regular, she started eating more homemade meals that were healthier than the takeout she was used to.

But the weight gain was rough for Romano, who’s a lawyer in Brazil. She became obsessed with analyzing her body in the mirror and noticing flaws that many others likely couldn’t notice. It got so bad that Romano took regular pregnancy tests because she would “see a huge stomach,” she told me.

“Now that some time has passed, it doesn't bother me as much anymore,” Romano said. “I gave up on losing the weight and focused more on embracing it as this new body that has endured the delicate time of a worldwide stressful situation.”

Heidi (who didn’t feel comfortable sharing her last name) told us she got so tired of cooking for herself at home that she “ended up eating less and losing a bunch of weight, which triggered some weird fatigue issues that were made worse with pandemic burnout and work-from-home/isolation.”

In general, you shouldn’t feel bad about weight changes during the pandemic. We’ve been through a lot in the last two years.

Your gastrointestinal tract

One part of your body may have been particularly sensitive to all the changes related to your diet, mental health, and activity levels during the pandemic — your gastrointestinal tract.

Dr. Sarah McGill, an associate professor of medicine specializing in gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told BuzzFeed News many patients say added stress and loneliness during the pandemic has led to an increase in abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea.

“The GI tract has even more nerves than the brain, so the way we feel can cause GI distress,” McGill said.

What’s more, people increased their drinking during the pandemic, which isn’t a positive trend given alcohol is directly toxic to your GI tract, can cause fat to accumulate in your liver, and contribute to liver damage, McGill said.

A Johns Hopkins survey of 832 adults over 21 found 60% reported increased drinking in May 2020 compared to pre-COVID times and 34% reported binge drinking. Stress, alcohol availability, and boredom were the most common triggers for increased drinking.

For Beth Boardman, 61, a writer and retired nurse in California, regular afternoon wine on an empty stomach led her to develop acute gastritis and esophagitis, or inflammation of the lining of the stomach and esophagus.

McGill said you should avoid alcohol as much as you can, and exercise regularly, which will keep your bowel movements flowing as they should, help you maintain a stable weight, and keep your heart healthy.

Speaking of bowel movements, you may have seen a change in those from spending more time at home. While some people may have experienced more constipation from a suddenly sedentary lifestyle, others may have seen an improvement from an increased ability to listen to body cues — and easier access to a bathroom.

Holding back bowel movements — for example, because you’re commuting or working in a busy office — can make constipation more likely, McGill said. So, it’s safe to say spending more time at home may have made going to the bathroom a little easier.

Either way, a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich whole grains is important to keep things running smoothly, whether you are spending time at home or more time out of the house.

“Fiber directly contributes to gut health by feeding the trillions of microorganisms we have there, which in turn help us with our mood, metabolism, and lots of other aspects of health,” McGill said

Article courtesy of Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, Vice President of the A4M, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, best-selling author, keynote speaker, and one of our medical editors who is dedicated to keeping you healthy in body, mind, and spirit.

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.

Content may be edited for style and length.

Materials provided by:

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