The caregivers’ guide to self-care

How to give your loved ones the support they need—without sacrificing your own health

If you’ve ever flown in a plane you know that, in the event of an emergency, you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first. And yet, when it comes to caring for a loved one with a chronic illness, this lifesaving directive often goes right out the window.

As a result, the toll on caregivers’ health can be devastating. And without proper support, it could eventually lead you to your sick bed, too.

Now, before I go any further, I do want to share some good news…

It’s true that the chronic stress of caregiving has an undeniable impact on your health. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Because recent studies also show that caregiving may not actually be as deadly as once thought.

In the past year, Johns Hopkins researchers reviewed 30 papers on the physical impact of caregiving. They concluded that its effect on immunity and inflammation levels isn’t nearly as negative as previously stated.5

In fact, earlier research from the same team showed that devoting yourself to caregiving may actually help you live longer.

Their analysis of more than 3,000 caregivers of chronically ill or disabled family members showed that caregivers benefit from an 18 percent advantage in survival compared to non-caregiving controls. This amounted to a nine-month increase in life expectancy over the course of their six-year study.

The key, according to researchers, is caregiving both willingly and at manageable levels. This allows caregivers to successfully navigate high stress situations, and to effectively deter the potential risks.

But whatever your particular caregiving situation, one thing is clear: If you want to survive the potential pitfalls, you must make time to care for yourself first.

I’ll give you some simple strategies for doing that in just a moment. But first, let’s take a closer look at some of the increased health risks caregivers can face.

The emotional roller coaster wears you down

Researchers recently set out to see how caring for an older adult with cancer—whether a relative, a partner, or even a friend—impacts physical and emotional wellbeing of the caregiver.

They studied a group of patients aged 70 years or older, as well as their caregivers (who had an average age of 66). And results painted a grim picture, to say the least.

Nearly 40 percent of the caregivers had major chronic illnesses of their own. And slightly more reported moderate to high levels of distress. (This was even higher when the patient was in especially poor health.) Nearly 20 percent reported depression, and nearly a quarter said they were anxious.1

Older, female caregivers reported better mental health. But their physical health, on the other hand, was worse—leading researchers to conclude that cancer caregivers, as a group, are at risk. And they’re not the only ones, either.

Another recent study on caregivers of patients with heart disease showed that they risk developing their own heart problems, too.

These researchers found that caregivers were more likely to indulge in unhealthy behaviors. In fact, they were more likely to smoke and less likely to exercise. They were more likely to eat poorly and less likely to sleep well. They had higher levels of depression, and lower levels of psychological wellbeing.2

And these risks were especially high with “high-intensity” caregiving—that is, more than 14 hours per week, for at least two straight years.

Self-care is the secret to survival

Caregiving’s psychological burden has a clear trickle-down effect on your health. But studies also show that you can manage this stress—and its consequences—by giving yourself plenty of TLC when you can.

So… go for a walk. Read a book. Listen to music. Do any task that makes you happy. Because believe it or not, finding time each day for simple moments to yourself can actually protect your health dramatically over time.

In fact, a recent study of nearly 130 caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients showed that those who spent more time on enjoyable activities had lower blood pressure, on average.

And follow-up testing showed that leisure activities were specifically linked with significant drops in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number—or the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats).3

Ultimately, researchers “prescribed” at least three to four leisure activities each week to see a positive impact on blood pressure. But the more, the better… especially if your preferred activity also happens to include exercise.

Because while even sedentary leisure activities had a beneficial effect, other research shows that regular physical activity delivers even more protection.

Outrun premature aging and death

This study looked at just under 70 sedentary caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s and dementia, all of whom reported high stress levels. Half were assigned 40 minutes of aerobic activity three to five times weekly, while the other half maintained their usual activity levels.

And researchers found that the caregivers who exercised improved their cardiorespiratory fitness levels, lowered their body mass index (BMI), and shrank both their waistlines and their perceived stress levels.

But that’s not all: Researchers also observed changes at the cellular level—specifically, longer telomeres in caregivers’ white blood cells—after the exercise program.4

I’ve written about telomeres (and the critical role they play in keeping you healthy and young) here before. But in case you missed it, here’s a refresher: Telomeres are the strands of DNA that cap and protect your chromosomes.

Think of them like the little plastic pieces on the ends of your shoelaces that keep the laces from fraying. Telomeres help keep your DNA intact. But they also shorten with age and ongoing cell division, which leaves chromosomes vulnerable—contributing to disease.

Telomeres are also highly susceptible to damage from free radicals. Which is one reason that oxidative stress accelerates aging. And chronic stress of any kind has much the same effect.

The longer your telomeres, the longer your lifespan. That means simply exercising a few times a week may be enough to counteract the threat of premature aging and early death in overstressed, at-risk caregivers.

But it’s not the only strategy that can carry your body through the rigors of caregiving…

Steel your body against stress

Diet is the most critical component when it comes to staying healthy during periods of intense stress. And the rules to a healthy, balanced diet are simple:

  1. Cut out all sugars and grains
  2. Opt for organic, nutrient-rich produce and grass-fed and finished protein whenever possible

Supplements can help manage the daily pressures of caring for a sick loved one. And adaptogens are particularly useful during times of stress.

Adaptogens are exactly what they sound like—natural extracts that help you adapt to difficult circumstances, and guard your body against stress. Here are a few of my top picks:

  • Rhodiola rosea—30 mg daily
  • Schizandra chinensis—60 mg, three times daily
  • Ashwagandha extract—150 mg, three times daily
  • Eleutherococcus sinensis root extract (also known as Siberian Ginseng)—150 mg, three times daily
  • Panax ginseng—50 mg, three times daily

Most of these extracts are readily available in health food stores and from online retailers. Just bear in mind that it can take six months or longer before you really start to see a difference in your energy levels.

References:

  1. Kehoe LA, et al. “Quality of Life of Caregivers of Older Patients with Advanced Cancer.” J Am Geriatr Soc. 2019 May;67(5):969-977.
  2. Bouchard K, et al. “Reducing Caregiver Distress and Cardiovascular Risk: A Focus on Caregiver-Patient Relationship Quality.” Can J Cardiol. 2019 Oct;35(10):1409-1411.
  3. Mausbach BT, et al. “Engagement in Pleasant Leisure Activities and Blood Pressure: A 5-Year Longitudinal Study in Alzheimer Caregivers.” Psychosom Med. 2017 Sep;79(7):735-741.
  4. Puterman E, et al. “Aerobic exercise lengthens telomeres and reduces stress in family caregivers: A randomized controlled trial – Curt Richter Award Paper 2018.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Dec;98:245-252.
  5. Roth DL, et al. “Is Family Caregiving Associated With Inflammation or Compromised Immunity? A Meta-Analysis.” Gerontologist. 2019 Mar 10.
  6. Roth DL, et al. “Family caregiving and all-cause mortality: findings from a population-based propensity-matched analysis.” Am J Epidemiol. 2013 Nov 15;178(10):1571-8.

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