Ever since she left her job as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales and became a nutritional therapist in her late 20s, Amelia Freer has made a career out of helping others improve their health. Freer has written four books, each explaining how seasonal, nutritious food and simple practices such as good sleep, movement and mindful eating help keep her, and the likes of Victoria Beckham and Sam Smith, energised and healthy.
However, like thousands of people across the UK, and the world, Freer was recently bed bound with the symptoms of Covid-19. ‘Back in February I went along to a work event in London, but on the drive home I suddenly started to sweat. It came on so quickly I almost stopped the car. Within five minutes, I was shivering and cold, but still experiencing this overwhelming slush of heat, and by the time I got home I had developed a dry cough. It came on like a click of the fingers; I started coughing and couldn’t stop. I went to bed and felt hot and cold all night.
‘I was incredibly worried because the Government then said there would be no more testing and not to call 111, and there wasn’t much guidance.’ So along with her partner Nick Jenkins, the businessman and Dragons’ Den star, and their two-year-old daughter Willow, Freer began to self-isolate.
Her symptoms continued and as well as a continuous cough, Freer also experienced a tightening feeling when she breathed, exhaustion and intense headaches.
‘I think Willow may have had it too, in that she had a cough and a fever, but other than that she was fine in herself. So far Nick hasn’t had any symptoms. I feel lucky because while it was awful, it was also manageable, and we’ve come through it. There’s no way of knowing whether we had it, but the symptoms would certainly suggest so.’
Freer says anxiety set in on day four. ‘The number of deaths was rising by this point and I remember watching the news and going into a quiet panic. I feared things would go downhill and I would be rushed into hospital and die,’ she explains.
By the time Boris Johnson announced the lockdown on 23 March, Freer and her family had been self-isolating for two weeks. ‘I’m not a big socialiser, so for me being at home isn’t too challenging. However, after I felt better, I found the lack of routine difficult, and it’s hard keeping a toddler entertained during a lockdown. We’ve also struggled to access food at times because we couldn’t go out to buy it, our families don’t live nearby and we found it hard to get deliveries when panic-buying hit. So we had to make the food we did have stretch.’ And it was here that her knowledge came into its own.
Freer became interested in nutrition in her late 20s when her lifestyle left her feeling exhausted and bloated. ‘My job was busy and demanding and everything I ate was processed and pre-packaged,’ she says. She developed acne and IBS, yet made no connection to the food she was eating. A friend suggested she see a nutritionist for some advice, and Freer says that during one of their early sessions a ‘flame lit within’ her and she decided that was what she wanted to do. After qualifying as a nutritional therapist, Freer worked with stars including Victoria Beckham, Boy George and Sam Smith.
So how did she recover from Covid-19? ‘Well firstly it’s important to say that I was never tested, but my symptoms suggested I had it. Secondly, this is such a new virus that we don’t know enough about it. The most important thing we can do is to listen to Government advice.
‘However, what I’ve found has helped me during this difficult time is focusing on having a regular and robust self-care strategy. But don’t strive for perfection either, whether that’s parenting, homeschooling, work or daily workouts. Right now, good enough is good enough.
Amelia Freer's five lockdown strategies: simple ways to feel better in isolation
1. Top up your vitamin D
This is crucial for immune health, but our bodies stop making it in the winter. One of the most effective ways of getting it is through safe sun exposure. Right now, we’re at the end of a long, dark winter, so most people in the UK probably have low levels of vitamin D, which is compounded further by the necessity of staying indoors. Between now and October is usually when we can make vitamin D in our skin again to replenish levels, so if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, patio or balcony, expose your forearms and lower legs every day, and during your daily exercise allowance. Food sources include fish, eggs and mushrooms.
2. Be mindful of alcohol
It’s so tempting right now to pour yourself a large glass of wine every evening to mark the transition from work to home time. But alcohol can be a depressant, so have at least two nights off each week. No alcohol at all would be the ideal, in terms of health. Choose your ‘worth-it moments’. Have a really nice glass of wine with your best friend over Zoom, rather than drinking alone on your sofa because you’ve had a horrible day. Make it a positive, joyful thing. But don’t binge-drink because we know that one episode of binge-drinking impacts on immune function.
3. Eat protein early
I’ve had lots of messages lately from people who say they’re grazing all day long because they’re stuck at home. Overeating can often be a result of boredom, or a way to manage anxiety or to distract themselves. One way to reduce grazing is to have protein at breakfast. A decent portion at breakfast reduces hunger and the desire to snack. Eggs, natural yogurt, nut butters, chicken or fish, and hummus are all good options. And make the most of being at home. I know people who never have time for a proper breakfast because they’re rushing out to catch trains, whereas now you don’t have to do that.
4. Make a meal of it
In the past, many people may have seen making meals as a chore. But now we need sources of joy to break the day up. In this strange time, many families are enjoying sitting down together to have three meals a day for the first time in years. I know Willow is thriving from it. If you live alone you can still make your meals a much-needed part of your routine by listening to the radio or calling a loved one while you prepare them, or eating in your favourite sunny spot outside. This is a good time to develop confidence and creativity in the kitchen, using whatever ingredients you have to hand, and substituting ingredients.
Don’t panic-buy. Instead, use what you already have. Limitation sparks creativity – some of my best recipes have been happy accidents. Contact local food-delivery services – not just supermarkets – and butchers, independent shops and restaurants. If you have children, engage them in the cooking. Sowing seeds or growing fresh herbs is incredibly therapeutic and you can use them in cooking.
5. Don’t miss magnesium
This is an essential dietary mineral that supports sleep, and sleep is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your health and support your immune system. So alongside sensible sleep hygiene, like going to bed and waking up at the same time, reducing screen time, moderate alcohol intake and exercise earlier in the day, ensure you’re getting enough magnesium. Good food sources include dark-green leafy vegetables, nuts, especially almonds, seeds, nut butters, fish, meat and dairy products.