Problem solving and optimization… another perspective on the coronavirus.

Engineers are problem solvers. But it’s often not enough to solve a problem, we want to do it in the best way possible. Think aircraft engines–you want performance and fuel efficiency, and durability, which are often competing problems. 

Combustion, for example, requires fuel and oxygen in the right ratio, and the right conditions. It’s hard to believe you could have too much oxygen, but if the flow field is unsteady–too much velocity–you can blow out your flame. Too much fuel, and you waste energy–and your operating costs go up. 

Let’s take a look at a candle flame. The photo above is a composite of 3 pictures. The candle I used has a glass rim which offers the flame some protection against wind gusts. Too much wind can disrupt the flame–which is how we blow out candles. It’s not lack of oxygen, it’s the unsteady flow field which causes blow out. In the picture at left, I’m in the process of blowing the candle out. The flame flickers wildly before snuffing out. You can see the flame bent over to the left, in the direction of my breath. So, too much wind velocity creates an unstable flame which can blow out.

In the photo, center, the candle is in a big hurricane jar with a wide mouth. It has access to lots of oxygen, yet is protected from heavy winds that could cause blowout. The flame is high and steady. Optimum conditions.

In the photo at right, I’ve put a lid over the hurricane lamp, limiting the amount of oxygen available. You can see the flame lowering as it consumes the oxygen in the jar. Smoke gradually fills the container as the flame consumes the remaining oxygen, before snuffing out completely. So, lack of oxygen will cause the flame to die out.

So what does this have to do with the coronavirus? Well, we know that the virus affects the lungs by causing pneumonia. But it doesn’t affect all people equally. Why are some people more resilient to the virus? Is there a way we can can get earlier indications if our lung function is compromised? One of the problems with coronavirus is that people can be contagious before they have noticeable symptoms, like fever, or shortness of breath. And that allows us to spread it unknowingly.

Viruses have been compared to seeds… they aren’t truly alive until they’re ‘planted’… in this case, we humans are the Petri dishes in which the virus thrives. So why are some people more fertile Petri dishes than others? Why do some people get it with no noticeable symptoms? 

The experts are doing everything they can to solve this problem. Maybe an alternate approach can provide useful insights. As an engineer, I’m going to look at some mechanical and chemical processes that I’m more familiar with. These may be secondary factors affecting infections–or completely unrelated. But, with further research, perhaps they can provide some insights to help us understand why some people are more resilient than others… and what we can do to help ourselves be more resistant to the virus.

Let’s take a look at lungs first. The lungs are the fertile ground where this virus thrives. It’s where the blood in our bodies releases carbon dioxide and exchanges that for fresh oxygen. Nutrient-rich blood is right there, making the exchange through the lung membranes and capillaries.

Is there an optimum flow field that the virus thrives in? Is it some mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen that is typical of shallow breathing? Is it possible to ‘blow out’ the virus by taking deep breaths, fully emptying the lungs of carbon dioxide, and taking in fresh lungfuls of oxygen? I don’t know. But, as a former underwater-hockey player, snorkeler, and a current practitioner of yoga, I know how important breath can be. 

I also suspect that people who play musical wind instruments or sing regularly develop great breath control and habits. I don’t know if any studies have been done to correlate lung function and breathing habits with resistance to the virus, but if pneumonia is one of the presenting symptoms, it makes sense that anything we can do to strengthen our lungs should be beneficial. If you’re a smoker, there’s never been a better time to quit.

If I think of the seed analogy, I know that different plants thrive in different types conditions. Soil pH (how acid or alkaline it is), drainage, composition (fertile–lots of organic matter, sandy, clay, rocky) can be important. Some plants require shade, others prefer full sun. Some can tolerate harsh winds while others need shelter and protection. Many different factors contribute to form the ideal micro-climate for each plant, but some are more tolerate of a wide range of conditions than others. I have no idea what kind of blood ‘soils’ the coronavirus prefers… so this part is even more wildly speculative. But maybe a researcher somewhere has data that can help look for blood-related trends.

Remember the 1971 movie, Andromeda Strain? The blood pH factor was a key to discovering how that virus worked. That virus did not like extremely alkaline or acidic blood. I have no idea what this coronavirus likes, but blood pH is largely controlled by diet. Diets rich in plant foods tend to be more alkalizing to the blood, diets heavy in meat tend to create more acid. Plus soft drinks and carbonated beverages are basically acids, so those will create blood that is more acidic.

Or is the key factor nutrition and antibodies in the blood? There’s been a lot of documentation about the role that healthy gut bacteria have on our physical health, including disease resistance, and our brain health… so to have a healthy gut and immune system, you need to feed your beneficial gut bacteria. Sugar–a huge part of the Americal diet–is a big AVOID AT ALL COSTS for a healthy gut. All the bad gut bacteria thrive on sugar, and believe me–the bad bacteria will fight back with huge cravings to get you to cave in. Many simple carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta, convert quickly into simple sugars and are not much better for you than sugar. If you want to learn more, check out the books Grain Brain and Brain Maker by Dr. David Perlmutter, available on Amazon and Audible.

If I had to guess, I’d say that nutritional health and gut health play a role in disease resistance–including resistance to the coronavirus. If nothing else, it probably means those antibodies are stronger and more able to fight off intruders. Lung function may come into play by oxygenating those antibodies, making them stronger and able to attack free radicals.

Of course it’s also possible that the coronavirus is susceptible to blowout. Who knows? If nothing else, doing deep breathing exercises daily may give you another early warning indicator if something doesn’t feel quite right. That could give you an early wake-up call to change some habits, get more sleep, take your vitamins–to help you nip it in the bud before it takes root. Or, at least, give you an early indication that you may be contagious and need to be extra careful about contact with others.

Meanwhile, PLEASE wear a face mask in public. While you can still infect yourself by touching contaminated fingers to the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose, or mouth, you will be helping contain the spread of the coronavirus by preventing your potentially contagious breath from infecting others directly, or indirectly by contaminating surfaces you come into contact with. 

Because that’s the real problem with the coronavirus. We can be contagious long before we have symptoms. If everyone washed their hands frequently and wore face masks in public, we could cut down on the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, we still need to practice social distancing.

Stay safe!

Marsha Tufft

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