It’s been more than a year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that even among the most at-risk populations, the vast majority recover from the acute illness. But that bright cloud sports a dark underbelly, which we’re seeing with the rise of the oftentimes debilitating “long-haulers syndrome.”
This post-viral illness lingers long after the acute infection resolves and can present with myriad symptoms ranging from joint pain to fatigue. While long-term data is still in its infancy, we are beginning to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus impacts the body and what we can do to support recovery.
The body on SARS-CoV-2
What’s striking about long-haulers syndrome is its various manifestations, likely due to the virus’s ability to bind to any body cells that contain angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE-2): tissues in the nose, lungs, kidneys, liver, blood vessels, immune system, brain, nerves, and muscles.
In the acute stage, this can cause a “cytokine storm,” resulting in hypercoagulability (blood clotting), vascular permeability, edema, widespread inflammation, and consequent tissue damage in multiple organs.
Theoretically, the long-term effects of inflammation, tissue injury, and latent viral load could manifest in diverse symptoms that may hang around for quite some time. It’s expected that although most COVID-19 survivors will be able to return to work and a normal life, a significant number of recovered patients may show abnormalities in lung function tests.
Patient-reported long-term COVID-19 symptoms
- brain fog and poor concentration
- shortness of breath
- joint pain
- chest pain
- weakened sense of smell
- chills or sweats
- loss of appetite
- reduced quality of life
Although all populations may become infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and develop COVID-19, the data consistently shows that the elderly, underrepresented minorities, and those with underlying medical conditions are at an increased risk of severe disease and mortality from COVID-19.
Looking into the future
The extent to which COVID-19-related myocarditis (heart inflammation) may affect cardiovascular health in the long term has yet to be seen. Likewise, the long-term effects of intracranial hemorrhage and stroke from COVID-19 are, so far, unclear but likely correlated to the damage inflicted on the nervous system.
It’s projected that some patients with COVID-19 may be at increased risk of neurological disease in the future, as there have been instances of dementia in the elderly following a viral illness, including respiratory viruses such as influenza. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can remain inside neurons without being acutely toxic and, therefore, may theoretically lead to neurological symptoms and nerve degeneration months or years after acute infection.
It’s also possible that COVID-19 may increase the risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and psychosis down the road. Regularly checking in on mental health and seeking support when not feeling well will be of particular importance both for those with long-haul COVID-19 and for those who have already recovered.
Reclaim health for the long haul
Although data is lacking on the direct relationship between nutrition therapy and COVID-19 outcomes, we can infer the likely benefit of eating a diversity of vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats in lieu of sugary, carbohydrate-rich, and processed foods. Studies in psychoneuroimmunology have shown that a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, quality sleep, and a strong connection with loved ones have positive effects on the immune system.
Most importantly, practice self-compassion. Go easy on yourself with resuming work and high-intensity exercise, and sticking to any self-imposed timelines for recovery. Take the time to rest, engage professional help for dealing with complicated feelings, and redefine your measure of productivity until you feel more like the “you” that you remember.
Information is current as of the writing of this article. Some long-term COVID-19 symptoms are patient-reported and have not yet been appraised by rigorous research.
Outfitting your immune army
While there is limited research on natural treatments for acute and long-haul COVID-19, helping your immune system perform well will likely be beneficial. Choose safe, researched interventions to help support your body’s normal functions, and always consult your health care practitioner for individualized recommendations.
Supplement or treatment
How it helps your immune system
|chaga||an antiviral mushroom with therapeutic potential against SARS-CoV-2|
|echinacea||has been found to decrease levels of immune cells during cytokine storms; has also exhibited antiviral effects when studied with SARS-CoV-2 in vitro|
|gargling; nasal saline irrigation||(via spray, neti pot, etc.) may have a role in reducing symptoms and duration of COVID-19|
|quercetin||may interfere with SARS‐CoV‐2 replication, and its therapeutic effects may be augmented with concurrent vitamin C|
|vitamin C||taken with quercetin, it may interfere with SARS-CoV-2 replication|
|vitamin D||is likely to lessen the infection, severity, and progression of COVID-19|
|zinc and selenium||deficiencies may be correlated with the progression of COVID-19|