Most of us know someone who was infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and developed the COVID-19 disease. Whether they suffered from a bad cough, body aches, or unrelenting fatigue, they would attest that it was not pleasant being sick. Many of our friends recovered fully, but what happens when those unpleasant symptoms linger, not for weeks, but for months? And what happens when those persisting symptoms send your body into a tailspin – causing serious and even life-threatening side effects?
This has become the scary and unfortunate reality for a growing number of people who have contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and now are being called “COVID-19 long-haulers.” But what are the root causes of these lingering symptoms and how can we address the long-term effects of this virus?
COVID-19 Long-Haulers and Their Symptoms
COVID-19 long-haulers are individuals who continue to be affected by symptoms long after the virus has supposedly been cleared out of their system. It’s estimated that any where from 50% to a whopping 80% of COVID-19 patients are still struggling with lingering symptoms three or more months after the initial onset of their COVID-19 symptoms. (1)
Many COVID-19 long-haulers experience nagging symptoms that are quite similar to the primary symptoms associated with this virus. These ongoing symptoms in and of themselves can be debilitating and can significantly detract from your quality of life. These symptoms include: (2)
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Loss of the sense of taste and smell
- Brain fog
- Ongoing fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping
- Body aches
- Joint pain
Other COVID-19 long-haulers have lingering effects that can lead to a large array of seemingly unrelated life-threatening conditions, such as: (3)
- Heart damage that may result in heart failure and other cardiac complications
- Increased formation of tiny blood clots that can block the blood flow to vital organs such as your kidneys and liver, causing severe tissue damage
- Weakened blood vessels allowing the leakage of blood into their surroundings, causing subsequent damage to tissues and organs
- Lung damage due to the scarring of lung tissue and long-term respiratory problems
- Injury to the brain such as seizures, strokes, or Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease may be advancing faster than originally anticipated
- Autoimmune conditions may worsen or appear anew (4)
What Makes Someone Become a COVID-19 Long-Hauler?
COVID-19 is a very new disease and more research is desperately needed to fully understand the mechanisms of its long-term effects in some individuals. However, we do recognize some familiar patterns that generate residual effects that can lead to a massive shift in the body’s physiology, especially affecting one’s immune system. (5,6,7)
As our immune system’s balance is disrupted by this viral attack, our natural killer (NK) cells’ function starts to decrease, causing our NK cells to become less efficient at engulfing and removing viral infected cells. This creates a vicious cycle of immune suppression or burn-out that can allow the virus to elude detection by our immune system. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can remain dormant in our body, which is known as viral latency, and it will trigger low-level inflammation.
The inflammatory process caused by our immune system’s inability to identify and resolve this threat leads to an ongoing production of immune mediators that self-reinforce, further depleting our immune system and diminishing its ability to regulate itself. In other viral infections, another type of immune cells, the T-helper cells help mediate the ramping up and down of inflammation. Unfortunately, in COVID-19 our T- helper cells can become confused and can continue pushing your immune system further out of balance.
All of these processes require that our cellular machinery, the mitochondria, generate high amounts of energy (ATP). Unfortunately, the virus that hides in our cells can alter our mitochondria, which threatens our cellular energy production, metabolism, immune signaling and even cell survival. If a sufficient proportion of mitochondria in our cells become damaged, or our cells are injured, they will initiate apoptosis, the self-destruction of out cells.
This mitochondrial deficit and immunological imbalance have a domino effect, upending numerous other processes in the body, causing the array of symptoms seen in COVID-19 long-haulers.
Treatment for COVID-19 Long-Haulers
Treating COVID-19 long-haulers’ symptoms require a personalized multipronged approach that involves one or more of the following:
1. Addressing chronic tissue inflammation and, if present, breaking the self-driving inflammatory loop activation caused by the immune suppression and failure of resolution of viral infection.
2. Identifying and addressing the gut or lung inflammation that may have shifted the patient’s immune system intoTh2 dominance or into a mast cell activation process.
3. Improving mitochondrial function, ATP production, and minimize free radical (ROS) production that further fuel the inflammatory process and tissue damage.
4. Identifying and addressing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome that now may inhibit vagal motor outflow, causing gut inflammation that leads to systemic inflammatory upregulation of central nervous system (CNS) inflammation – another vicious cycle.
5. Recognizing and treating the tissue that has been affected by the viral infection, crescendo of inflammatory upregulation, ROS production, and increased blood viscosity causing microcirculatory damage. Indifferent people, this can affect different bodily systems, potentially leading to a variety of post-COVID illness expressions, depending upon each patient’s patterns of vulnerability the lungs, heart, brain, kidneys and skin, as well as the gastrointestinal, neurologic and endocrine systems. (8)
6. Testing known cluster of factors that drive each other: TGF-beta elevation, ROS production, NLRP3 inflammasome activation, IL-6 upregulation. This cluster drives neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) production that provide a third scaffold for clotting (in addition to fibrin and von Willebrand factor).
While some of these processes may require professional guidance, there are several things that you can do on your own to jump-start your healing process.
1. 5-R Program of Gut Repair
- Removal of anything that may negatively impact the environment of your gut, such as common allergen foods, by doing an elimination diet. Remove parasites, harmful bacteria, and/or yeast with GI Synergy.
- Replacement of digestive enzymes (Optimized Digestive Enzyme Blend), hydrochloric acid, pepsin (Betaine HCL & Pepsin) and/or bile acids to optimize digestion (Liver-Gallbladder Support).
- Reinoculation with “good” bacteria (Flora Supreme) will help rebalance your gut flora and strengthen the communication between your gut and immune system.
- Repair the integrity of your intestinal lining if it has been compromised, so that you can break the vicious cycle of further immune activation. Provide your gut the key nutrients it needs to repair itself, like GI Restore, Zinc, antioxidants, and short chain fatty acids (Enterovite).
- Rebalance your lifestyle factors such as the quality and quantity of sleep (Zen Adapt with Sensoril), your stress levels (Cortisol Manager), and the intensity of your exercise, which affect your digestive tract.
2. Improve Liver Biotransformation and Detoxification
Since our liver is our detoxification powerhouse, improving its ability to effectively process and eliminate toxins is a critical component of addressing the symptoms that COVID-19 long-haulers are experiencing.
- Minimize exposure to toxins
- Consider taking binders, such as G.I. Detox, Activated Charcoal to capture and eliminate toxins
- Limit alcohol intake
- Drink lots of water
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet rich in antioxidants (deeply colored plant foods)
- Take Liver-Gallbladder Support and/or Glutathione Supreme with NAC
3. Mitochondrial Resuscitation
To restore your mitochondrial function and boost its energy production while diminishing the amount of ROS generated, I recommend the following:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet rich in antioxidants (deeply colored plant foods)
- Optimize your sleep, rest and relaxation
- Minimizing toxic burden which would undermine mitochondrial function
- Take mitochondrial-boosting nutrients like MitoCore which containing B vitamins, alpha lipoic acid, N-acetylcysteine and acetyl L-carnitine. I also recommend Protect Q10, 200 mg, and Ester-C Bio, which combines vitamin C with plant-derived bioflavonoid antioxidants to support capillary and connective tissue functions
4. Immune Restoration
COVID-19 long-haulers have had their immune cells injured by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These cells are now carrying the memory of this viral injury and, as they replicate by generating daughter cells, they pass on the messages of inflammation and cellular damage. It is important to help the body rid itself of these. This process is known as autophagy, through which cells recycle damaged proteins and organelles, which will facilitate the proliferation of new healthy cells. You can enhance your cellular autophagy by:
- Ensuring that you are getting plenty of quality sleep (Melatonin, Zen Adapt with Sensoril, Zen Sleep with P5P and 5HTP)
- Testing and optimizing your vitamin D and Zinc levels
- Getting plenty of specific immune-enhancing nutrients, like Immune Support
- Taking plant-derived phytonutrients and flavonoids that enhance autophagic mechanisms, like quercetin and luteolin
- Incorporating intermittent fasting
- Enhancing autophagy
Addressing the residual symptoms of COVID-19 and truly rejuvenating your immune system requires a big-picture approach that focuses on the multitude of factors that contribute to your overall health. I would recommend working with an Integrative and Functional Medicine practitioner. Although conventional medicine is valuable and has an undeniably important place in healthcare, it doesn’t have the answers to addressing COVID-19 long-haulers suffering.
The functional medicine approach will address the “upstream” causes and mechanisms that are generating your “downstream” effects in order to prevent the lingering effects of a coronavirus infection which could spiral into life-altering and even life-threatening symptoms. Begin your healing process today.