We’re all familiar with the unpleasant side effects that come with getting sick. Whether it’s a cough, body aches, or unrelenting fatigue – we can all attest to the fact that being sick is no fun.
But what happens when those unpleasant symptoms linger for not only weeks but months? And what happens when those persisting symptoms send your body into a tailspin – causing serious and even life-threatening side effects?
This is the scary and unfortunate reality for a growing number of people who have contracted COVID-19, who have been dubbed COVID-19 “long-haulers.” Today we’re going to dive into exactly what it means to be a COVID long-hauler, the root cause of these lingering symptoms, and most importantly – how we can begin addressing the long-term effects of this virus.
Who Exactly Are COVID-19 Long-Haulers?
Covid-19 long-haulers is a term used to refer to individuals for whom COVID-19 is far more than a passing infection. You see, a growing number of people who have contracted the coronavirus continue to be slammed with a barrage of symptoms, long after the virus has supposedly been cleared. It’s estimated that anywhere from 50% to a whopping 80% of COVID patients are still struggling with lingering symptoms 3 or more months after their initial onset of COVID symptoms.1
So what exactly are these persisting symptoms that COVID-19 long-haulers are experiencing? Let’s take a look.
COVID-19 Long-Haulers Symptoms List
Some COVID-19 long-haulers may experience ongoing symptoms that are quite similar to many of the cardinal symptoms associated with this virus, such as:2
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Ongoing fatigue
- Body aches
- Joint pain
- Loss of the sense of taste and smell
- Difficulty sleeping
- Brain fog
These nagging symptoms in and of themselves can be debilitating and significantly detract from your quality of life. But sometimes the lingering effects seen in long-haulers can be life-threatening.
Some long-hauler syndrome sufferers may end up with conditions like:3
- Heart damage – resulting in heart failure and other cardiac complications
- Lung damage – scarring to lung tissue and long-term respiratory problems
- Injury to the brain – such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, seizures, and strokes
- Advancements of neurological conditions – like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease
- Increased blood clotting – these tiny clots can block circulation to vital organs like your kidneys and liver and cause tissue damage
- Weakened blood vessels – resulting in leakage of blood and subsequent damage to tissues and organs
But how exactly can a viral infection lead to such a vast array of seemingly unrelated and potentially life-threatening long-term symptoms? Let’s investigate.
COVID-19 Long-Haulers: What’s the Underlying Cause?
While more research is needed to fully understand the exact underlying mechanism of how COVID-19 provokes these long-term effects, we do have an idea of how and why some individuals end up with these residual effects.
You see, a viral infection like COVID-19 can cause a massive shift in the homeostasis of your immune system – and subsequently your entire body. It goes something like this:4,5,6
- Viral latency: Once contracted, the virus can remain dormant in your body – eluding detection by your immune system and triggering low-level inflammation.
- Persistent production of immune mediators: When your immune system senses a threat that it can’t seem to identify, it stimulates the ongoing production of mediators that promote inflammation – further depleting your immune system and diminishing its ability to regulate itself.
- Decreased function of natural killer cells: Natural killer cells engulf and remove infected cells. As your immune system’s balance is pushed further and further out of whack, your natural killer cells’ function is depressed. This creates a vicious cycle of immune suppression and burn-out.
- T-cell interference: T-cells help to mediate the ramping up and down of inflammation. As your immune system’s homeostasis becomes imbalanced, your T-cells can become confused and continue pushing your immune system further off-kilter.
- Mitochondrial burn-out: As the virus hides out in your cells, it strategically manipulates the functions of your cells to better suit its own viral replication. In particular, the virus alters your multi-tasking mitochondria – your cellular machinery that influences cellular survival, energy production, metabolism, and immune signaling. So with the virus draining the mitochondria's power, there's little left for the cell itself to use – this leads to mitochondrial burn-out.
This combination leads to immunological dysfunction and mitochondrial deficits. This shift in balance can upend various processes within your body and subsequently lead to the array of symptoms seen in long-haulers.
COVID-19 Long-Haulers Treatment
So if the root cause of COVID-19 long-haulers’ symptoms is immune dysfunction and mitochondrial burn-out, how do we address it? Treating this requires a specific multipronged approach that includes all of the following:
Your gut and your immune system are intricately linked – and an imbalance in one undeniably leads to a dysfunction in the other. So restoring the health of your gut is crucial to bringing your immune system back into balance. To do this, I recommend following the 5-R program, which encompasses:
- Removal: It’s critical to remove anything that may negatively impact the environment of your gut such as common allergen foods, parasites, harmful bacteria, and/or yeast.
- Replacement: Your gut relies on digestive secretions for proper digestion, so it’s important to ensure you’re giving your body a boost of things like digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and/or bile acids.
- Reinoculation: Beneficial bacteria play a monumental role in your gut health and your immune system. Reinoculating your gut with plenty of “good” bacteria will help rebalance your gut flora and strengthen the communication between your gut and immune system.
- Repair: If the integrity of the lining of your intestines is compromised, it can create a vicious cycle of further immune activation. So it’s important to give your gut the key nutrients it needs to repair itself like zinc, antioxidants, fatty acids, and glutamine.
- Rebalancing: Factors like quality and quantity of sleep, your stress levels, and the intensity of your exercise can all affect your digestive tract. So making intentional choices that support a happy healthy gut and immune system is key.
If you want to learn more about the 5-R program and how to implement it, click here to read my article on Restoring Digestive Health With the 5-R Program.
Detoxification is a key component of keeping your immune system running smoothly. And your liver is your detoxification powerhouse. Enhancing your liver’s ability to effectively process and eliminate toxins is a critical component of addressing the symptoms that COVID long-haulers are experiencing.
To bolster your liver detoxing capabilities, here’s what I recommend:
- Focus on an anti-inflammatory diet
- Limit alcohol intake
- Drink plenty of water
- Minimize exposure to toxins
- Take liver-supporting supplements like Liver Essentials and detox binders
To learn more about how you can best support healthy liver function, head over and read my article The Truth About Liver Detoxes: Do You Really Need One?
Bringing your mitochondria back to baseline functioning is critical in addressing the symptoms of COVID-19 long-haulers. To protect and bolster your mitochondrial biological energy production, I recommend implementing some specific lifestyle tweaks such as:
- Eating a well-balanced anti-inflammatory diet
- Prioritizing sleep, rest, and relaxation
- Minimizing your toxic burden
- Getting plenty of mitochondrial-boosting nutrients like B vitamins, coenzyme Q10, and Vitamin C
Making these simple nutritional and lifestyle tweaks can go a long way in supporting and resuscitating your mitochondrial function.
Your immune system has been injured post-viral infection, so it requires restoration and healing. You see, as your cells replicate themselves, they are essentially encoded with memories of the viral infection and “pass on” the message of inflammation. So it’s crucial to get rid of these old damaged cells and replace them with new cells that don’t hold onto these “bad memories.”
To do that, we need to enhance a process known as autophagy, which boosts cellular recycling and promotes the proliferation of new healthy cells. Some ways to enhance autophagy include:
- Getting plenty of specific immune-enhancing nutrients like Vitamin D and zinc
- Taking plant-derived phytonutrients and flavonoids that enhance autophagic mechanisms like quercetin, luteolin, and Himalayan buckwheat
- Incorporating intermittent fasting
- Ensuring you’re getting plenty of quality sleep
Enhancing autophagy is a key component of healing immune function. But truly rejuvenating your immune system requires a big-picture approach that focuses on the multitude of factors that contribute to your overall health.
Are You a COVID-19 Long-Hauler?
If you’ve had COVID and are concerned that you’re struggling with the residual effects of this viral infection, I cannot overemphasize the importance of partnering with an Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor. While conventional medicine is incredible and has an undeniably important place in healthcare, the conventional medical model simply doesn’t hold the answer to addressing COVID-19 long haulers.
The functional medicine approach will address the “upstream” issue that is causing your “downstream” symptoms. Without addressing this underlying root cause, the lingering effects of a coronavirus infection can spiral into life-altering and even life-threatening symptoms. So seeking out the guidance of a practitioner that will treat the problem – not just the symptoms – is critical to begin the process of healing.
If you’re concerned about finding a qualified functional medicine practitioner you can trust, I suggest reading my article on How to Choose a Good Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor. And if you’re looking for ways to implement healthy lifestyle changes, or simply want more information before seeking the guidance of a functional medicine doctor, I encourage you to head over and check out my blog. It’s full of information to help you prioritize your wellbeing, and will give you a better insight into the functional medicine approach.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that COVID-19 can have such serious and long-lasting effects? If you’re struggling with lingering COVID-19 symptoms, what steps are you taking to fight back against this virus? Leave your question and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.