It’s early May and you’ve got a raging fever with sharp, throbbing aches and shortness of breath. You’re in denial until the results come back… you’ve caught the novel coronavirus.
Several weeks of misery and you’re finally starting to turn the corner – the fever and breathlessness are gone! Beating a life-threatening virus is no easy task, which is why you don’t question the lingering symptoms.
That is until it’s been several months and while the worst symptoms are gone, you’re still not back to normal. Welcome COVID long haul syndrome.
But wait, Congratulations! The doctor says there’s no more coronavirus in your system, but the story isn’t over. Studies and surveys conducted by patient groups indicate that 50%-80% of patients continue to have bothersome symptoms three months after the onset of COVID, even when there is no present virus in their system.
In this article, we will look at the impact of cortisol and autoimmunity on COVID long haul syndrome to explain this phenomenon. We will also discuss what you can do if you are struggling with “long COVID.”
What is COVID long haul syndrome?
As COVID persists and cases rise, new studies and research is being conducted to learn more about the virus. While there is no formal definition for the term, “COVID long haulers,” a reasonable definition would refer to anyone who’s been diagnosed with coronavirus and has not returned to their pre-COVID level of health after three to six months.
Conventional doctors often mistake COVID long haul syndrome for depression or PTSD after having a potentially deadly illness.
Let me be clear that a syndrome is not a disease. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that are correlated and accompany a specific disease or disorder. In this instance, COVID long haul syndrome affects people who contract the virus and have symptoms that can mimic the symptoms of other unrelated diseases.
Symptoms for COVID long haulers include:
- Body aches
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to exercise
- Difficulty sleeping
The impact of stress on COVID long haul syndrome
There is a multitude of research on the effects of stress and the immune system. More recently, research has come out linking high levels of cortisol concentration (the stress hormone), and a higher rate of mortality in COVID-19 patients.
Cortisol is primarily produced in the adrenal gland in response to the fight or flight response. It’s the body preparing to face danger. It does this by temporarily increasing blood sugar, while at the same time suppressing our immune, digestive, and reproductive systems. The end goal being more energy to fuel our muscles to run quickly to avoid danger.
But, prolonged periods of cortisol production means you also get prolonged periods of immune system suppression.
It makes sense for the body to respond to sickness with cortisol production. Getting sick is stressful! However, before the pandemic, the average stress level of adults was higher than previous generations. As a society, we are poorly prepared to deal with the stress produced from a highly infectious and potentially deadly illness that’s rampaging across the world.
Autoimmunity and COVID long haul syndrome
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer for why people are suffering from extended or recurring symptoms of COVID long haul syndrome. One theory is that COVID-19 causes long-lasting changes to the immune system.
For example, those changes can continue even after individuals stop shedding the virus, or they are no longer contagious. An immunologist from Yale, Akiki Iwasaki, believes that while the virus itself is gone the body is stuck in an overactive state.
That sounds a lot like autoimmunity – or the body being stuck in prolonged states of inflammation that it begins attacking itself. New research shows that people who suffer from COVID long haul syndrome don’t just have the symptoms of autoimmunity, they also have the antibodies found in autoimmune diseases.
More research is needed to come up with conclusive answers, but it begs the question, what can be done for people who suffer from COVID long haul syndrome?
What can you do about your COVID long haul syndrome?
Don’t fall through the cracks of the medical system. Your symptoms are not just a result of depression or anxiety induced by COVID-19.
There are a whole myriad of reasons why you could be suffering from COVID-long haul syndrome, social isolation being one of them.
The first step you can take to address your health issues is to deal with loneliness and feelings of isolation. Reach out to your loved ones and seek emotional support. Be kind to yourself during this difficult time.
The following are several additional concrete steps you can take to manage your health.
Work with a Functional Medicine Doctor
Work with a healthcare professional who will listen to you! Functional medicine doctors look at the patient’s whole system to come up with a comprehensive and holistic solution to your problems.
They are accustomed to treating autoimmune diseases and symptoms of chronic illness. Don’t rely on only conventional medicine that prescribes a pill. Instead, seek real answers and find the underlying issues to your health issues.
Heal Your Gut
The digestive tract is home to 80% of your immune system. A healthy gut microbiome is critical to reducing inflammation. Work to eliminate any foods that cause inflammation such as sugar, alcohol, and caffeine.
Then, restore your gut with a nutrient-dense diet and probiotic supplements. A functional medicine doctor will be able to guide you through the process of restoring your gut to optimize your health.
Support Your Mitochondria
You want to support and rebuild your mitochondria. Your mitochondria is your energy source. Many patients who have contracted COVID are now struggling with extreme fatigue. Building up your mitochondria and restoring them can help you gain your energy back. This may be just as important as cortisol balance!
Ways to support your mitochondria include:
- Decrease toxin exposure
- Use the sauna
- Prioritize your sleep
- Consume anti-inflammatory foods
- Try Fasting
- Support your detox pathways
Reduce Your Toxic Burden
You can also reduce your toxic burden by preventing harmful chemicals from getting into your system in the first place. Eating organic food, drinking filtered water, and using non-toxic cleaning products in your home are good places to start.
We can’t eliminate toxins completely, but we can be aware of them to reduce our exposure and we can support our natural detox pathways to rid the toxins to promote optimal health.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Finally, you can work to manage your stress levels. Calming down stress signals is key to reducing cortisol production. You can’t reduce all outside sources of stress, but you can begin to instill new daily practices that will reduce stress over time.
For example, you can practice meditation. Turn off the TV and news at night. Take hot showers and baths. Perform light exercises like going on a walk or yoga.
Contact a Functional Medicine Doctor
If you have COVID long haul syndrome don’t despair, Dr. Lisa Ballehr can help you. She’s a Functional Medicine Doctor Located in Mesa. AZ but she accepts virtual patients from a number of states. You can take her FREE online health assessment to get started on your COVID recovery journey.