SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), otherwise known as COVID-19, has taken a devastating toll on the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide. Despite the development of vaccines, the disease is still prevalent and hospitalizations and deaths continue to mount.
Even in the face of a relatively mild case of COVID-19, approximately 30% to upwards of 76% of people will go on to have prolonged symptoms of the infection, despite negative follow-up COVID-19 testing. This new syndrome, currently referred to as “Long Haul Syndrome” has confounded the medical community and the patients who are affected by the condition.
The traditional medical system’s response has generally been to set up long haul clinics, which serve primarily as referral hubs for various specialists to evaluate and follow patients. However, to date, no effective pharmacologic treatments have been discovered.
Enter functional medicine. Oriented towards solving health problems at their root cause, functional medicine evaluates and treats the whole person, and leans heavily on lifestyle approaches–nutrition, sleep, stress management, movement–to get patients healthy again. Patients with other difficult-to-pin-down conditions, like chronic fatigue (otherwise known as myalgic encephalitis), fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome have found significant relief with a functional medicine approach. Given this track record, functional medicine is uniquely positioned to help scores of patients suffering from long haul syndrome.
What are the symptoms of long haul syndrome?
While no specific criteria exists currently for diagnosing long haul syndrome at the time of this writing, the most common symptoms people experience are;
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Fatigue (often severe and debilitating)
- Brain fog
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Joint or muscle pain
- Pins and needles sensation
- Heart palpitations
- Sleep issues
- Depression and anxiety
One does not need to have all of these symptoms to be considered to have long haul syndrome. Symptoms typically persist for months, with some symptoms gradually improving with time and others remaining annoyingly persistent.
How does functional medicine approach long haul syndrome?
Using a whole person approach, functional medicine practitioners seek to simultaneously improve health and relieve symptoms for patients suffering from long haul syndrome.
For muscle and joint pain, as well as neurologic symptoms like pins and needles sensation and headaches, physical therapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture can be helpful.
One of the most troubling impacts on patients with long haul syndrome is fatigue (and related brain fog). In other disorders believed to have a link to previous viral infection, like chronic fatigue syndrome, it is believed that the mitochondria may be damaged by the infection, particularly in people who are not well-nourished at the time of the infection. Located in every cell, the mitochondria is the headquarters for the production of our energy supply, ATP. Viral infections like COVID-19 inflict free-radical damage on the mitochondria. Supporting the mitochondria with the nutrients necessary for optimal functioning, like the B vitamins, vitamin C, and CoQ-10, can be very helpful with fatigue and muscle pain.
The cells of the GI tract (stomach and colon, for example) can become infected by COVID-19. The damage creates alterations to the gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that support many of the healthy functions of the gut. Eating a healthy diet that is nutrient-rich, with abundant fiber, along with a high-quality probiotic (or the consumption of fermented foods) can help with fatigue, malaise, abdominal pain, and diarrhea in patients with long haul syndrome.
Another cornerstone of treatment involves restoring adequate sleep. Optimizing the sleep environment (quiet, dark, cool), taking naps, and the judicious use of natural supplements for patients suffering from insomnia–melatonin, L-theanine, GABA, valerian–as well as pacing oneself throughout the day can help create better sleep and improvements in fatigue and brain fog.
Finally, it is well understood that any infection causes inflammation in the body. COVID-19 is no exception, and in fact the inflammation caused by SARS-CoV-2 is quite severe and associated with some of the worst outcomes in patients, including deaths caused by the disease. The persistence of widespread inflammation that occurs with COVID-19 may be one of the underlying mechanisms of long haul syndrome. Controlling inflammation with the elimination of pro-inflammatory foods (white sugar, preservatives, and processed foods), abundant omega-3 fatty acids, and the use of anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric, ginger, and boswellia may be helpful. Additionally, supporting the immune system with adequate vitamins C and D, selenium, and zinc are value-added.
Don’t give up
It can be incredibly frustrating to go from being perfectly healthy to living in a state of fatigue, brain fog, and pain. And it can also be frustrating to hear from the medical community that this may all be in your head or that nothing can be done to help you feel better.
Functional medicine practitioners have been on the forefront of taking care of patients with complicated health problems, ones that the traditional medical community has dismissed. Even though SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus, the concept of post-viral syndromes is not new to functional medicine. You don’t need to navigate this situation alone. Working with a functional medicine doctor, you can restore your health and get back to living the life you deserve.