Over the past 21 months, we’ve learned a lot about COVID-19 and how it is impacting the human population and our health. Equally, there’s still so much we don’t know, especially about the issues facing millions of COVID long-haulers globally that are still struggling to return to life as “normal,” despite recovering from the virus. As such, understanding long COVID’s impact on quality of life and what we can do to help has become a critical area of study.
Amidst all of the unknowns about COVID long haul, one of the things that’s come to light is the role real-world evidence can have in targeting and reducing symptoms. While some symptoms, like fatigue, weakness and pain resemble those of autoimmune conditions, because of how COVID-19 virus attacks many organ systems at once, rapid heartbeat and exercise intolerance were more specific to COVID.
Such evidence – collected from patients, about their experiences, in real time – has resulted in COVID long-haulers taking their recovery into their own hands and, in many cases, experiencing meaningful improvements in their health more quickly. Unlike medical treatments which can take years of clinical research to develop and approve, interventions based on real world evidence hold the promise of potential solutions now.
We recently held a webinar to share some of the results we’ve seen working with long haulers to uncover such evidence-based solutions for improving their quality of life. We looked at the risk factors and symptoms and discussed how data-driven evidence can help long haulers navigate the triggers behind their symptoms, to find their footing on the path to recovery. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Experts agree that up to 35% of COVID patients may not fully recover or regain control of their long-term symptoms. Who’s affected and why largely remains a mystery.
Among those we’ve helped, we identified some common factors that overlapped as well as differed from what research has told us is ‘high risk’ for the virus, and subsequently long COVID. These top risk factors included:
- Autoimmune disease
- Sleep troubles
A pre-existing autoimmune disease prior to developing COVID-19 was one of the biggest risk factors we found in our work with long haulers. As much as 25% of long haulers had a pre-existing autoimmune disease prior to contracting COVID-19. We were not surprised: viruses are one of the many known triggers for autoimmunity in the immunocompromised, whether or not they have a diagnosis.
A significant portion of the population was, in fact, living with an diagnosed autoimmune condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, alopecia, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis prior to contracting COVID. Notably, this excluded those with autoimmunity-related conditions like hypothyroidism and asthma as well. Those diagnoses made up another significant portion of the population; in some cases, clients had all three diagnosis.
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We saw a correlation between long haulers who were non-meaters or low-protein consumers and their increased risk for long-haul COVID. While plant consumption is an integral part of the human diet, and most people need to eat more plants, we found two main themes:
- Inflammatory issues associated with protein substitutes were problematic because in attempting to be “healthy” some patients were triggering symptoms.
- A lack of protein on a daily basis may have deterred recovery since essential amino acids are required for healing and recovery to take place
Sleep issues like irregular sleep patterns and insomnia also presented as risk factors. We found that these were in fact long-standing issues that preceded COVID, rather than problems that surfaced by the virus inhibiting long haulers’ ability to sleep.
Let’s look at some of the common symptoms we saw.
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The COVID long haul symptoms we saw and supported the most are also among the top symptoms seen among this population at large:
- Fatigue: Chronic fatigue is a common symptom of COVID long-haulers and is described as severe fatigue that impacts a person’s normal life, such as going to work or school. Many of our clients had gone on a leave of absence or disability from work, and some were too tired to make themself a meal.
- Weakness: Weakness was the second most common symptom we saw and impacted long haulers on a severity spectrum from unable to participate in their normal exercise routine to being unable to lift their children to being unable to hold onto something without support. It could also mean their muscles weren’t contracting as they should which limited their strength.
- Rapid heartbeat: Many COVID Long haulers experience exercise intolerance and low peak oxygen uptake during exercise can result from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) a feeling of faintness or dizziness from moving from lying or sitting to standing, or dysautonomia, which is the dysfunction of nerves that regulate involuntary body functions such as heart rate and sweating. These conditions manifest from stressed states of the sympathetic nervous system that activates our “fight or flight” response.
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In clinical parlance, “clinical pearls” are the bits of wisdom gathered from direct experience or observation to problem-solve health issues.
In the case of our work with COVID long haulers, these types of observations were invaluable in nailing and guiding precise diet and life interventions to troubleshoot symptoms, down to the individual. How did gathering evidence about what long haulers were experiencing – from their food and lifestyle triggers to their myriad of symptoms – translate into clinical pearls that enabled us to help them? Below are a few examples:
- 39% of long haulers saw improvements in severe fatigue after creating a plan to avoid their trigger foods. While each person’s trigger foods usually differ, we found that foods containing wheat or gluten-containing grains, cheese, and nightshade vegetables like tomatoes typically made the problem worse. On the flip side, improving digestion and the body’s ability to absorb nutrition typically made it better.
- 48% of long haulers were able to overcome chronic, debilitating weakness and improve their strength by applying clinical pearls through evidence. Repleting nutrient deficiencies such as protein helped. For others, this involved consuming much more of a specific nutrient than they were used to eating. Hydrating with pure water was also critical to improving basic bodily functions and reducing weakness
- Finally, 50% of long haulers struggling with uncontrolled rapid heartbeat saw improvement by reducing their allergic burden, lowering histamines and moving at a slower pace. In addition to removing any allergens from the environment that could be triggering a stress response, we added breathing exercises to create a state of calm. Patients who experienced a rapid heartbeat were also encouraged to move more slowly than they normally would at the beginning of the program. We want to ease their body back into its normal rhythm, which takes time, to rebuild again to fast movement.
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The results we’ve seen in our work with long haulers offer positive reinforcement that recovery is an achievable goal. But reversing the symptoms induced by a compromised immune system, requires understanding how our individual diet or lifestyle choices may unwittingly be making them worse.
The good news is long haulers have more control than they think. By using real-world evidence to closely examine every variable for clues about their triggers, long haulers can chart their own path to recovery, one day – and one trigger – at a time. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.
Join Dr. Lytle and other health experts at Mymee‘s virtual COVID-19 and Autoimmunity Summit from September 13 – 24, 2021. Hear from physicians, advocates and patients on navigating the new normal, the evolution of COVID-19 and how it presents. Registration is free.