Sophia Kamveris, MS, RDN
Long Haul COVID Got You Down?
It’s hard to believe that two years ago I was blogging on how to boost your immune system as Covid-19 was upon us. And here we are today—still in a pandemic, but, hopefully, learning more about it.
According to the CDC (as of January 2022) there have been over 74 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. While many people recover within a few weeks, others are exhibiting lingering symptoms that include fatigue, shortness of breath, anxiety, chronic cough, depression, brain fog, and headaches. These individuals are often referred to as “COVID long-haulers” while the condition itself is called “long COVID.” Above noted symptoms that last for more than 12 weeks post-infection, and are not explained by another diagnosis, may be attributed to COVID.
Why some people develop long COVID and others don’t is still an unknown. There’s just not enough research on it. The National Institute of Health is building a national study, Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery, to investigate the long-term health effects of COVID. They are hoping to accumulate a conglomeration of clinical data to assess and evaluate the vulnerabilities that some people have over others.
Unfortunately, there’s also no widely accepted protocol on how to treat long-haulers right now. The disease is too new and not clearly understood. Plus, every patient’s experience is different. While there are no formal recommendations, I am sharing some recognized treatment options to consider that reinforce the importance of healthy approaches where nutrition may help improve outcomes.
Loss of Smell and Taste:
This seems to be a common complaint with COVID and is caused by damage to the olfactory neurons in the nasal cavity. Treating this is tricky because it’s variable among individuals. Temperature of foods may come into play. Eating warmer foods versus hot, or chilled/colder foods like yogurts, smoothie or mayo-based meat salads may help boost one’s intake. Adding citrus flavors like lemon, orange, and lime may also enhance and stimulate taste buds, as well as seasoning dishes with fragrant herbs like oregano, garlic, ginger, and onion. Allicin is a compound found in garlic and onions that helps to boost your immune system by activating their antimicrobial and antiviral properties; so it’s a win-win. Sour foods can also stimulate saliva production, which helps if dry mouth is adding more discomfort. It’s ok to add some honey to foods to add some sweetness if that helps you to enjoy a meal. Keep an eye on your weight. Not tasting foods may leave you with less of a desire to eat and unintentionally losing weight.
I’ve blogged on the importance of sleep many times already. It goes without saying that practicing good sleep hygiene is a must for fatigue. Sleep is healing and restorative. I always think of sleep as a Duracell battery—what a marvelous ability for the body to naturally re-energize itself while simply getting some Z’s! It’s the time our brain cleans out the day’s data and allows our body’s cells to repair themselves. Sleep also allows your body to recover faster from an illness. Try to practice good sleep hygiene: go to be at the same time each night and get up at the same time. Disconnect from electronics 60 minutes before bedtime as the blue lights emitted interfere with the body’s hormone, melatonin, that prepares you for sleep.
Manage your stress. Take a B-complex vitamin if you have a high stress level or relax with a cup of chamomile or decaffeinated green tea, meditate, or soak in a tub with a few drops of lavender oil at the end of the day.
Again, the reason for changes in brain clarity with COVID are unknown. We already discussed sleep but the right balance of macronutrients in your diet is also essential for brain health. These include carbohydrate, protein, and fat. All three of these play a major role in supporting busy body functions. Let’s look at their roles in the body:
Carbohydrates are powerhouse nutrients that provide energy for all cells in the human body, especially the brain.
Proteins are made up of amino acids and play a role in metabolism, hormone synthesis, immune systems, and in tissue repair and restoration.
Fats are the most calorically dense and provide a source of stored energy and are also important for hormone and immune function.
Advice number two— ditch trendy approaches for weight loss or what you think is the “it” diet for healthy living. Not having enough carbohydrate (i.e. keto) or eating too many carbohydrates made with refined sugars and flour, can equally affect blood sugar levels. One can send blood sugars crashing down while the other sends them soaring through the roof. Symptoms of low and high blood sugars similarly manifest as confusion, dizziness, or brain fog. Make sure you get enough calories and the right balance of macronutrients to support a healthy body.
Start off with a balanced breakfast every morning. Steel cut or rolled oats are packed with carbohydrates and fiber, which helps to stabilize blood sugars and keeps energy readily available. Mixing in ground flaxseeds or nuts adds heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Greek yogurt is a powerhouse of nutrition that is high in protein. Mix in complex carbohydrates such as berries or granola along with ground flax or chia seeds to round it out. Egg whites and avocado, or all- natural peanut butter, with a slice of Dave’s Killer Bread are my personal favorite breakfast meals.
As mentioned above, changes in blood sugars can affect brain function. Small meals that are packed with protein and good carbs, eaten frequently throughout the day, helps to contain headaches that are triggered by fluctuating blood sugars.
Staying properly hydrated is essential to our general health. Water is the main constituent of the human body, representing about 60% of body weight in adult males, and 50- 55% in females. Even low levels of dehydration as a result of not drinking enough are associated with a number of unwanted symptoms that include headache, inability to concentrate, lessened alertness, impairment of cognitive function, and tiredness. Simply increasing fluid intake can alleviate some of these symptoms.
Water can be obtained from all foods and drinks in the diet. In the typical diet, about 20-30% of the daily water intake comes from foods and the remaining 70-80% comes from drinks. That being said, be careful with caffeine-containing beverages. Caffeine is a mild diuretic, stimulating an increase in urine output; so watch the amount you drink. Caffeine is a drug that stimulates the central nervous system and is mildly addictive. Many coffee drinkers experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, irritability, sleepiness, and lethargy, when they stop drinking coffee.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that sustains every cell of the body. It is especially integral in muscle and nerve function, cardiac rhythms and blood pressure, and bone health. Low magnesium levels can be linked to muscle cramps or to headaches and migraines. According to research, magnesium supplementation is very safe and a 300-600 milligram range is being recommended. But keep in mind that magnesium supplements can have some gastrointestinal side effects like diarrhea. Always check with your physician before starting a supplement as some medications will spare magnesium, so blood levels should be medically monitored. Good sources of magnesium include dark green leafy vegetable like spinach and Swiss chard; pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, almonds, legumes, whole grains, and wheat bran.
Other ideas for general health through cold and flu season is to pump up your immune system. Eat foods rich in Vitamin C that include citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, berries, and bell peppers. I recommend an additional 500 mg supplement a day. Vitamin D helps our immune system to stay in balance during cold season. I recommend 2000 IU of Vitamin D3 a day. Incorporate more foods with anti-inflammatory properties like ginger, turmeric, and omega 3 fatty acids (nuts/nut butter, avocado, fatty fish like salmon and tuna, and olive oil) that also help protect blood vessels. If you want to take an OTC supplement, I recommend 1000 mg/day.
COVID recovery can be challenging but try and concentrate on eating a diet high in unprocessed foods and fiber, like whole grains and fruits and vegetables, stay well hydrated, and get plenty of rest. It won't cure you, but it'll nourish your body to help in the healing process.
In good health,