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So you’ve been wearing a mask and washing your hands to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19. You’re taking supplements like Vitamins C and D, zinc, and curcumin to boost your immune system.

But it’s still possible you could contract the virus just like the reported 32.5 million people in the United States have. And about 2% of Americans who’ve contracted COVID-19 have died. 

What about the other 98%?

Thankfully most have fully recovered. But others, while no longer positive for COVID-19, appear to be showing symptoms for the long-haul. Hence the name: COVID-19 long-haulers.

What makes them different?

Well, imagine if you had a cold or the flu. You may suffer from a sore throat, cough, runny nose, chest congestion, and/or a fever. But then these symptoms just disappear after a few days or weeks when you get better.

But for COVID-19 long-haulers? Even after days, weeks, and months – they’re still experiencing the symptoms associated with the virus. 

So what are these symptoms?

How many COVID-19 long-haulers are there?

What’s causing these symptoms?

What functional medicine treatments can give them relief and hope?

Keep reading to learn more.

Who Are COVID-19 Long-Haulers and How Many Are There?

COVID-19 long-haulers are people who’ve tested positive for the virus and suffered symptoms, but months have passed by and they’re still not feeling like their old selves. 

A significant number of COVID-19 long-haulers are in their 20s-40s and lived very active lifestyles before contracting the virus. They could run marathons, but now they’re struggling to just walk a few blocks down the street. 

Studies show that about 50-80% of patients are COVID long-haulers and are still suffering from symptoms three months after they receive a positive test result. 

COVID-19 long-haulers also received a negative viral test, but they’re still experiencing symptoms. Some COVID-19 long-haulers received normal test results when blood work, imaging, and oxygen saturation were checked. Also, the majority of COVID-19 long-haulers weren’t the patients who were in the intensive care unit or on ventilators. Most experienced only mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19. 

What Symptoms Do COVID-19 Long-Haulers Experience?

You probably know that symptoms of acute COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Anosmia (new loss of taste and smell)
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea

But what about COVID-19 long-haulers?

They’re experiencing symptoms including:

  • Body aches
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain
  • Extreme fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Brain fog and difficulty concentrating or thinking
  • Memory issues
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Blurred vision
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

See similarities to the two lists?

And some long-haulers are experiencing severe or life-threatening conditions such as:

  • Blood clotting: Small clots in the heart, lungs, legs, liver, and kidneys.
  • Pulmonary damage (aka lung damage): Scars in the lungs and frequent shortness of breath.
  • Cardiac complications and damage: Heart inflammation leading to tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), shortness of breath, and decreased heart function.
  • Brain complications: Strokes, seizures, Guillain-Barre syndrome (causes temporary paralysis), possible increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
  • Kidney damage: May have long-term kidney disease and need for dialysis treatments.
  • Immune system dysregulation: Overactive immune system that may trigger harmful inflammation and autoimmune disease. 

So what’s causing these symptoms? 

What’s Causing the Symptoms COVID-19 Long-Haulers Are Experiencing?

Doctors aren’t really sure, and research is still ongoing. Dozens of post-COVID-19 clinics have opened with specialists treating patients and also trying to understand why long-haulers are experiencing severe and life-threatening long-term symptoms. 

What we do know: The coronavirus is attacking not only the lungs but also other organs and body systems. COVID-19 starts an inflammatory response in your body that is sometimes difficult to control. 

COVID-19 long-haulers may have one or more of the following health conditions or explanations that may give possible reasons why symptoms appear ongoing:

  • An autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system is attacking organs
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction – the mitochondria make energy in the body
  • Low level of inflammation/immune system activation
  • Decreased blood flow because of an abnormal autonomic nervous system
  • Viral latency where the virus remains dormant in your body but triggers inflammation and/or immune system dysfunction

We don’t know the exact explanations as to why COVID-19 long-haulers are suffering from debilitating and sometimes life-threatening conditions, but there are answers for treatments that functional medicine can provide.  We know that similar symptoms can happen after other viral and bacterial illnesses, like Lyme disease, Epstein Barr Virus, mycoplasma, and many others, that respond well to treatment. 

If you’re a COVID-19 long-hauler, I recommend starting off with the following strategies. 

How to Treat COVID-19 Long-Haulers

While research is still being conducted for long-haul COVID-19 treatments, here are three recommendations for those still suffering from symptoms.

  1. Prioritize Your Gut Health

About 70-80% of your immune system lives in your gut. So, in order to fight infections the best, your gut needs to heal. 

For a healthy gut, you can:

  • Provide your gut with beneficial nutrients from whole, real foods.  
  • Reduce processed packaged food items, fast foods, alcohol and high sugar foods.
  • Consider adding in polyphenols, digestive enzymes, prebiotics and/or probiotics. 
  • Reduce environmental toxins.
  • Reduce stress to help balance your autonomic nervous system. 
  • Increase the amount and quality of sleep you’re getting.
  • If you are struggling with gut symptoms get tested!  See a functional medicine practitioner to help guide your treatment and heal your gut. 
  1. Revive Your Mitochondria

Remember in high school biology when you learned about the cell? You probably learned that mitochondria were the powerhouse of your cells.

When it comes to COVID-10 long-haulers, fatigue is a very common symptom. To help combat this, we want to boost your cells’ ability to make energy. So, we have to take care of your mitochondria. 

How can you do that? You can:

  • Eliminate foods that cause inflammation
  • Reduce toxin exposure
  • Reduce stress
  • Get adequate sleep every night
  • Consider supplements containing B vitamins and coenzyme Q10. A functional medicine provider can test nutrient levels and mitochondrial markers to help you get more specific. 
  1. Take Care of Your Immune System

COVID-19 attacks your immune system and your immune system becomes activated from the virus. Just like a bad experience or memory, your cells remember the viral infection and pass on this message of inflammation to other cells.  

You want to restore damaged cells and replace them with new cells that aren’t damaged.  This is done by a process called autophagy, a method that your body uses to clean out damaged toxins and cells and replace them with newer, healthier cells.

You can enhance autophagy by:

And of course ALL of the functional medicine “roots to the tree” will help your immune system function better: healthy nutrition, sleep, exercise and movement, stress management, and toxin reduction. 

The research behind treatment for COVID-19 long-haulers is still ongoing. But one thing’s for sure – millions of Americans are suffering from long-term symptoms. You aren’t alone, and functional medicine may provide hope for you.

Support for COVID-19 Long-Haulers

If you or a loved one are currently suffering from the long-term effects of COVID-19, please know that you’re not alone. 

I’m sure it’s frustrating to have endured COVID-19 and instead of making a full recovery, you feel like you’re back at square one. Or maybe your symptoms have gotten even worse.

I recommend that you partner with a functional medicine practitioner to fully understand the root cause of your symptoms. While COVID-19 is a new disease and research is ongoing to find cures for COVID-19 long-haulers’ symptoms, a functional medicine doctor can help you understand why those symptoms are occurring in the first place.

We’re currently seeing patients at Arizona Wellness Medicine. If you’d like to connect with a functional medicine doctor or if you have any questions, fill out this connection form. We’d love to speak with you and support you!

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke, D.O., is a certified functional medicine doctor, board-certified in anesthesiology & pediatric anesthesiology, and trained in medical acupuncture. She’s an experienced speaker in the medical and functional medicine community, and presently gives talks on a wide array of subjects.