Coronavirus: what is long COVID and how best to prevent it

For the majority of people who contract coronavirus over the course of the pandemic, their symptoms will clear after an uncomfortable few weeks in bed. However, some people continue to experience breathing difficulties, fatigue and loss of taste or smell long after initial infection. Collectively known as long COVID, these heterogenous symptoms have  confused the medical field with their diversity and severity. As the pandemic continues, the long-term impact of coronavirus on health is slowly becoming better understood. But what is long COVID and how can it be avoided?

What is long COVID?

As just about everyone across the world knows, coronavirus or COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. One of the most divisive aspects of the pandemic has been how differently the virus affects people.

While everyone is at risk of contracting and becoming ill with coronavirus, about 80% of those who develop symptoms recover without the need for treatment, while the remaining 20% become seriously or critically ill and require hospitalisation [1].

The common coronavirus symptoms we have learned to identify include fever, dry cough, fatigue, headache and sometimes the temporary loss of taste or smell. Most people recover 1-2 weeks after initial infection. For others, however, the physical effects of coronavirus do not disappear with a long-awaited negative test result, and they instead go on to develop the complex condition that is now known as long COVID.

Defined as coronavirus symptoms lasting longer than four weeks that have no other explanation, long COVID initially confused those in the medical field and the heterogenous nature of its symptoms make the condition complicated to treat.

Long lasting symptoms

Older people, those with underlying health conditions and those who experienced more severe symptoms during initial infection are at higher risk of contracting long COVID. Its symptoms are exceedingly similar to that of coronavirus; however, they persist long after initial recovery. Common complaints include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Brain fog
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Loss or change to your sense of taste and/or smell
  • Other neurological issues

The underlying cause of these symptoms is thought not to be COVID-19 itself, but rather the body’s own response to viral infection. The immune system protects the body from invading viruses using two lines of defence; firstly, the innate response uses the physical barriers of the skin and the gut epithelium to prevent pathogens from entering the body. If that fails, the adaptive response deploys leukocytes (white blood cells) to eliminate pathogens from the blood. An unfortunate side effect of this is inflammation, which while protecting the body, can also cause swelling, pain, loss of tissue function and pathology [2].

This overreaction of the immune system can cause a cytokine storm or ‘inflammasome’ that damages the body, as seen in those with severe coronavirus. Infections are known to occasionally cause long lasting symptoms, especially when they effect the brain. For example, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) can develop following a viral neurological infection. Studies have shown that fragments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can remain in the body for months and change inflammatory markers, causing the body to attack itself like in autoimmune diseases [3]. This is only one explanation for long COVID, and it is a multi-organ condition that doctors and researchers are still struggling to understand.

The most effective way of preventing long COVID is to avoid becoming infected with coronavirus itself.
Photograph: Kelly Sikkema/unsplash

Preventing long COVID

The most effective way of preventing long COVID is to avoid becoming infected with coronavirus itself. However, as the pandemic persists and countries go through seemingly endless new coronavirus waves and variants, contracting COVID-19 seems increasingly inevitable. Vaccinations and boosters provide the best protection, as does behavioural practices such as mask-wearing, maintaining good hygiene habits by covering coughs and sneezes and regularly washing your hands, and social distancing from others. Maintaining a holistically healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, regular exercise and a good-quality sleep schedule is the best way to protect against long COVID and disease in general. This can also be helpful after COVID-19 infection in reducing inflammation.

A healthy lifestyle can be supported by both dietary and longevity supplements. While dietary supplements provide nutrients missing from the diet and prevent deficiencies, longevity supplements do more by acting on the pathways that effect the rate at which we age. Aging is an accumulation of damage over time caused by the ‘biomarkers of aging’, while the ingredients contained in longevity supplements work on mechanisms to reverse this damage.

While there are coronavirus treatments, currently no cure exists and those long-suffering from COVID symptoms have taken initiative with their health by retraining lost neural pathways to relearn scents and tastes. Indeed, using supplements to enhance immune function and reduce inflammation has gained popularity during the pandemic. The immune system is a complex network of organs, cells and proteins and the impact that supplements can have on its response has not yet been studied in COVID-19 patients. However, nutrient deficiencies can cause increased susceptibility to infections, while vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc are all required for effective immune functioning [2].

There is some evidence that the longevity supplement spermidine can improve vaccine efficacy in older adults as well as reduce SARS-CoV2 viral replication through the process of cellular renewal known as autophagy. Another promising supplement is humanpeople’s COVID Recovery Support Pack, intended to reduce inflammation in the immune system, helping the body recover from infection and limiting the risk of long COVID. Designed by doctors and based on clinical evidence, the pack contains daily nutraceuticals to be taken for a minimum of four weeks to help enhance post-viral recovery. Nutraceuticals are nutritional products that can be used medically to help improve health, protect against disease, delay aging and increase life span. Each recovery support pack contains concentrations of the following nutraceuticals:

  • Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in grapes and red wine, this is a strong antioxidant that protects against cardiovascular disease.
  • N-Acetyle cysteine (NAC), thought to inhibit COVID replication and reduce inflammation.
  • Quercetin, prevents the COVID virus from binding to receptors in lung cells and also reduces inflammation.
  • Alpha lipoic acid, an antioxidant that supports immune cells.
  • Vitamin A, repairs damage in lungs caused by COVID.
  • Zinc C, helps develop immune cells.

This combination of nutraceuticals is thought to aid COVID recovery by reducing viral replication, balancing the immune system and improving inflammation. Nutraceuticals target the overreacting immune system responding to the virus, blocking viral replication and reducing overall viral load. This decreases the severity and duration of illness, as well as boosts the adaptive and innate immune responses [3]. Enjoying a lifestyle that includes a varied diet and regular exercise is the most effective way to protect your health long term. Supplementing this with nutraceuticals can have added benefits when recovering from viral infections like coronavirus and may prevent and relieve long COVID symptoms.

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