Most people who get COVID, especially if they are vaccinated, will recover without residual symptoms. But for some people, COVID infection can result in long-term health issues. So-called “long COVID” sufferers can experience many symptoms including crushing fatigue, dizziness upon standing up or standing too long, exercise intolerance, anxiety, headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, brain fog, and more. Similar post-viral syndromes can result from other viruses too, and a very similar phenomenon can happen after concussions. The common thread is that when the brain suffers a blow, either literally or via the inflammation associated with a virus, the nervous system that runs almost every process in the body can be knocked off its axis. Across Canada, researchers and physicians are scrambling to try to understand how to help this new wave of people afflicted with a condition that is untestable and for which there are no simple drug solutions. Patients often feel frustrated and isolated. A greater understanding of what’s going on can help us target solutions for symptoms and speed the healing of the brain and nervous system.
A patient I’ll call Emily had previously been in good health, so when she contracted COVID as an unvaccinated person ten months ago, she thought she would recover well. She did get over the acute symptoms of cough and congestion but was left with a mysterious assortment of symptoms that derailed her life. She has profound fatigue, dizziness when she stands up or stands for more than ten minutes in one place, and daily headaches; in addition, her mental processing and memory are impaired. When she tries to exercise, she crashes and is exhausted for two days. She has nausea and IBS. Her fingers go white when she gets cold, and her skin can be blotchy. Her periods are irregular for the first time. Anxiety seems to hit randomly, day or night, and depression is creeping in.
Emily’s symptoms indicate that the nerves in her brain have been damaged. The brain governs the autonomic nervous system, which runs all the automatic processes in the body such as blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, balance, energy production, hormones, adrenalin release, sleep cycles, digestion, and more. When this critical system isn’t working right, we refer to this disorder as dysautonomia. As a naturopathic physician, I treat people with complex, chronic conditions every day, so I have seen similar symptoms before triggered by both viruses and concussions.
There are strategies to manage symptoms, such as wearing compression stockings to prevent blood from pooling in the legs while standing. Since the nervous system is intimately involved in digestive processes, such as motility of the intestines and secretion of digestive juices, in people with dysautonomia, we often see irritable bowel syndrome symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. Without proper motility, food ferments in the small intestine, causing an overgrowth of bacteria where it shouldn’t be. Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can cause bloating, constipation or loose stools, as well as brain fog. There are excellent ways to test and treat SIBO through a naturopathic physician trained in this area.
Brain healing requires a more comprehensive approach because the brain is highly sensitive to what is happening in the rest of the body. Emily started naturopathic medical protocols for dysautonomia include addressing the gut-brain connection through avoiding inflammatory foods, enhancing nutrition, and balancing the microbiome. She took natural medicines to target the mechanisms needed to heal the brain, including enhancing energy production (mitochondrial health), reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, promoting nerve healing, and helping the brain filter toxins. After three months she is feeling much better. Programs can also include hormone balance, stress-reduction training, physical therapy, and visual therapy can all also help address dysautonomia.
Like most viruses, most people who get COVID make a full recovery. But for those whose lives have been turned upside down after this infection, it’s important for them to understand that there are strategies that can help.