The Tragedy of Long Haulers

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In January 2020 the world changed for many of us as COVID-19 started to grow across the globe. The virus changed the way so many routine tasks were done, changed the way we lived our everyday life, and for many changed the way we will live in the future.

There has been a lot of controversy on how we reacted to the outbreak and the various treatment protocols. Hindsight always being 20/20 we would all agree we would have acted differently. Whether changing how we acted would have changed where we are today does not really matter. What we can do is look back at the past few years and see what we learned from the pandemic and be better prepared if and when we are faced with another similar event.

One consequence of the disease has been the continued impact of “long-haulers’ syndrome. According to the CDC one in five adults who had COVID-19 suffered from Long-Haulers. And Women were more likely than men to have been impacted by long-haulers. (9.4% vs. 5.5%). (1)

How do I know if I have long-haulers?

People with long-haulers often have symptoms that are hard to explain and manage. Often routine blood tests, chest x-rays, and heart tests seem normal. The symptoms faced by individuals is similar to those reported by people with Fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome). These are poorly understood chronic illnesses by many healthcare professionals. As a result it can take a long time to get a diagnosis and receive appropriate care or treatment. Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Headache
  • Sleep problems
  • Change in smell or taste
  • Depression or anxiety
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Research has shown that COVID-19 survivors can face a “substantial burden of health loss” affecting almost every organ and regulatory system in the body. One international study identified more than 200 long COVID symptoms. (2)

These health changes have made consumers more aware than ever of how food affects their ability to help fight and prevent disease. With this knowledge, many are seeking out a diet that will help promote a healthy immune system and help them live longer, healthier lives. Intermittent fasting, suggested to enhance cellular renewal, has pushed out the ketogenic diet as the nation’s top current diet trend. It’s clear that consumers are being more mindful of their eating habits and realize that what they eat, or don’t eat, affects how they feel and how long they live. (3)

Being overweight is another common issue. Obesity may cause a hyperactive immune system response to the infection that makes it difficult to fight off the virus, according to manuscript published in the Endocrine Society’s journal, Endocrinology. (4) Obesity not only leads to problems like heart disease and diabetes, but also has an influence on the immune system impacting the ability to fight infection. A recent study of more than 2,000 people in the U.S. found that the pandemic has also affected how we eat. The authors found a decrease in the consumption of many food groups, particularly healthy foods such as vegetables and whole grains, compared to before the pandemic. Researchers will continue to track these trends to determine if these changes in diet impact long term health issues.

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An Impact on Mood

Exercise has long-been recommended as a cognitive-behavioral therapy for patients of depression, yet new evidence from the University of California of San Diego suggests that the pandemic changed the nature of the relationship between physical activity and mental health.  In a study of college students conducted before and during the pandemic, findings revealed the average steps of subjects declined from 10,000 to 4,600 steps per day and rates of depression increased from 32% to 61%. (5) “This raises many possible explanations, including that the impact of physical activity may require a longer-term intervention,” said co-author Sally Sadoff, associate professor of economics and strategy at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management.“

Are we Sleeping Better?

The pandemic had a major impact on the daily lives of people around the world and that includes the way that people sleep. Two studies reported that relaxed school and work schedules and more time spent at home led people to sleep more on average with less “social jetlag” as indicated by a reduced shift in sleep timing and duration on work days versus free days. But, at the same time, one of the studies also finds that the pandemic has taken a toll when it comes to self-reported sleep quality. For many sleep problems are common and contribute to chronic health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and mood issues such as anxiety or depression. The extra 15 minutes of sleep gained is a plus.(6)

Experts predict that there are some aspects of society that will never return to pre-pandemic standards, and that’s not all bad. Work from home options will likely stick around in many industries and the convenience of seeing your doctor virtually through a telehealth visit is likely to remain and even expand in the future. A healthier diet for those who adopted one will provide immune support, and the knowledge we gained about a healthy lifestyle will have long lasting impacts.

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(1) National Center for Health Statistics
(2) Long COVID or Post-COVID Conditions 
(3) Today’s Dietitian
(4) Obesity and Covid-19: A Major Mortality Risk in Patients Hospitalized With Covid-19
(5) Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19
(6) Sleep in university students prior to and during COVID-19 Stay-at-Home orders

 

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