Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
According to published reports and surveys involving upwards of 50,000 patients, 50–80 percent of people who have had Covid-19 continue to have symptoms three months after the acute ailment, regardless of the severity of the initial infection and well after blood tests show no virus in the system. For others, a wide range of symptoms across physical, cognitive, and emotional landscapes last even longer. Based on the ongoing prevalence of Covid-19 infection, we may well see a multitude of patients suffering from post-Covid-19 symptoms—called long-haul Covid or long Covid—for decades to come.
We’ve long known that acute viral infections can leave some people with lingering symptoms, such as fatigue, weakness, digestive complaints, skin issues, hair loss, cognitive impairment, headaches, sore throat, and more. In the case of Covid-19, it’s unknown at this point if these symptoms will go away on their own or lead to chronic disease states. For some patients who were hospitalized, there are additional issues such as post-intensive care syndrome (PICS), which is characterized by ongoing extreme fatigue, physical symptoms due to side effects of treatment, and trauma from hospitalization, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Though post-viral syndromes are nothing new, doctors aren’t used to seeing so many post-viral patients at one time. Long-haul Covid shares many characteristics with chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, and other ailments that reflect overall immune system dysfunction, leading to inflammation and complex, multi-organ complaints.
When it comes to the symptoms of long-haul Covid, licensed naturopathic doctors (NDs) are reporting positive results by applying gentle, effective approaches used to treat similar ailments. From our experiences, NDs are seeing positive results with patients who have been suffering and had very few options for treatments prior to seeking naturopathic therapies.
What Can you Expect if You See an ND for Long-haul COVID?
First, the doctor will apply the Therapeutic Order, to assess each patient and individualize treatment recommendations accordingly. There are no cookbook prescriptions. For many long-haul patients, simply feeling heard and believed is the first step in beginning the healing process.
There are themes to treatment, but for optimal results, specific recommendations are unique to each person. Naturopathic doctors lean into a wide-reaching philosophy, which includes the following key principles:
- Like all doctors: First, do no harm (Primum Non Nocere).
- Identify and treat or remove the Root Causes of illness (Tolle Causam.)
- Treat the Whole Person: Understanding symptoms in the context of the patient’s life is essential. Consider individual physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, genetic, environmental, and social elements.
- Apply the healing power of nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae): Encourage the patient’s innate ability to move toward health and apply resources from the natural world that have the ability to support those efforts.
- Doctor as teacher (Docere): Naturopathic doctors spend time teaching patients and encouraging self-responsibility for health and healthy lifestyle choices. Naturopathic doctors recognize, utilize, and honor the therapeutic potential of the doctor-patient relationship.
Naturopathic approaches for long-haul Covid aim to rejuvenate immune function, decrease overall inflammation, support a robust and diverse microbiome, reverse autonomic nervous system dysfunction from ongoing stress, and reduce environmental exposures that may affect endocrine dysfunction (much more on this below).
Recommendations may include the following:
- Education about optimal nutrition, including developing an anti-inflammatory, appropriate-for-you diet; correcting any nutritional deficiencies, especially zinc and vitamin D; and investigating and removing food irritants that can cause inflammation throughout the physical and emotional areas.
- Working to support a robust and diverse microbiome, by eating fermented and cultured foods and drinks, and in some cases, taking supplemental probiotics, since a healthy microbiome is central to optimal immune function, hormone balance, mood, cognition, and more.
- Offering evidence-informed nutritional supplements or botanical medicines, each with its specific or synergistic biochemical impact as indicated for your general and your specific symptoms.
- Ensuring adequate hydration, perhaps half your body weight in ounces if possible, helps to coordinate body temperature, keeps joints lubricated, prevents various kinds of infections, brings nutrients into cells, and is essential in keeping major organ systems functioning well. Being well-hydrated also helps with sleep quality, cognitive function, and overall mood.
- Encouraging adequate and restful sleep, which is key to physical, emotional, and cognitive health.
- Suggesting appropriate exercise, as tolerable, and in consultation with physical therapists, cardiologists, and pulmonologists, since some post-Covid patients have respiratory weakness, cardiac symptoms, or musculoskeletal limitations.
- Obtaining referral for physical, respiratory, or cardiac therapy as needed.
- Assessing and addressing psycho-emotional health, with referrals for talk therapy and naturopathic measures for the treatment of anxiety and depression. The integration of body-mind methods is important as our understanding grows about the relationship between mood, immunity, the hormone system, and the central and peripheral nervous system. Methods such as mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, positive imagery, and gratitude practices all help normalize the activated stress response. Body-mind approaches, social engagement, adequate sleep, and exercise, all raise give you tools to help let go of some of the ongoing stress, part of the long-haul Covid challenge for many people.
- Employing naturopathic medicine to address brain fog and cognitive decline.
- Adding whole-person medicines, such as acupuncture and homeopathy to stimulate the body’s innate healing capacity.
- Addressing any structural issues, as indicated, through physical manipulation, massage, craniosacral work, etc., or referral to other providers who can provide such services. When the physical body is well aligned, other approaches will work better and circulation and perfusion is improved.
- Getting pharmaceutical intervention, as appropriate when other options have been exhausted. While prescription medications are not generally the first tool employed by naturopathic doctors, they are sometimes appropriate in specific cases.