Long COVID: what to expect, what to eat and what to avoid
Life in Thailand may seem to have returned to normal, but the coronavirus that has plagued the world for the best part of three years is still making its presence felt with more than 30,000 confirmed cases reported each day. The real figure is, however, likely to be much higher, with the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) estimating that the daily figure is probably between 60,000 and 70,000, as not everyone reports a positive test to the authorities, especially if their symptoms are mild. Deaths too remain elevated, with 236 fatalities recorded between August 7th and 13th, mostly among the elderly, those with underlying diseases, and pregnant women.
While most do go on to make a full recovery within 10 days or so, the Public Health Department says as many as 30-50% of people who had been infected with the coronavirus continue to experience symptoms after the virus has already cleared in what has become known as long COVID.
Signs and symptoms of long COVID
Dr Rapeepan Rattanawongnara Mord, professor of Department of Infectious Disease of Internal Medicine, Ramathibodi Hospital, Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine, is the author of a paper on long COVID symptoms that was published on the RAMA Channel website. Managed by Ramathibodi Hospital’s Faculty of Medicine, the website provides articles and videos about health issues.
The doctor describes long COVID as a wide range of new or ongoing health problems that may be experienced more than four weeks after first becoming infected with the coronavirus.
The most commonly reported symptoms are fatigue (58%), headache (44%), attention disorder (27%), hair loss (25%) and shortness of breath (24%), studies find. Less common are fever, dizziness, shortness of breath, fainting, chest pain, coughing, stomach pain, diarrhea and loss of appetite.
Other possible symptoms include ringing in the ears, pounding heartbeat, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, mood swings, numbness, muscle, and joint pains, loss of smell or taste, skin rash and changes in the menstrual cycle.
Organ damage, affecting the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, and skin, has also been diagnosed in patients who suffered severe COVID-19.
COVID-19 can also cause extreme muscle weakness and affect speech, language, and cognitive function, according to the doctor. This could lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event and is most often found amongst those who were hospitalized in the intensive care unit for weeks, she notes.
So what you can do to recover quickly at home and possibly stave off the worst of long COVID?
Probiotics could do the job
Dr Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoenchai, head of the Department of Health, recommends adding foods that are loaded with probiotics to meals during the recovery phase, as probiotics help support the immune system.
“Yoghurt is a good source of probiotics. Aim for one that has low-sugar content,” he says.
Woorawee Inthachat, research assistant of Mahidol University’s Institute of Nutrition, concurs that probiotics aid in regulating the immunity system, citing a recent study which found that people who experience post-COVID symptoms have an imbalanced gut microbiome, with some good bacteria missing from their gut.
“Probiotics help boost the number of good gut bacteria so eating foods packed with probiotics could help restore the balance of bacteria in your gut,” she notes, adding that a large proportion of the immune system is found in the intestines and gut bacteria play a prominent role.
In addition to yogurt, probiotics can be found in kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables and miso, Japanese paste made from fermented soybeans.
Prebiotic foods like fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, including onion, garlic, asparagus, cereals and banana are also recommended as they provide food for the good bacteria in the gut, Woorawee notes.
What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics? Put simply, probiotics are good bacteria in your gut while prebiotics serve as a facilitator that feeds the good bacteria. “Combining the two is good for the health,” she explains.
Many people struggle after a bout of COVID, making it difficult to resume normal activities. To boost energy levels, Woorawee suggests consuming foods containing B vitamins, particularly B6 and B12, as these are good for the immune system and essential for proper body function and strengthening the system. A recent study indicated that B vitamins could potentially prevent or reduce COVID-19 symptoms or treat the coronavirus infection, she adds.
Cereals, green peas, fish, chicken and meat are rich in B6 while B12 can be naturally found in animal food products and eggs.
Proper nourishment is key to recovery
Dr Suwannachai stresses the importance of eating and drinking well during recovery in order to regain strength. Like his colleague, he advises a nutrient-rich diet to support the immune system.
“You should eat foods that are easily digested. Also make sure that they are clean and thoroughly cooked,” he says, adding that many people with long COVID have stomach issues.
Those who have little appetite should eat a little food frequently, especially protein-packed meats, eggs, milk, beans, nuts and tofu that will maintain a steady blood sugar level and boost energy.
Junk food, ready-to-eat meals, frozen food, grilled and fried food, high-fat food and spicy food as well as alcoholic drinks should be avoided, as they weaken the immune system, Dr Suwannachai says.
He also recommends snacking on fruits and vegetables that are packed with vitamins C, A, D and E as well as the mineral zinc.
“If the diet couldn’t help ease the symptoms of long COVID and you’re getting worse, you should see a doctor.” Dr Suwannachai said.
By Veena Thoopkrajae