Covid-19: Approach to Long Haul
This is written primarily for physicians, but is for anyone to read. This is a working theory.
I am very interested in Long Haul because I was diagnosed with PANS by an older psychiatrist who worked exclusively with physicians in 2012. That was during my third flare. The evidence is mounting that Long Haul is an autoimmune disorder like PANS. I am sharing my approach to Long Haul based on both my clinic and personal experience.
Step 1. Validate the patient. Patients are terrified, understandably, to have something “like” chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or are worrying that they are “crazy”. Evidence is appearing that Long Haul, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia are all complex autoimmune disorders with multiple antibodies. We do not yet have vast antibody tests. So the first step is to say that we believe patients and also that we can help. This is a very new and evolving field. I tell patients that it will change fast over the next few years. What I tell them today may change within a year as we get new information. If this makes them anxious, remind them of the Women’s Health Initiative and how that changed hormone therapy, and that cancer treatments keep improving.
Step 2. Lower stress and antibody levels. When we are high stress, cortisol and adrenaline go up and impair the immune system. The immune system is fired up and looking for something to do. Bacteria like strep A have evolved with us and have surface proteins that “look like us”. Our bodies make antibodies to the Strep A or Covid-19 and sometimes those antibodies attack us too, because our own proteins look the same. One way of lowering the antibody level is sweating. Hot bath or shower, sauna, hot tub, exercise. Support these and explain. A second way to lower the antibody level is to quiet the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic is the quiet, relaxed and laughing one. Where does the patient feel safe, relaxed, quiet? After my father died, leaving a complicated and messy estate with an out of date will, I did a Sudoku daily for a year. I realized that the Sudoku relaxed me because I could not solve the estate quickly, but I could nearly always solve the Sudoku. Stupid cat videos, rocking chairs, knitting, gentle walk in the neighborhood if it feels safe, a walk in a mall (without one’s purse if overspending is an issue) — how does this particular person relax? Teach the slow breathing: in for a slow count of five and out for a slow count of five. Or square breathing: in for five, hold five, out five, in five. Twenty minutes of slow breathing supposedly moves almost everyone from sympathetic to parasympathetic. It may take practice and feel unfamiliar: I have had a veteran say that it felt very very weird to relax and he was not used to it. He kept at it.
Step 3. Symptom picture. At present I am basing this on my own experience with PANS. This is my working theory. Antibodies can block receptors or “turn the key” and activate receptors. Buprenorphine does BOTH (though it is not an antibody): at lower levels it turns the key and at higher levels it blocks. I would ask specifically about five fields. You many well be able to come up with more.
a. Brain function. In my PANS, I have antibodies to dopamine that turn dopamine on very high. Other physicians assume that I am manic. I am not quite manic, but it certainly feels awful. I feel like I have been shot out of a cannon when I wake up, with the morning cortisol rise. For me, the caffeine in coffee calms me, and my assumption is that it displaces the anti-dopamine antibodies. Tea does not work. I quit coffee for seven years until the latest flare. Albuterol doesn’t work. Terbutaline does work. I don’t know about theophylline or adderall, I have not tried them. If someone has “brain fog”, I assume that they have blocker antibodies OR be sure to ask if they were different in the first 4-6 months of the illness. For me, the antibodies rise for about 2-3 months and then take 2-3 months to drop. I have a lot of fatigue when they finally leave and this time I could tell the day that the last antibodies “fell off” or dropped to my “normal” level.
For blocked people, does caffeine help? How about albuterol? Adderall, theophylline, SSRIs. Every person will have different antibodies. Treatment needs to be tailored.
b. Muscle function. My anti-tubulin antibody (I have PANS, remember?) shuts down my “fast twitch” but not my “slow twitch” muscles. Tubulin is what makes the lung cilia function, so presumably mine are paralyzed during a flare and that is why I get pneumonia. I am tachycardic, resting heart rate 100 and walking slowly or talking heart rate 135, so I get very short of breath. Both the lung dysfunction and antibodies that upregulate my dopamine receptors make me tachycardic. I think that the people who can barely get out of bed with chronic fatigue have both fast and slow twitch muscles blocked. They need validation and lower stress. With support, perhaps the antibody level can be lowered enough that they can function again. I also found that my muscles hurt when my blood sugar was up and that if I keep it low, I have minimal muscle pain. I do not know if this is true for other people.
c. Gut function. In PANS, there appears to be an antibody to lysoganglioside. I don’t understand it but when I am sick, I cut carbohydrates way back or I am horribly ill. I tolerate lactose but not fructose, sucrose or gluten. One year after getting my last flare, I can eat everything except gluten. With this round I figured out that rising blood sugar when I am sick makes me acidic. This in turn worsens lung function more, as my body automatically slows my breathing to balance the acidity. I found that taking bicarb before a meal helped tremendously. In the worst/highest antibody part of the flare, I eat fats, because anything else makes me ill. SO: what can the patient eat or not eat and support them. Food intolerances are on the rise. Ask if there are foods that they cannot eat and support them not eating them. They can go to a very restricted diet that works for them and wait three weeks. After three weeks, food antibody levels are supposed to drop. They can start adding foods back in, one every three days. I do not know if this will work in a bad flare, the antibodies may be too high.
d. Lungs: do a resting heart rate and oxygen saturation. Do a walking heart rate and sat. Then do a LOADED heart rate and sat, with the person carrying the equivalent of two bags of groceries or their toddler. If they are young, they may hold their sats, but if their heart rate jumps to 135, that is like running a continuous marathon. Try oxygen and see if the heart rate comes down. Sleep apnea testing is also highly recommended. If they are tachycardic with daily activities, of course they have fatigue! Rest. Patients can learn to check a pulse or have a pulse ox, but fingers and second hand are cheap.
d. Other. I am reading that the main complaints in Long Haul are fatigue, brain issues, tachycardia and shortness of breath. What else really bothers the person? Sound sensitivity, loss of the sense of smell. The first step in helping with this is to listen and validate.