How A More Nutritious Diet Can Help Combat Long COVID

After several years of having to contend with what has become the deadliest pandemic in American history, the worst of COVID-19 appears to finally be over. 

COVID cases have been on the wane, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The weekly average of reported cases has trended down for most of 2023 thus far, with the CDC reporting over a 5% decrease in weekly reported cases in its most recent tracker review. This decrease in infections is far-reaching, with close to 82% of the country's counties, districts, and territories reporting low levels of community infection.

Even so, the total COVID-related numbers up to this point are staggering. As of September 2022, the COVID death toll in the United States surpassed the 1918 Spanish Flu and now stands at close to 1.2 million. In the meantime, total reported cases are creeping up toward 104 million.

While COVID is thankfully in the rearview mirror for many, COVID's effects remain front and center for a number of people. Namely, there is still a sizable portion of the population who are experiencing a post-COVID condition most commonly known as "long COVID," also sometimes referred to as "long-haul COVID," "chronic COVID," or "post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC)."

The good news is that the number of individuals with long COVID is declining, with only 11% of people reporting long COVID symptoms in January 2023, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, an 8% decline from six months earlier.

Long COVID symptoms and diagnosis

Half of those who have had long COVID no longer report symptoms. However, that still leaves the other half who are experiencing the condition. But what exactly is long COVID and how does it affect those who have it?

Long COVID is a condition where people continue to experience symptoms of COVID-19 long after they have supposedly recovered. While scientists are still learning about long COVID, it is clear that it can be debilitating for many people.

The term "long COVID" was created during the early months of the pandemic when individuals who had recovered from a COVID infection were still experiencing COVID-like symptoms weeks or even months later. These symptoms can include fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, headaches, and more. Some people also report new or worsening mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, according to the experts at Mayo Clinic.

Diagnosing long COVID can be tricky, as the symptoms can be similar to those of other conditions. However, doctors will typically run tests to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms, according to Scotland's national health information service NHS Inform. If a doctor is able to rule out other possibilities and the person confirms or suspects having COVID-19 in the past, long COVID may be diagnosed.

For people with long COVID, daily life can be limited. Some may be unable to work, exercise, or perform regular tasks without experiencing fatigue or other symptoms.

Tips for managing and preventing long COVID with diet

While there is no known cure for long COVID, health experts say that a more nutritious diet can potentially help manage symptoms and aid in recovery.

For instance, they advise eating foods rich in nutrients that fall within the Mediterranean diet as an effective way to help support your immune system, reduce inflammation, and improve overall health and well-being. This means you should consume plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats, according to the experts at The Association of UK Dietitians.

You'll be happy to know that the Mediterranean diet includes tasty antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, leafy greens, and citrus fruits, which help reduce inflammation. Additionally, foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, also help reduce inflammation as well as support brain health, per Metabolism Clinical and Experimental. Including vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified dairy products in your diet can also help improve immune function and bone health, which may be compromised in long COVID patients, according to Stuart Cohen, chief of infectious diseases at UC Davis Health.

Besides eating a nutritious diet, there are other protective measures you can take. For one, getting vaccinated is an effective way to prevent infection and reduce the risk of long COVID. Also engaging in good hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask in public settings, and practicing social distancing can go a long way to protect you from infection.