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Why are so many women suffering from “long Covid” symptoms?

By Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD

When you come down with a cold or flu virus, you expect symptoms to stick around for a week or two and then life pretty much gets back to normal. However, recovery from Covid-19 isn’t shaping up to be quite the same, especially for women.

woman thinking about her long covid symptoms

According to new research, among all those who contract the CoV-2 virus, at least 1 in 10 will experience “long Covid,” or symptoms that persist or recur for weeks or even months after the virus itself has resolved. That’s many millions of people!  For those who had severe infections, the percentage seems much higher. And researchers say that 60-80% of the long-haulers are women.

Why is this? And what can women do to recover?

Symptoms of long Covid

Symptoms of “Long Covid” can vary -- often widely -- from mild to severe. As a study in the Lancet revealed,  the most significant symptom reported by long haulers is unrelenting fatigue and the related problems of muscle weakness, memory loss and feelings of “brain fog.” Other common issues include difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, hair loss, smell/taste loss, sleep difficulties and joint pain.

Which women are at risk -- and why? 

Another new study, this one from a research team in the UK, pinpointed women aged 40 to 60 as being at highest risk for post-infection Covid symptoms.

The study analyzed data from 4,182 male and female Covid patients who used an app to log information about their health after testing positive for the virus. According to the collected data, women aged 40 to 50 were twice as likely to suffer from Covid symptoms that lasted longer than a month, compared with men the same age.  Women aged 50 to 60 were eight times as likely to become long haulers compared to younger age groups. After age 60, risk for long haul Covid generally leveled out between men and women. Besides age, experiencing five or more symptoms within the first week of illness was also associated with a heightened risk of lasting health problems

Why would so many middle aged women experience post-infection Covid symptoms?  Researchers point to similar patterns in the development of autoimmune disease among this same age group.  Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease (Hashimoto's disease) and lupus are two to three times more common in middle aged women compared to men. Risk for autoimmune disease between women and men generally evens out after women reach menopause, which again lines up with the long Covid data.

Exactly how an acute infection like Covid could create disturbances in the body’s self-regulatory mechanisms is still unknown, but researchers speculate that women could have an altered immune response. Women before menopause are known to have a more robust innate immune response, which is theorized to be the reason women are more likely than men to have autoimmune disorders. So it’s possible that for such women, the body's immune system turns on to fight Covid, but then can’t turn back off and so remains on the attack, creating other problems in different organs and parts of the body, similar to an autoimmune response.

Other factors associated with women’s heightened risk of developing lasting Covid-19 symptoms included being overweight, or having asthma. This makes sense given that both asthma and obesity have links to autoimmune dysfunction.

Reducing your chances for long Covid -- and recovering from your symptoms

There are two questions here: how to protect yourself from developing long hauler symptoms and what to do if you experience them.

Prevention starts with taking precautions to avoid contracting Covid in the first place. Wear a mask, practice social distancing, don’t touch your face,  and wash your hands. Of course, many of us have and will get the virus, and if you fall into the long Covid risk group (aka, you're between the ages of 40 and 60) and go on to develop fatigue and other long hauler symptoms, here are four extra steps you can take to support your body's recovery:

  1. Support immune system regulation You want your immune function to have everything it needs to mount a healthy response -- and recover from it. The good news is that so much research has come out in the past year on nutrients that support immune function health and regulation:

  • Getting enough Vitamin D helps immune system function. Studies have shown it prevents severe Covid symptoms, reducing risk for multiple, severe symptoms (a contributing factor to long Covid), and also helps immune function "bounce back" post-virus.
  • Probiotics can support immune system regulation, since almost 80% of your immune cells reside in the gut. Good gut flors is essential for balanced immune function.
  • Melatonin acts as an antioxidant to help protect your immune cells from free radical damage, preserving cellular function.

2. Support your lymphatic system. Another important recovery step is helping your body detox by getting your lymph moving. Your body's lymphatic system is responsible for removing cellular waste products and other toxins from your system. After a bout of Covid, your system may be overwhelmed with waste and toxins to dump, which can contribute to fatigue and brain fog. So, give your lymphatic detox system some added support. An easy way to do this is through sweating. Take a warm bath, go for a brisk walk (if you are able to), try a portable infrared sauna, and explore these other simple tips to support your lymphatic system.

3. Decrease inflammation. While there is still so much to be known about long haul Covid, the possible connection with autoimmune issues means that lurking behind the scenes in all this could be inflammation. We do know that in severe cases of Covid, there can be an over-abundance of inflammation-promoting cytokines. This can be a sign of an overactive immune system. Having post-Covid symptoms like joint pain is another clue that your system is overwhelmed with inflammation. You can take steps to decrease inflammation by making simple diet and lifestyle changes.

4. Shore up other health issues. The confounding part about long hauler symptoms is that most overlap with the hormonal symptoms that women in their 40s and 50s may already be experiencing. Are your fatigue and brain fog the result of long Covid or perimenopause? Is your hair loss a sign of low thyroid or could it be a reaction to Covid? You need to carefully assess your health and take action where you can.  You want to be sure that you aren’t overlooking your hormones, or the opposite, that you explain away post-Covid symptoms as perimenopause. You can use our free Symptom Checker to help you identify hormonal symptoms.

Long Covid may be a risk, but that doesn't mean it's forever. Do what you need to do to get the targeted help you need to support your health.

References

Last Updated: June 25, 2021

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