Local Long Haulers Find Relief in Traditional Chinese Medicine
While no test to diagnose long COVID exists, patients at a Twin Cities natural health clinic are using a combination therapy of ancient tools and modalities to treat mystifying symptoms.
Even after more than two years and hundreds of millions of cases, our understanding of COVID is still in its infancy. We’ve learned that there are patterns to who is more susceptible to severity of illness, but there is plenty of unpredictability too. And the same is turning out to be true for those who suffer from post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 a.k.a. long haul COVID a.k.a. long COVID.
The cause of long COVID—defined as symptoms that persist for weeks or months after recovery from the initial infection—is still not fully understood. While most people think of COVID as a lung infection virus, it can also damage other organs including the gastrointestinal tract, heart, kidneys, and brain. The combination of organ damage plus lingering inflammation—as well as an immune system that remains activated—can cause a wide variety of debilitating symptoms.
More than 500 million people worldwide have had COVID, and it’s estimated that close to half still contend with symptoms four months after infection. That’s a mind-boggling statistic, but it also means an enormous amount of learning, and that learning is happening fast.
In my practice as a culinary health coach, I’ve had several clients work their way through long COVID symptoms and come out the other side. The best outcomes have required a combination of rest, good nutrition, breathing exercises, medication or supplements, and/or treatment from a variety of medical practitioners.
More than a few of my clients have praised the merits of acupuncture for an accelerated recovery, which led me to a conversation with Barbara Gosse, M.S.O.M., Dilpl.Ac., L.Ac., a professor and practitioner of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine at Northwestern Health Sciences University.
A Constellation of Symptoms
Gosse defines long COVID as a constellation of symptoms that persist after recovering from an initial coronavirus infection. In her practice, long COVID tends to show up as a combination of shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, heart problems, PTSD (about reinfection/re-experiencing the illness), and/or brain fog. Symptoms can also include loss of taste and/or smell, headaches, dizziness, and stomach problems.
Long COVID tends to affect women more than men, and Gosse has noticed the most persistent symptoms in those who had high fevers and more serious COVID illness, with the most severe and long-lasting symptoms experienced by immunocompromised patients.
When I ask her about acupuncture for long COVID, she says, “It depends on the patient and their symptoms. We begin with a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) systems review, exam, and the 10 questions of TCM which range from fever or chills to pain to sleep to appetite.”
After discussion about primary concerns and medical history, she makes a Chinese medicine diagnosis and creates a custom treatment plan. “In TCM, we have many tools in our toolbox for treatment, and treatment is very customized, so while a treatment plan might include acupuncture, it might also include herbal medicine, dietary intervention, cupping, gua sha, and/or breathing exercises as well,” she says.
But how does a patient know the treatment is working? “I like to see improvement within 1-2 weeks [being treated once per week] although many patients see improvement right away,” she says. “If patients aren’t improving in that timeframe, that requires reevaluation, re-strategizing, and possibly referral.”
Matters of the Heart
Gosse gives the example of a patient who presented with fatigue and shortness of breath upon exertion. When the patient returned with chest pain, he was referred out and ended up having coronary bypass surgery. “We have noticed in clinical practice that COVID can accelerate previously existing heart disease, that’s definitely something for long haulers to be aware of.”
Gosse says the early improvements to look for with treatment include increased energy, greater mental clarity, and improved anxiety (especially around returning to social gatherings). She explains, “So many of my patients experience anxiety around re-infection and going through all of this again, and rightfully so. But that anxiety is also a symptom of the illness, and when the internal system is functioning properly, better relaxation and better restoration lead to less anxiety in general.”
Boosting the odds of preventing (and recovering from) any illness is always based in overall good health hygiene and COVID is no different. It’s no surprise that Gosse advocates for consistent, everyday balance: food compatible with your body, the right amount of sleep, daily exercise, fresh air, and work/life balance all add up to resiliency.
“Find ways to make healthy food pleasurable and to exercise in a way that isn’t all or nothing. Make time for rest. It sounds so basic but consistency is really very powerful. And if you’re suffering from long COVID symptoms, don’t push yourself while you recover. If your symptoms persist, seek treatment and a collaborative approach with a practitioner you trust.”