Within 3 months of a COVID-19 diagnosis, nearly 20% of individuals receive a psychiatric diagnosis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been unimaginably destructive, disrupting individuals and communities across the United States and world. Considered in isolation, the magnitude of the immediate threat maintained by COVID-19 to human life is staggering; COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the United States — more than 3,000 Americans are dying from the virus every day.
But COVID-19 “long haulers” like me know that the immediate threat of COVID-19 is just the beginning. I have been navigating what is likely COVID-19’s “post-viral syndrome” — termed by Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — for nearly a year.
One day I was fine. The next, I mysteriously fell ill with chills, fatigue, fever, a cough that was so bad I blew my right eardrum out, and no ability to taste. The well intentioned physician at my local urgent care told me to take some Nyquil and “rest up.” I still don’t feel like myself.
And, I’m not alone. While the morbidity rate of COVID-19’s post-viral syndrome is currently unknown, it is theorized to be substantial.
As a student of public health, I’ve done my research. The etiological basis of COVID-19 related post-viral syndrome is likely similar to the post-viral syndromes described among other coronaviruses (notably, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) infection). It’s got, for many, a symptomatology resembling Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and bears longitudinal respiratory, cardiovascular, and physical implications. For me, the psychological implications have been the hardest to manage.
What does this mean, practically? Brain fog. Fatigue. Memory impairment. Trouble falling asleep at night. And, even more trouble waking up in the morning. Anxiety. Mood fluctuations.
I thought, for a while, that what I was experiencing was “all in my head.” We are, after all, living through a pandemic.
Then, I found a study that was published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Researchers at Oxford University examined anonymized patient records of over 62,000 people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Within 3 months of their diagnosis, nearly 20% of these patients received a psychiatric diagnosis. Said differently, adults who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have nearly a doubled risk of being newly diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.
It’s likely that the psychological symptomatology that’s been described to date is the result of compromised glymphatic system regulation (the network responsible for clearing waste from the central nervous system). When this system is compromised, protein aggregates in the brain — this is a common feature of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Does this mean that, in addition to increased vulnerability to psychiatric (mood; anxiety; etc) disorders, I, and other members of the COVID-19 post-viral syndrome club, have a neurodegenerative disease to look forward to in the future? No (or, at least I hope not).
But knowledge is power. And understanding more about how COVID-19 affects the brain is an important first step in understanding what can be done to mitigate future damage.
For example, eating a whole-food, plant-based diet has been associated with increased neurological health. Regular exercise also seems to attenuate disease risk, an effect that is augmented when combined with positive dietary factors. Yin yoga has become an important part of my regimen.
COVID-19 has done an impressive job of stripping me of my autonomy — of any feeling of control over my environment and my body.
But, it’s also turned me into a fighter.
To anyone out there who is experiencing what I am — we will get through this.
And to anyone who has been fortunate enough to avoid COVID-19 infection: wear a mask. Practice physical distancing. Do everything you can to keep yourself and others safe.