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Gwyneth Paltrow may have had a telling off from NHS England’s Professor Stephen Powis this week for recommending the high-fat keto diet and infrared saunas as a way to treat long Covid, but in the absence of concrete treatments, many sufferers are seeking alternatives and taking matters into their own hands.
Paltrow, who caught Covid early on in the pandemic, spoke recently about the illness on her Goop website, revealing she’d sought help from functional medicine practitioner, Dr Will Cole, for her ‘long-tail fatigue and brain fog’ after tests revealed she had high levels of inflammation in her body. The 46 year-old actress reported feeling much stronger after adopting a high-fat keto diet, refraining from sugar and alcohol, taking supplements and indulging in an infrared sauna, “all in service of healing”.
But Powis said ‘serious science’ should be applied and stars like Paltrow should adopt a ‘duty of responsibility’ when talking about long Covid treatments.
Not everyone agrees. Alexandra Reece-Ford thinks that sharing what works is essential at this time, in the absence of tried and tested medical treatments. The 36-year-old fit and healthy yoga and meditation teacher tested positive for Covid on New Year’s Day and was floored by headaches, muscle aches and a crippling chest pain and cough that had her gasping for breath every time she moved.
“I had to stop work for around six weeks as I just wasn’t strong enough to continue teaching. I couldn’t do anything within the house so my husband and my eldest were cooking, cleaning and taking care of things while I was recovering,” says Reece-Ford, a mother of three from Essex. “Even now, after nine weeks, I still feel like I can’t get enough breath into my lungs and I’m extremely fatigued all the time and get chest pains. But I’m getting stronger. I can walk for a lot longer now and am slowly but surely building up my stamina.”
Long Covid is a term to describe the effects of Covid that continue for weeks or months beyond the initial illness. Symptoms discussed in the 36,000 member-strong Facebook support group are pretty varied and can include anything from headaches, breathlessness, brain fog and chest pain to rashes, depression and fatigue.
The health watchdog NICE defines long Covid as lasting for more than 12 weeks, with new research showing that one in five people who suffer from Covid develop longer term symptoms and around 186,000 people are already suffering.
Last November, NHS England responded by opening up Long Covid clinics all around the UK – there are currently over 70 – offering the services of respiratory consultants, physiotherapists, doctors, nurses and other specialists to help assess, diagnose and treat the thousands of sufferers. But with the condition so new and research just under way, treatments are more about support than cure.
“This is a very new phenomenon – the pandemic has only been going on for a year – so we are very much in our infancy about the long term consequences of Covid,” says Shamil Haroon, clinical lecturer at the Institute of Applied Health Research at the University of Birmingham.
“We have a few theories and are doing some work around immunology, inflammation and problems with the T cells – the important white blood cells of the immune system – as too many tend to produce an overreaction of the immune system. One of the theories is that it’s an autoimmune reaction and some people’s immune systems are producing antibodies that work against their own tissues, but we’re still in the early stages and just exploring all the different pathways.
“We do know there’s a greater risk of getting long Covid if you’re older, female or have other underlying health conditions. We also think there’s a mental health component to all this and people’s experience of Covid can lead them to developing anxiety, low mood or even post traumatic stress disorder, especially if it involved going to intensive care. That’s why there has to be a multi-disciplinary holistic approach – it’s not just about drug therapy.”
Frances Williams, professor of genomic epidemiology and hon consultant rheumatologist at King’s College London, agrees. “Where symptoms point to a specific organ, investigating is relatively straightforward,” she explains. “Clinicians can examine the electrical flow around the heart if someone is suffering palpitations. Or they can study lung function – tissue elasticity and gas exchange – where shortness of breath is the predominant symptom. Rather harder to explore is the symptom of fatigue, which people are most frustrated about and is often overlooked by doctors.”
While the NHS clinics can assess each patient and provide supportive treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy, breathing exercises, rehabilitation work and dietary support, there are those seeking alternative ways to heal Covid’s nasty after effects.
Kate Garden, a functional medicine practitioner who trained with Paltrow’s Dr Cole, believes that in some people, Covid creates a massive surge of inflammation in the body, which can lead to brain fog and fatigue.
“Everyone will experience Covid differently but a battery of blood tests would reveal any inflammatory markers, the effects on the organs such as the liver and kidneys and also examine any nutrient deficiencies,” she says. “Seventy per cent of our immune system is located within the gut and this is tied to how we produce energy so we need the right food to repair it.”
For those suffering with long Covid, Garden recommends avoiding refined vegetable oils, too much saturated fat, processed sugar, dairy or anything inflammatory such as alcohol, as limiting toxic substances will up-regulate every organ in the body and make it work better.
She also recommends eating high anti-oxidant foods such as fruit, vegetables, fermented foods, lean protein, all of which are anti-inflammatory and will help to repair the immune damage wreaked by the virus.
“Resveratrol is also a great anti-oxidant and has been shown to have promising antiviral activity against numerous viruses and this can be found in blueberries and red grapes,” she says.
Supplements are key too, says Garden, and she lists Vitamin D, Vitamin C, zinc and quercetin, a compound found in plant food which researchers in the Journal of Inflammation reported to have potential as a Covid treatment because of its wide range of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune system regulation effects.
“Quercetin can be found in dill, capers, apples and onions but not in the quantities we need – 8 to 12 servings a day – so a supplement is a good idea,” says Garden.
Sleep, Garden adds, is critical for combating long Covid and she recommends buying yellow-tinted glasses online and putting them on half an hour before bed, to reduce the blue light from screens going into your eyes, which blocks production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. “Lots of cellular regeneration happens in deep sleep and for long Covid sufferers, this will help promote a good sleeping pattern,” she says.
The holistic approach certainly seems to be working for Reece-Ford and, with advice from friends and a chat to her GP, she is slowly making a recovery.
“I’ve been focusing on eating healthily, even when I don’t feel hungry,” she says. “I have soups, smoothies, eggs, anything easy and nutritious. I drink lots of coconut water too to stay hydrated and Lucozade to aid hydration and carb intake. I’ve had a bath every day, which makes me feel better, and I’ve started very gentle and soothing yoga stretches in bed to increase blood circulation and increase my lung capacity. I’ve learnt that lying on my front helps to release fluid from my lungs, as does propping myself up with pillows when I’m sitting. But most importantly, I’ve realised that with long Covid you have to allow yourself to rest and heal as much as possible.”