top of page

Chronic COVID & the Brain

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

As we cross the one-year mark with the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more research is emerging about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our overall health. While most of us are familiar with the physical symptoms of chronic COVID, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell, did you know some “COVID long haulers” are experiencing lasting neurological problems after “recovering” from COVID-19?

In this blog, we will explore what it means to be a COVID-19 long hauler and how these symptoms connect to mitochondrial health.

Chronic COVID:

Chronic COVID is defined as “persistent symptoms and/or delayed complications of SARS-CoV-2 infection beyond 4 weeks from the onset of symptoms.” There is no concrete link yet determined between why certain people develop chronic COVID symptoms. Age, gender, severity of COVID-19 symptoms, pre-existing conditions, and overall health have no impact on whether you develop chronic COVID or not.

Chronic COVID is also proving to be very difficult to diagnose given the wide range of symptoms. Further, because only 1 in 4 COVID-19 cases was reported, millions of people simply never knew they were at risk for developing chronic COVID. However, the CDC estimates around one-third of COVID patients not hospitalized suffer from chronic symptoms.

Symptoms of chronic COVID include:

  • Body aches

  • Coughing

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Joint pain

  • Loss of taste and smell — even if this didn’t occur during the height of illness

  • Insomnia

  • Headaches

  • Brain fog

Brain fog includes frequent confusion, forgetfulness, and trouble with attention and focus. Unfortunately, brain fog is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of neurological conditions affecting some long-haulers.

COVID-19 and Neurological Symptoms:

According to a study examing over 500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, nearly 80% had persisting neurological symptoms. Such symptoms included:

  • Brain fog (81%)

  • Headache (68%)

  • Numbness/tingling (60%)

  • Loss of taste (59%)

  • Loss of smell (55%)

  • Muscle pain (55%)

  • Dizziness (47%)

  • Pain (43%)

  • Blurred vision (30%)

  • Tinnitus (29%)

Other studies have demonstrated the lasting mood-altering effects of COVID-19. A study examining COVID-19 patients 100 days after hospital admission in the UK, US, and France found that 30% of participants suffered from psychological distress- such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and sleep abnormalities.

Unfortunately, there is no clear reason why people are suffering from persistent neurological symptoms following COVID-19. While some scientists hypothesize viral particles infiltrate the brain, there is no substantial research proving this to be true. However, autopsy reports have demonstrated changes in the brain caused by COVID-19- specifically altering the blood-brain and blood-cerebrospinal fluid barriers. Such changes can cause inflammation of neurons, supportive cells, and brain vasculature.

Dozens of other viruses cause neurological problems, but none are as persistent and serious as COVID-19. New research suggests this is due to the serious effects of COVID-19 on mitochondria.

Role of the Mitochondria:

In middle school, we learn the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. But the role of the mitochondria within our body is actually much more complex. While yes, mitochondria serve as the cell’s main source of energy (ATP) production, it also contributes to homeostasis, cell proliferation, cell death, and the synthesis of lipids, amino acids, and nucleotides. The mitochondria even play a role in supporting immunity in the presence of a virus.

But mitochondria can also be used by viruses to support prolonged survival. Viruses can cause damage and disruption of the mitochondria’s processes, assisting the virus while harming the patient.

Mitochondria and Neurodegeneration:

Damaged or disrupted mitochondrial function has been linked to numerous neurological diseases and disorders; including:

*Note that most, if not all, of these disorders have symptoms similar to those aforementioned by sufferers of chronic COVID.

The mitochondria play a key role in regulating apoptosis- natural, programmed cell death. When the apoptosis of nerve cells and neurons is altered, neurodegeneration will occur. Mitochondria also supply cells in the brain with ATP required to function. The production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) is also supported by mitochondria. Heightened ROS levels will lead to the premature death of cells in the brain. Brain development and differentiation and neuronal activity and plasticity are also vitally bolstered by the mitochondria. Essentially, if the mitochondria are damaged in the brain, neurodegeneration is soon to follow.

Chronic COVID and Mitochondria:

Researchers have already proven COVID-19 “hijack” and manipulate mitochondria in the host cell in an effort to evade host immunity.

If COVID-19 is in the brain, the cells it impacts will lead to neurological damage- as mentioned above. These effects will last far longer than the virus is actually inhibiting the body, as the mitochondrial damage will already have been done.

Next Steps:

Unfortunately, there is no magical cure way to solve mitochondrial damage, especially in the face of chronic COVID-19. Moreover, none of the current vaccines will support mitochondrial health.

However, there are several steps you can take to promote mitochondrial health:

  • To decrease the autophagy of mitochondria, calorie restriction can be used to conserve existing mitochondrial shape.

  • Spermidine can also be taken to support mitochondrial health. This profoundly important nutrient promotes autophagy and a healthy immune system.

  • While Exercise has proven to protect against mitochondrial decline. by maintaining muscle mass which encourages the health of your mitochondria, you do not want to exercise if you contract COVID. ATP is needed for exercise and your supply is limited. So conserve your energy to fight the invading virus.

  • Foods high in antioxidants can also prevent damage caused by ROS. Such foods include: raw cacao, berries, matcha, pecans, artichokes, beets, kale, and spinach. Anti-inflammatory foods like heart-healthy oils, fish, fruits, nuts, garlic, herbs, and chocolate can also be beneficial.

  • Taking molecular hydrogen daily will decrease the damaging free radicals that are produced with the increase in reactive oxygen species. This will decrease inflammation and protect the mitochondria from damage.

  • Taking PQQ will increase the replication of mitochondria supplying new and healthy organelles.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself from developing chronic COVID-19 is to keep your body as healthy as possible. Providing your body with the proper nutrients, exercise, and supplementation is essential in successfully fighting off COVID-19.

To learn more about achieving optimal health with the Johnson Center, click here to contact us!

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!