What is COVID-19 doing to those with autoimmune disease?
By Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS
The greatest emphasis on preventing the spread of coronavirus has been geared toward the elderly and those with autoimmune disease, and for good reason. While these groups are not necessarily more likely to contract COVID-19, they are more likely to have severe and even life-threatening complications. For the elderly, weakened immune systems have a hard time fighting this stubborn disease. But for those with autoimmune disease, the effects of COVID-19 and this new, uninvited stagnant lifestyle are a little more complex.
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) estimates that 50 million Americans have one or more of more than 100 autoimmune diseases. That’s a lot of people requiring extra consideration in preventing the spread of COVID-19 or any virus! Within the complexities of autoimmune disease emerge a few reasons this higher-risk group should be more concerned:
Medications suppress the immune system – Not as a side effect, but rather as a means of treatment, many patients take medications to suppress their immune system to treat an autoimmune disease. The issue isn’t that they have a weakened immune system, instead it’s that they have an overactive immune system that attacks the body’s joints or tissues mistaking them for foreign substances. Out of fear of contracting COVID-19, these patients may be tempted to stop taking their medications to boost their immunity. However, this can be really tricky for the complex workings of such an immune system and should not be done without a discussion with their physician.
Disrupted sleep patterns – A common symptom of several autoimmune diseases is fatigue. So for some, this new stay-at-home lifestyle presents an opportunity for added rest. For others, the stress and anxiety associated with the fear of contracting the virus, loss of a job, financial hardship, among others, is causing a loss of sleep. Whichever way it falls, there needs to be a healthy balance. Adequate sleep is important for allowing the body to rejuvenate and stay healthy. However, too much sleep can result in a lack of other healthy essentials, such as exercise and mental well-being. Most experts agree that 7-9 hours per night is optimum.
Increased anxiety and depression – This unprecedented time brings an elevated risk of anxiety and depression for most of society. For those with autoimmune disease, the combination of disease-triggered pain and discomfort with the need to isolate to prevent contracting COVID-19, the risk is even greater. We need human interaction for mental and emotional wellness. To supplement the social interaction that is needed, scheduling social teleconferences, making more phone calls to friends and family, or even watching do-it-yourself videos can help fill that void until we get through this tough time.
Bad eating habits – The struggle is real with the “Covid 15,” a term coined to describe the extra weight that so many have put on during this stay-at-home (and eat) period. Unfortunately, like with most things, the effects of bad eating habits can be exponentially worse for those with autoimmune disease. Inflammation is one of the most common symptoms of autoimmune disease. Sadly, many guilty, culinary pleasures cause inflammation and trigger debilitating flare-ups for autoimmune disease patients. In general, the foods to avoid are grains, dairy, sugars, alcohol, caffeine, processed vegetable oils and non-grass-fed beef. If you find yourself snacking more than usual, try to stock up on veggies, nuts, healthy fats, grass-fed or organic animal protein and foods without additives or preservatives. The less modified, the better.
With the risks associated with COVID-19 and because those with one autoimmune disease have a 25 percent chance of developing another, it is critical for those with autoimmune disease to use safety measures, good eating habits and self-care to avoid contracting this or any virus. If you or anyone you know is concerned about potential autoimmune issues, Cyrex Laboratories, a leader in advanced clinical immune testing, offers the Multiple Autoimmune Reactivity Screen (Array 5), a comprehensive screening for autoimmune disease. Along with the Array 5, add-on the GAM panel — Total Serum IgG, IgA, IgM. This test is recommended for anyone with suspected immunodeficiency or who has recently used immunosuppressive medication. As always, seek the advice of your health care professional, if even via a phone or video call.
Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS, Advisor and Consultant on the Clinical Consulting Team for Cyrex Laboratories. Dr. Larson holds a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He particularly pursues advanced developments in the fields of endocrinology, orthopedics, sports medicine, and environmentally-induced chronic disease.