Updated: Dec 11, 2020
By: Kristy Snyder Colling, Ph.D. and Dr. Robert Coben, Ph.D.
Every day, doctors are learning more and more about COVID-19 - the virus that has taken over all of our lives this year. Initially, the primary concerns about the virus were related to its respiratory implications. However, emerging data is revealing that COVID 19 is not simply a respiratory disease. Indeed, many patients suffer neurological effects.
COVID first takes its toll on the nervous system by attacking the cells in the nose and mouth resulting in loss of smell and taste. In fact, one study found that up to 86% of COVID patients experience loss of smell. The virus then triggers an immune response that causes inflammation. When this inflammation gets out of control it causes a so-called “cytokine storm” that damages the blood-brain barrier. As a result, patients may develop seizures, confusion, coma, delirium, psychosis, and even Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM). One study found a disturbing increase in cases of ADEM from 1 case a month pre-COVID to 1 case a week post-COVID.
ADEM is an immune-related disorder that causes wide-spread inflammation of myelinated white matter of the brain and spinal cord. Myelin is a fatty substance that lines axons and acts an insulation that facilitates action potentials (i.e., neural impulses). Essentially, it helps to speed neuronal communication. When this so-called “white matter” is inflamed, it can cause a host of problems. One such complication is confusion or “brain fog,” which COVID patients are reporting more and more. The reports indicate that some patients who have mild or no respiratory symptoms can have very severe cognitive and memory deficits. These problems are not just limited to when the patient has an active infection. Instead, once some patients clear the infection there are lingering effects including fairly severe memory deficits. Anecdotes include patients failing to recognize their own cars or entire weeklong European vacations.
Inflammation of the brain and blood vessels due to COVID have also been linked to strokes, some severe, while others are small and not noticeable at the time. Later, patients are reporting cognitive deficits that doctors are finding are related to a series of small strokes. In addition, some brain inflammation caused by COVID-19 has been so severe in some patients that it has required emergency operations to remove portions of the skull to relieve pressure on the brain.
One of the most challenging things about COVID-19 for society is the fact that many people who are infected may be asymptomatic, while others have severe disease. Those who have the most extreme illness tend to have pre-existing conditions, like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. On the other hand, people who eat well and maintain a healthy weight are far less likely to have dire outcomes. For this reason, many in the medical field are encouraging people to be proactive now more than ever.
The nutrition portion of our Head-On program takes this seriously and empowers people with the tools necessary to take control of their health by encouraging eating a well balanced diet with lean proteins and low carbohydrate vegetables, while discouraging high levels of sugar, fat, and processed food intake. This combination works to reduce inflammation throughout your body. While it cannot protect you from being infected by COVID-19, it can help you to be in the best health possible to fight the virus. If you would like more information about our nutrition program please contact us via the contact boxes on our website. We would love to speak with you about it!
The figure below summarizes the progression of neurological symptoms of COVID-19.
Belluck, Pam. “'I Feel Like I Have Dementia': Brain Fog Plagues Covid Survivors.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Oct. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/10/11/health/covid-survivors.html.
Fotuhi, Majid, et al. “Neurobiology of COVID-19.” Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, IOS Press, 1 Jan. 2020, content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad200581.
Gillespie, Claire. “Even Mild COVID-19 Cases Can Lead to Brain Damage, Research Says.” Health.com, 22 July 2020, www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/covid-19-brain-damage.
“How COVID-19 Attacks the Brain.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/monitor/2020/11/attacks-brain.
Mark A Ellul, MRCP Laura Benjamin, PhD Bhagteshwar Singh, MRCP Suzannah Lant, MBChB Benedict Daniel Michael, PhD Ava Easton, PhD Rachel Kneen, FRCPCH Sylviane Defres, MRCP Jim Sejvar, MD Prof Tom Solomon, FRCP. “Neurological Associations of COVID-19.” The Lancet, 2 July 2020, www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(20)30221-0/fulltext.
Mary Van Beusekom | News Writer | CIDRAP News | Jun 26, 2020. “Some COVID-19 Patients Have Brain Complications, Study Suggests.” CIDRAP, 26 June 2020, www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/06/some-covid-19-patients-have-brain-complications-study-suggests.
Rettner, Rachael. “COVID-19 Is Tied to Deadly Brain Inflammation in Some Patients.” LiveScience, Purch, 8 July 2020, www.livescience.com/covid-19-neurological-brain-complications.html.
“Warning of Serious Brain Disorders in People with Mild Coronavirus Symptoms.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 July 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/08/warning-of-serious-brain-disorders-in-people-with-mild-covid-symptoms.