If you have an autoimmune disease, are you at higher risk of becoming severely ill with the Covid-19 virus? As we’ve seen so far with the novel Covid-19 virus, it affects people around the world in different ways. Some experience mild flu symptoms and nothing more than a slight fever and dry cough, while others end up being hospitalised, with severe pneumonia-like symptoms and respiratory complications.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reiterated that older adults, as well as people who have serious underlying medical conditions such as asthma, Diabetes or heart disease, might be at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19. But what about those with autoimmune diseases?
Covid-19 and autoimmune diseases
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention highlight that those who are immunocompromised (having an impaired immune system) or those with autoimmune diseases, are also at higher risk of further complications linked to Covid-19. Therefore, those who are on cancer treatment, or who aren’t managing HIV and/or AIDS properly, those who need organ or bone marrow transplants or who are on chronic immune weakening medications or corticosteroids are also at a higher risk and should take further precautions.
Autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease; multiple sclerosis (MS), Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus, as well as many others have also been categorised as “higher risk” because of how they affect the immune system.
Just recently, world-famous magician, Dynamo contracted the coronavirus and suffered “severe symptoms” as he has inflammatory bowel disease (Chron’s disease) as well as arthritis. He decided to test early for the virus and said, “Firstly, because of my existing health issues, and the fact I’m on immunosuppressive therapy, I’m at high risk.”
ALSO SEE: What Dynamo had to say in this short video:
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hi guys, hope you’re all keeping safe and well. It’s been a bit of a rough couple of weeks so wanted to give you an update. As you know I’ve had some health issues over last few years and underlying conditions make this virus particularly dangerous and very real. I’m incredibly relieved to be over the worst of it but wanted to let you all know what’s been happening. Please take this virus seriously and remember that by staying home, you are protecting so many others.
The link between Covid-19, your immune system and inflammation
Brent says, “Covid-19 is a viral infection, with inflammation resulting from the viral infection. If you don’t have an exacerbated inflammatory response to the virus, you might recover faster. Whereas if your body is prone to inflammation, you might suffer from more severe symptoms.
On the one hand, you want a strong immune system to help fight these infections so that they don’t get worse, but on the other hand, inflammation in the body is also an immune system response, which makes it a double -etched sword.
Why? Because too much inflammation in the body can cause a host of problems, one being a “cytokine storm”. This is where your immune system reacts too aggressively to an infection such as Covid-19, and it releases a whole lot of inflammatory molecules called cytokines (small proteins in the body called peptides), into the bloodstream.
This “cytokine storm” is what can cause pneumonia, water on the lungs or inflammation on the lungs – which is what prevents them from being able to transmit oxygen. There’s also been some evidence that Covid-19 can damage red blood cells.
This causes a release of too much iron in the blood in one go, which will result in another inflammatory response by the body and lead to even more problems. So, the truth is, there’s a delicate balance that needs to happen with the immune system, where it reacts accordingly to fight infections, but not too aggressively where it causes an inflammatory response and increases the severity of an infection such as Covid-19.”
What happens to those with autoimmune diseases?
Brent says that those with autoimmune diseases are more prone to complications due to Covid-19 because of the immune system’s response to infections or “threats”. “With an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks various parts of the body, such as nerves, muscles, tissues or organs as it misinterprets cells as potential threats. This results in the inflammatory part of the immune system becoming hyperactive,” he explains.
“So, if someone with an autoimmune disease (and a hyperactive immune system) contracts the coronavirus, this will further aggravate the immune system’s inflammatory response, which can cause complications.”
Why autoimmune disease treatment is a problem for Covid-19 patients
Brent goes on to explain that the treatment for those with autoimmune diseases often includes immune suppressants such as cortisone to try and stop the body’s inflammatory response. However, these cortisone-based anti-inflammatories suppress the entire immune system, including the part that’s responsible for fighting infections. This raises the risk of an infection such as Covid-19 progressing and causing further complications in the body.
“Many people who are on cortisone-based medications have expressed concern with these medications throughout the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Brent. “However, coming off these medications isn’t ideal either, because this then allows for inflammation to run rampant in the body which can be debilitating.” If you’re concerned about being in the high risk category for Covid-19, speak to your doctor about possible preventative options.
Treatment options to reduce inflammation in the body
New research shows that the ingredient, chloroquine used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, is also effective at reducing fever and inflammation in the body, as well as protecting red blood cells from becoming damaged. But, “Research is still ongoing as to whether it’ll be effective against Covid-19”, says Brent.
The good news is, there are a few well-documented natural supplements and lifestyle changes that can help to reduce inflammation. These include:
This is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that may be easier for the body to absorb than regular fish oils. Research shows that it’s also been found to lower inflammation markers in the body.
Also known as turmeric extract, studies conclude that curcumin helps to reduce oxidation in the body and prevent free-radical damage and inflammation.
Olive oil and coconut oil
Both olive oil and coconut oil help to reduce inflammation and enhance the body’s ability to fight infections. Brent says they also suppress the part of the immune system that causes inflammation.
Brent says you need 20 minutes of sunlight on your skin per day or between 1000iu – 2000iu of vitamin D per day in tablet form, for an optimal immune system.
Licorice is a widely used Chinese herb that’s been found to have anti-viral and antimicrobial properties. Research also shows that it helps to balance and regulate the immune system.
Because 80% of your immunity lies in your gut, a healthy gut is the key to a well-balanced, fully functioning immune system. “The probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are particularly important to keep the gut functioning properly as they also help to reduce inflammatory responses,” says Brent.
Fibre-rich, plant-based foods are ideal prebiotics as they help promote a healthy immune system by feeding the good bacteria in your gut.
TOP TIP: A healthy diet, with plenty of exercise, rest and adequate sleep will also help to reduce inflammation in the body. It’s also important to limit coffee, alcohol and smoking as these all contribute to inflammation.