Novel Coronovirus and Brain Health

Unless you are living completely off-the-grid (in which case, you would not be reading this!), you know that the signs and symptoms to look for that indicate COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. A new study, however, suggests that the virus may also have a significant neurological impact on some patients.

The study, published in JAMA Neurology this month, was conducted in 3 hospitals in Wuhan, China. A total of 214 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 were examined for neurological symptoms. Over a third (36.4%) reported some sort of neurological symptoms including stroke, stenosis, confusion or dementia-like symptoms, headaches, delirium, severe muscle pain, or loss of taste and/or smell. The researchers found that those with more severe cases of the virus were more likely to suffer from neurological symptoms and the symptoms were likely to present even before the more common respiratory symptoms set in. It is unclear, however, if these symptoms are a direct result of this particular virus, or if they are a downstream effect of an inflammatory process set off by an immune response to the virus. The severely contagious nature of the virus made it difficult for further testing to be done to investigate this question, but preliminary data out of China suggests that it is possible for the virus to cross the blood-brain barrier and directly infect the brain. It should be noted, however, that it’s not uncommon for any severe viral infection to cause some sort of impact on the central nervous system.

One of the most puzzling things about this pandemic is the question of why some people are so severely affected and why some people show no symptoms at all. Among those why do get symptoms, there is a huge range in both severity and which symptoms manifest themselves. How could the same virus be so variable among humans? A recent story on the NPR show Here And Now brought the topic back around to our microbiome. Guest Dr. Ronald Collman, a professor of medicine and microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, explained that the biology that makes up our microbiome is very closely tied to our immune system and the response we mount in response to a virus or other invader. He hypothesized that “…if the microbiome in healthy people can actually regulate the extent to which the immune system in the lung responds, maybe that's part of the reason that people respond differently to the [coronavirus].” While Dr. Collman focused on the microbiome in the lungs, we know that microbes are important in many other areas of our body so it doesn’t seem too far fetched to guess that the range and severity of symptoms seen in the population may be at least in part due to the health of an individual’s internal microbial populations.

The irony of the situation is that in an effort to keep ourselves safe from the virus, we’ve entered a world of hyper-sanitation and been told to wash our hands constantly all day. How do you maintain a healthy microbiome when everything around us must constantly be sterilized and we are eliminating many good microbes from our surroundings? There are still some things that you can do to build and support a healthy internal microbiome while still maintaining your safe social distance:

  1. Eat wild-fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles

  2. Get outside in nature as much as possible!

  3. Start a garden, even if it’s just a small plot in your backyard or a box on your windowsill. Getting your hands in healthy soil and eating fresh veggies will go a long way in supporting your microbiome

  4. Eliminate foods like processed sugar from your diet that increase inflammation and decrease gut biodiversity

  5. Eat more fresh fruits and veggies from your favorite local farmer

So please keep your immune system – and the brain whose function that is coupled to it – healthy! There is still much we do not know about the coronavirus, who becomes asymptomatic and who does not, but it could not hurt to optimize your immune system.

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