Still not feeling 100% back to yourself after getting over COVID-19? Join the long COVID club.
anti-inflammatory foods around a COVID cell
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According to the CDC, "long COVID" refers to symptoms that persist for several weeks or months after having the virus. Most symptoms are often mild and new (meaning their onset was during or after COVID-19), but they're persistent enough to keep you from returning to your usual pre-COVID-19 state of health and feeling like yourself. The list of symptoms is lengthy and varied, but a few common ones include:

  1. Brain fog
  2. Fatigue, particularly after mental or physical exertion
  3. Cough
  4. Diarrhea
  5. Headaches
  6. Joint stiffness
  7. Muscle pain
  8. Mood changes
  9. Abdominal pain
  10. Menstrual cycle irregularities
  11. Sleep disruptions
  12. Lightheadedness

The cause of long COVID is attributed to the inflammatory remnants that linger in the body even after getting over the acute illness. This is because COVID-19 triggers excessive production of cytokines, which are compounds that trigger inflammation. Because inflammation is a response by the immune system, the "cytokine storm" created by the virus begins to overwork the immune system, which can lead to a dysregulated system (one that's tired and run down, yet hyperactive and hypersensitive), per a 2021 article published in Diseases. Consequently, recovering from COVID-19, for many people, is a two-part process:

1) Getting over the initial illness.

2) Reducing COVID-19-triggered inflammation and supporting the immune system.

Certain foods and nutrients play a significant role in supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation. This appears to be especially true when it comes to calming the inflammatory remnants and dysfunction left over from COVID-19. Here are six top foods that may help to manage and even improve long COVID symptoms.

1. Healthy Proteins

Consuming adequate protein is especially important when recovering from a significant illness like COVID-19. The body needs it to support the immune system, rebuild cells and add lean body mass that may have been lost. That's why sometimes protein needs are slightly higher than usual, depending on the length and severity of your illness. Foods like eggs, chicken, turkey, lean beef and pork are great sources of protein to help meet daily protein needs, and they're also rich in iron, B12, zinc and other key nutrients needed for immune recovery.

2. Vitamin-C-Packed Foods

Oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits are packed with vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that stops free radicals from damaging healthy cells, preventing new inflammation, per a 2017 publication in Nutrients. The immune system also depends on vitamin C to function properly, and research suggests needs increase during and following infection due to increased inflammation. Other great sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli and kiwifruit.

3. Vitamin-D-Rich Foods

Vitamin D supplement sales skyrocketed in 2020 when data began associating higher COVID-19 mortality rates with a deficiency in vitamin D. And research published that year in Nutrients suggests that adequate intake reduces one's risk of infection and severity if infected. One way vitamin D does this is by calming the inflammatory storm created by the virus, which means there are likely long-term therapeutic benefits. Vitamin D is hard to find in foods, so it's not a bad idea to ask your health care provider if a supplement is right for you. However, a few good food sources include fatty fish like salmon and trout, fish liver oils, fortified milk (dairy and plant-based) and mushrooms.

4. Complex and Whole-Grain Carbs

The body needs adequate carbohydrates when recovering from COVID-19, but choosing ones that won't exacerbate inflammation left behind by the virus is important. This means avoiding refined, low-fiber food sources to avoid the rollercoaster effect with blood glucose levels that generates inflammation (meaning a quick increase followed by a subsequent drop), per a 2018 study published in Nutrients. Instead, choose complex and whole-grain carbs that are minimally refined, higher in fiber, and may even contain a little protein. Legumes like canned beans and frozen peas are great options, as well as whole grains like quinoa.

5. Flavonoid-Rich Foods

Flavonoids, such as quercetin, catechins and kaempferol, are a family of bioactive compounds found in plant foods. Research published in 2022 in Phytochemistry Reviews suggests that flavonoids exert "immune-modulating" effects that help the immune system get back on track. They also exert antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that inhibit certain cytokines triggered by COVID-19. Consuming flavonoid-rich foods daily is beneficial, but it could be particularly helpful when you're sick and recovering from illness. Yellow onions and kale are top sources of quercetin and kaempferol, two top flavonoids for immune and cytokine regulation. Other great sources of flavonoids include citrus fruits, broccoli, berries and teas.

6. Seafood Rich in Omega-3s

Repeatedly, research continues to demonstrate the anti-inflammatory power of two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, so it's no surprise that regularly incorporating sources of these could be beneficial in calming COVID-19's lingering cytokine storm. Omega-3s appear to improve gut health as well, which is important since 70% to 80% of the immune system is housed in the gut, per a 2017 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. DHA and EPA are unique because they are exclusively found in fish, seafood and algae. Top sources include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and some oysters.

The Bottom Line

Many people who have been infected with COVID-19 seem to recover completely after a few months. However, there are those who experience long COVID symptoms. And while no drink or food is a cure-all, certain foods, mainly those with anti-inflammatory properties, can help relieve COVID-19-related symptoms.