About the author
I caught Covid in 2022 when I’d just started a career in an industry I loved. I was in my mid-20s and hugely committed to my mahi | work. I was social and loved to work out; I was a creative problem-solver, hugely independent. Covid left me with crippling fatigue for months, which returned again after my second infection. An array of other symptoms, including gut disturbance, dysautonomia and trembling, meant I had to put my social life and career on the back burner.
There is a sense of grief in my life from this. The loss of independence has been the hardest thing. Needing āwhina | help with my myriad symptoms has been a dramatic change for my ultra-independent self. Covid has slowed me down, my brain takes longer to process things, and I can no longer drive far.
Although it has altered the shape of my life dramatically, in many ways I am grateful for how this experience is helping me to pace myself, appreciate the small things, and finally learn to ask for and accept āwhina | help.– Female, NZ European/Māori, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland
A brief explanation of gut disturbance
Many people experience gastrointestinal symptoms during their Covid-19 infection. These symptoms can appear during the initial infection and continue, or they may develop after initial recovery. Some symptoms of gut disturbance may include:
- loss of appetite
- difficulty eating – or eating may cause an upset stomach
- acid reflux
- abdominal pain.
Symptoms can be persistent, or come and go in flares. Flares are when symptoms are worse for a period and then ease off.
There is also a link between gut disturbance and autonomic dysfunction (also known as dysautonomia), as this study explains. Many Long Covid patients experience dysautonomia, which is when the autonomic nervous system isn’t working properly. This system regulates automatic functions in our body, such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion. So a disruption to this system can cause many of the digestive symptoms above.
In my experience
My gut issues persisted for around five months, including irregular vomiting spells. Sometimes I felt nauseous beforehand. Other times I would eat a meal and feel like something in my digestive tract was triggered or stuck, so I would begin retching and vomiting.
During my initial infection, nausea and vomiting were two of my main symptoms. While I could eat normally, I had two separate weeks of vomiting spells – one lasted eight days in a row. My nausea often came with dizziness, and I have now been diagnosed with dysautonomia.
Over the course of five months and with medication, the vomiting spells became less frequent and eventually tapered off.
I spent a lot of time away from work due to the insidious nature of the vomiting; I never knew when it was going to happen! I became anxious about going out, for fear of being sick while away from home. These were the biggest impacts, but it was also upsetting being unable to eat my favourite meals, or eat out as a social activity when energy allowed.
What others say gut disturbance is like
The gastrointestinal tract includes many organs and parts of the body, so symptoms and experiences vary from person to person. These symptoms often result in pain and severe dietary restrictions, and can affect many areas of life.
Kelly’s severe esophageal inflammation and scarring has created chest pain, difficulty swallowing solid foods, and a worsening post-nasal drip. It’s been difficult for her to access tests for a diagnosis, too. Kelly went to urgent care three times and was admitted to hospital a further three times, after multiple experiences of food feeling ‘stuck’, before an endoscopy was requested.
“I already have a limited diet, but my stomach is far more sensitive now. I have almost constant, low-grade pain in my stomach. Having to further restrict what I eat is depressing. I will sometimes avoid social occasions because it’s a bummer to not be able to eat and drink what’s there, or it’s too exhausting to keep my willpower up.”
What I and others have tried
I tried prescription omeprazole and anti-nausea tablets for my acute symptoms. Peppermint tea was very soothing too. But the best advice I received is to try acupuncture, and give it time. It can be frustrating to hear while you’re feeling stuck, but giving your body time to recover is essential. This allows any treatments to work while you whakatā | rest.
Other things that can help make life easier:
- keep some anti-nausea medication on hand
- try eating smaller meals, or snacking throughout the day, instead of eating big meals
- if you’re able to eat out, choose the restaurant beforehand, check the menu online and phone ahead to discuss any needs you have.
“A general anti-inflammatory diet, and upping my use of turmeric and ginger, in cooking, smoothies and tea. Rotating the brands of probiotics I used, to increase varieties of gut bacteria. Cutting out almost every small food joy I had left, but that’s difficult and I don’t know whether it’s making a difference.”– David
How others can help
Essentially, by being understanding. Gut disturbance can range from mild to debilitating. It can feel similar to a chronic tummy bug at times, and its persistence can be extremely frustrating. Please understand if I can’t come out to eat and socialise this time, or I need to rest my body.
“Ask me for a recipe that you can cook for me. It’s difficult for me to explain my complicated dietary restrictions, especially when I’m suffering from cognitive dysfunction and fatigue too. Any meal that I feel safe eating and don’t need to spend energy cooking is a gift.”
The gastrointestinal or digestive tract extends from the mouth to the anus. Gut-disturbance issues can occur anywhere along that tract.
Covid-19 can affect many bodily systems – including the digestive tract. One theory is that Covid may enter the digestive tract during the initial infection, leading to an array of IBS symptoms. A study explains this may happen via the lining of the small bowel, where there is more activity from ACE-2 – a specific protein on the surface of a cell, which allows Covid-19 to infect the cell.
Other studies discuss how Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms are common after viral infections. They mention that how severe an initial infection is does not influence whether a Covid patient develops these symptoms. This means you can experience a somewhat mild case of Covid-19 and still develop symptoms of digestive discomfort.
Top 5 things to try
Had a gutsful?! Give these a go:
- Anti-nausea medication
- Electrolytes, especially if you’re dehydrated or unable to eat
- Monitor and cut out trigger foods
Ask your GP for advice before trying these out.
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