Severe COVID-19 Symptoms: Inflammation’s Role

Back in April 2020, when COVID-19 cases were soaring and the world was in full panic mode, I was researching how COVID-19 attacked the body and who was at highest risk of suffering from severe symptoms. I started to see some consistencies behind chronic diseases and the impact that COVID-19 could have on people suffering from conditions like diabetes and obesity.

In May, more research pointed to chronic disease being a catalyst for severe symptoms, as covered here. In July, I outlined a more detailed perspective on obesity’s role in COVID-19, bringing into more detail how obesity occurs, the role of diet, and how inflammation is a key factor.

Earlier in August, I introduced readers to the possible link between Leptin and COVID-19, including the role hormones play in regulating sugar, body fat storage and how linked these hormones are to the immune system.

Chronic health conditions heighten the risk for influenza, and even more so for COVID-19

Inflammation: The Key Factor?

As we’ve learned more about COVID-19, chronic disease has been consistently identified as a major factor in patients who contract it as well as patients who suffer from more severe, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms. The big question is why? Why do those with chronic disease suffer so much worse? In a recent article by Sheena Cruickshank, Professor in Biomedical Sciences, University of Manchester, the role of inflammation in being THE key factor in driving severe symptoms with COVID-19 is further emphasized.

What is inflammation? Put simply, inflammation is your body’s process of fighting back against things that can harm it. Whether it’s an injury, a virus, bacteria or toxin, inflammation is the body’s way to trying to heal itself. Damage in the body usually occurs at the cellular level, so when this cellular damage or threat is understood, the body releases chemicals that trigger an immunogenic response. The immune system sends in proteins, antibodies and increased blood flow to attack a pathogen or help heal a wound or injury. Under normal circumstances, this process works well and is used infrequently.

Chronic inflammation refers to this same process, but occurs all the time, leaving the body in a constant state of stress, alert and defending against “attack.” So, what causes chronic inflammation?

  1. An untreated injury or infection that lingers
  2. An autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks healthy cells. Type 1 diabetes would be an example.
  3. Long-term exposure to environmental conditions or toxins
  4. Diet & lifestyle. Obesity is a result of quality, quantity/mix and frequency of eating, and the resultant hormonal affects that lead to inflammation.

Over time, this chronic state of inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs, reducing quality of life, making people more susceptible to sickness and even causing crippling disease like Alzheimer’s.

How Does Inflammation Relate to COVID-19?

In people with chronic conditions, the body is in a constant state of distress and heightened combat. When COVID-19 enters an inflamed body, it hijacks cells through an ACE2 receptor. Interestingly, the more glucose that is present in the body, the more ACE2 receptors a body will have, so those who are obese or with diabetes will be more at risk. From the article:

Once the virus is safely inside these cells, it causes them to start making lots of inflammatory cytokines – effectively kick-starting the cytokine storm. And the higher the levels of glucose, the more successful the virus is at replicating inside the cells – essentially the glucose fuels the virus. But the virus isn’t done yet. It also causes the virally infected immune cells to make products that are very damaging to the lung, such as reactive oxygen species. And on top of this, the virus reduces the ability of other immune cells – lymphocytes – to kill it. Obesity also causes high levels of glucose in the body and, similar to diabetes, affects macrophage and monocyte activation. Research has shown that macrophages from obese individuals are an ideal place for SARS-CoV-2 to thrive.

Over 40% of the U.S. population is considered obese, and it is estimated that 50% of the U.S. population will be either diabetic or pre-diabetic by 2025. To fight a pathogen like COVID-19, we need to do more than “wait and hope” for a vaccine. We need to make meaningful change to our diets and lifestyle, improving the quality, quantity/mix and frequency of eating/drinking as well as making lifestyle choices that ensure we get adequate vitamins, minerals, rest and mental recovery. Quite simply, our lives depend on it.

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