Have you ever suffered from a heavy cold, flu or other viral infection, and find that it takes you weeks (sometimes months) afterwards to feel like your ‘old self’ again? Or maybe you find that once you got sick the first time, you fall into a pattern of one continual infection after another….never completely getting back on your feet after the first episode, feeling exhausted the whole time.
You’re not alone – and you’re definitely not imagining things! This is called post-viral fatigue and it’s something I see in my clinic quite often.
But, in order to fully understand how and why this extremely inconvenient phenomenon occurs (after all, if you’ve recently been unwell you are probably champing at the bit to start enjoying normal life again), let’s just backtrack a bit. First, we need to talk about how the immune system works to combat infections you come into contact with on a daily basis.
Your 24/7 Guardian
Your immune system is constantly on watch, and it never shuts down, even when you sleep. This amazing unpaid worker has two ‘arms’ that deal with any threats to your health and safety, kind of like your own personal bodyguards. And just like two arms on a bodyguard, they can pack pretty mean one-two when they work in tandem.
First off we have the innate immunity arm. Innate immunity is the inner defenses you were born with. Your innate immune response is fast-acting, and non-specific (in other words – first on the scene, there to do some initial resistance work before the more sophisticated immune response arrives). Your innate immune system consists of not only immune cells, but also the physical barriers that distance us from microbes (practicing social distancing before we even knew it was important!). These barriers include your skin, the acid in your stomach, tears and mucus, which help to prevent microbes from even entering your body in the first place, heading off infections before they have a chance to gain a foothold in your system. Your innate immune response is very swift – if something does happen to get into your body, this response doesn’t just ring the alarm bell, it blasts it out to all corners of your body, ramping up inflammation and recruiting immune cells to the site to come see what all the fuss is about (and do some damage while they are there).
The other arm of your immune system is known as adaptive immunity, and while this is slower to respond, it has one very clever trick up it’s sleeve - and that is the ability to learn. Once you’ve experienced an infection, your immune system takes note of particular aspects of that invader - so that it has the tools ready to stop it in its tracks if you ever come into contact with it again. This is the section of your immune system that is responsible for producing antibodies and also the lethal compounds that kill infected cells. Incidentally, this is why the virus that causes COVID19 has caused such an uproar – because it is completely new, it is not something our immune system recognizes as similar to anything we’ve been exposed to previously.
To put it another way, here is the progression of an infection in a healthy immune system:
So as you can see, there is an initial response at the start, and then the response should switch off at the end so the body can heal.
The trouble is, not everyone’s immune system follows this clear-cut plan. For various reasons, sometimes the signals get messed up and don't switch on or off the way they should. Either the immune system doesn’t get the signal to shut off at the end of the infection, which means that everything stays ramped up on high alert. Or the system doesn’t get the green light at the right time at the beginning of an infection to actually kick into gear, meaning that any infectious microbe we come across gets a free ticket to have as much fun in the body as it likes, because the immune system is not paying attention. With this situation, viruses and other infections have the opportunity to spread out of control very rapidly. Sometimes there can be an issue with both signals being out of balance, such as in the cases of autoimmune diseases where the body is attacking its own tissues. Basically, any of these scenarios can cause our immune system to become overworked and worn out - leaving us to feel overworked and worn out as well.
Also, the inflammation associated with a viral infection can disrupt the powerhouses in our cells, called mitochondria. And we know what happens when a powerhouse doesn’t run in full production mode – it results in a widespread energy shortage. Sound familiar?
Restoring Energy & Vitality
It is important, if you have recently suffered a viral infection, that you take a few steps to support your body’s return to a normal state, without trying to rush the process. Here are a few tips I use with my patients I see in the clinic who have come to me for immune support:
Get enough rest. In the olden days, people used to take the time to convalesce following a bout of illness. This was seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, and people would regularly ensure they spent time out in the fresh air and sunshine, and eat nourishing, restorative foods. Nowadays, we tend to rush back to work or the pressures of daily life before we are ready, and expect our system to simply keep up. Cut yourself some slack – because trying to get back to full capacity before you’re ready your body will be the fastest way to burnout in the long run.
Use herbal medicines to support your immune system. I love herbs like medicinal mushrooms for this – they are traditional gentle energy builders and nourish your immune cells. Another of my favourite herbs to use is Astragalus, not only for its energy and immune support actions, but also because I find it to be a great herb for stress.
Ensure you are getting a regular supply of nutrient-rich, gut-building foods. 70% of your immune system is located in your gut, and this is ALWAYS one of the areas I make sure we are supporting when I am working with a patient who suffers from any kind of immune-related condition, including post-viral fatigue. Probiotic-rich foods such as yoghurt, and natural sources of prebiotics like fresh vegetables, as well as lean protein and healthy fats are ideal. If you are particularly tired, try cooking food in batches (such as in a slow cooker) for easy meals, or ask for help from a family member or friend until you are back on your feet. And of course, while it may be tempting to reach for pre-packaged foods for convenience at this time, these aren’t going to help you get your energy back in the long run.
Support your energy powerhouses with herbs like turmeric, and brightly coloured fruits, vegetables, that are rich in antioxidants. Sometimes, nutrients such as Co-enzyme Q10 in supplement form may help, however it is important to keep in mind that CoQ10 is an unstable molecule which means that it may not be potent in supplement form by the time you purchase it. It is best to see a practitioner who can prescribe a product with guaranteed potency instead.