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Systemic Effects of COVID-19/Coronavirus

Systemic Effects of COVID-19/Coronavirus

While much remains unknown about this “novel” coronavirus spreading across the globe, what we have seen is that the disease can affect multiple systems, wreaking havoc on the body and well-being.

I thought it would be helpful to share my understanding of what actually happens to your body when it is infected by the coronavirus. Like the flu, coronaviruses are respiratory diseases. They spread through coughs or sneezes, spraying droplets that can transmit the virus to anyone in close contact. They can also cause flu-like symptoms beginning with a fever and cough that can progress to pneumonia or worse.

This new strain has been described as genetically similar to SARS, the major outbreak which occurred back in the early 2000’s and the lungs have been identified as “ground zero”.

After the SARS outbreak, the World Health Organization reported that the disease typically attacks the lungs in three phases: viral replication, immune hyper-reactivity, and pulmonary destruction. Obviously, not all folks end up in respiratory failure, only the most severe cases.

Early in the infection, COVID-19 invades human lung cells which come in two classes: ones that make mucus and ones with hair-like batons called cilia.

Mucus, though it can be “gross” when outside the body, is essential and protective in that it helps to  protect tissues, in this case, lung tissues, from pathogens to ensure that these organs, essential for our breath, don’t dry out. The cilia are little hair-like structures that help to distribute the mucus to clear out things like debris, pollen, bacteria, or viruses.

Early scientific theory on COVID-19 speculates that the virus is infecting and killing the cilia cells, which then slough off and fill patients’ airways with debris and fluids. The foundation of this is the fact that many patients seem to develop pneumonia in both their lungs, along with symptoms like shortness of breath.

This is when phase two of the virus, the immune response kicks in.  Just like any pathogenic invader, our bodies step up to fight by then flooding the lungs with immune cells to ward off damage and attempt to repair the lung tissue.

When working properly, this inflammatory process is tightly regulated and confined only to infected areas. But sometimes the immune system can go a little haywire with those immune cells attacking anything in their way, including healthy tissue.

So, the potential exists that even more debris clogs the lungs, and the pneumonia worsens. In severe cases I’ve heard it described as trying to breath while under water. This is due to the fluid and debris that has filled the lungs. There is no room left for necessary oxygen.

During the third phase, the lungs can become damaged, which can result in onset of full respiratory failure.

In addition to the lungs, Coronaviruses may also impact other systems and organs.

Though It’s still not clear whether gastrointestinal symptoms play a role in the latest outbreak, given that cases of diarrhea and abdominal pain have been rare, studies have detected the virus in stool samples, which indicate presence in the digestive track which would suggest that the virus could possibly spread via feces.  

So, you might be wondering, how could a respiratory virus get to the gut at all? 

When any virus enters your body, it looks for cells with its favorite “doorways” open, called receptors. If the virus finds a compatible receptor on a cell, it can invade. Some viruses are picky about which door they choose, but others are a little more promiscuous. Many viruses can access the cells that line your intestines and large and small colon, and those infections appear to flourish in the gut. Additionally, with approximately 80% of your immune system housed in or immediately adjacent to the gut, it’s a prime location to create immune chaos and dysfunction. Researchers believe that COVID-19 uses receptor primarily found in lungs but also in the small intestines.

Coronaviruses can also cause problems in other systems of the body, due to the hyperactive immune response that I mentioned earlier. Things like elevated liver enzymes, lower white blood cell and platelet count, and low blood pressure. In rare cases, patients have suffered from acute kidney injury and cardiac arrest.

This isn’t necessarily a sign that the virus itself is spreading throughout the body, it might be a cytokine storm. Cytokines are proteins used by the immune system as alarms, they call immune cells to the site of infection. The immune cells then kill off the infected tissue in an attempt to save the rest of the body.

We assume that our immune systems can stay in check when facing a threat. But, during an aggressive infection like Coronavirus, the immune system can dump cytokines into the lungs with little to no regulation.  Now, your body is not just targeting the infected cells, it could be attacking healthy ones as well.

Cytokine storms create inflammation that can weaken blood vessels in the lungs and cause fluid to seep through to the air sacs. The storm can also spill into your circulatory system, creating systemic issues across multiple organs and even multi-organ failure. Scientists speculate that these very severe cases are likely due to pre-existing, underlying health conditions like heart disease or diabetes.

Once a virus gets into your bloodstream, it can travel to any part of your body. Since the liver is a very vascular organ, viruses can very easily invade your liver, super important for digestion and detoxification. The main function of the liver is to process your blood after it leaves the stomach, filtering out the toxins and creating nutrients your body can use. It also makes the bile that helps your small intestine break down fats. Your liver also contains enzymes, which speed up chemical reactions in the body. Obviously if these processes are disrupted or dysfunctional, toxins can build up, nutrition can break down, leaving you in a less than optimal state.

And, your kidneys can be caught up in this mess, too. Like the liver, your kidneys act as a filter for your blood. Each kidney is filled with about 800,000 of microscopic distilling units called nephrons. These nephrons have two main components: a filter to clean the blood and little tubes that return the good stuff back to your body or send the waste down to your bladder as urine. It’s the kidney tubules that seem to be most affected by coronaviruses. It’s not uncommon to detect a virus in the tubules if it’s in your bloodstream, as your kidneys are continuously filtering blood.

So, in summary – this is predominantly a respiratory illness. However, no disease exists in isolation. Our cells, organs, systems are all connected, and our blood is circulated throughout bringing the necessary components of oxygen and nutrition to all parts of the body, but also, sometimes the bad stuff too. This is why it’s so super important to support your body and health from the ground up, starting with cellular function, then organ function, then system function to, ultimately, achieve total body health and well-being. I urge you all to build these foundations of health each and every day to support optimal health so that when you run into one of these pesky pathogens, viruses, bacteria, etc., you have a strong fortress that’s very difficult to take down. 

This is what we work on at PIH, building health from the ground up. If you’d like to learn more about this approach, please visit us at, schedule a complimentary discovery consult or give us a call at 609-512-1468. Be strong, be safe, be well.