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Gut Health, COVID, and Your Microbiome

Although respiratory symptoms like cough and shortness of breath are the classic symptoms of  COVID-19,  gastrointestinal symptoms can occur as well. A significant number of patients with the disease experience nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, along with pulmonary distress.

Researchers are trying to learn more about these symptoms, by conducting studies and further exploring the “gut-lung axis.” This concept asserts that the composition of the gut microbiome influences the lung’s susceptibility to viral infections, and conversely, viral infections of the lungs alter the composition of the microbiome.

For an overview of the COVID-19 symptoms that implicate the gut, watch Dr. Brennan Spiegel's video:

How the microbiome works

The microbiome, which is believed to help regulate the immune system, is the collection of trillions of microorganisms, or microbes--bacteria, viruses, and fungi--that live predominantly in the gut, and in other parts of the body. Diet, the environment, and genetics all play a role in shaping the gut microbiome.

In healthy individuals, a large diversity of both healthful and potentially harmful microbes coexist in the microbiome, allowing it to perform its many functions. In addition to helping to strengthen the immune system, it produces vitamins, such as K and B-12, and aids digestion. When an imbalance occurs between healthful and harmful microbes--due to the interaction of one’s genetic makeup with a host of external factors, such as poor diet, overuse of antibiotics, or smoking--inflammation occurs and disease can erupt.

In their efforts to find a possible link between COVID-19 and the microbiome, researchers are analyzing the results of available studies. One, conducted at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published in Gastroenterology, showed that the microbiome of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 was markedly different from that of healthy individuals. Most notably, patients with the virus had far fewer beneficial microbes than did the control group, creating an imbalance in the microbiome. Those who had taken antibiotics had even fewer healthful microbes in their gut.

Which came first: COVID, or the imbalanced microbiome?

It is widely known that comorbidities, such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, along with advanced age, are risk factors for developing a severe form of COVID-19.  These comorbidities are usually accompanied by an imbalance of microbes in the gut.

Does COVID-19 alter the gut microbiome, does the imbalanced microbiome affect the disease, or does a third factor, such as older age or poor diet, contribute to or result from both severe COVID-19 and a less beneficial microbiome?

While research continues on this conundrum, so do efforts to relieve or prevent the disease. Although there is no conclusive evidence, maintaining a healthy gut microbiome through diet may improve COVID-19 outcomes, through reducing the chance for inflammation, enhancing immunity, and minimizing the impact of the disease.

“In circumventing a response to pathogenic infections like coronavirus, a healthy gut microbiome essentially could be pivotal in maintaining an optimal immune system to prevent an array of excessive immune reactions that eventually become detrimental to lungs and vital organ systems,” according to a recent article in Virus Research.

What you can do

Eating complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and other high-fiber foods--along with limiting fats, red meat, and sugar--can help modulate the microorganisms in the GI tract, maintain or restore balance in the gut, and boost health and well-being. Consuming probiotics, living microorganisms that occur naturally in some fermented foods, may also be helpful.

Although research into the link between COVID-19, gut health, and the microbiome is in its early stages, ongoing exploration could help to deepen understanding of the disease and develop better strategies for managing it.

To learn more about how micronutrition can strengthen your gut and potentially lessen your inflammatory reaction to illnesses like COVID-19, read about the science behind Healright.