Is there a link between COVID-19 and gut health? From what I’ve learned so far it seems this could be the case. If so, can probiotics prevent severe symptoms of this virus by increasing our good gut bacteria? And are people with unhealthy gut microbiomes more susceptible to getting COVID?
I began asking these questions because these are uncertain times. I know that I want all those I care about to stay safe and healthy so I’ve been learning a bit about the connection between our gut health and our immune responses.
So I started digging and found a study that asked these same questions.
Gut Health and Immunity
First things first: How does gut health affect immunity?
The gut contains about 70% of the body’s immune cells mostly located in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) in the intestines. The GALT contains mesenteric lymph nodes and is our immune system for the gastrointestinal tract. Here, many antibodies are created and tag invaders to alert the white blood cells who attack those invaders.
Our bodies have different layers of defense that a pathogen such as a virus will first come into contact with.
First is our barrier immunity such as the skin, the epithelial layer of the respiratory system, stomach, and intestines. If the pathogen gets by this line of defense, different types of white blood cells from our innate and adaptive immune systems take over.
It seems clear that a healthy balanced gut microbiome is very important to a strong immune system since most of it is housed there.
But if COVID is a disease that targets the respiratory system, why would it specifically affect the gut?
How Does COVID-19 Infect
COVID-19 seems to attach itself to our ACE2 receptors (Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2). ACE2 is an enzyme attached to the membranes of cells located in the lungs and this is why this virus is considered a respiratory illness. The virus grabs onto those ACE2 receptors with what’s called a spike protein, tricks the body into allowing it to pass through, and starts multiplying. This ramps up your immune system and an internal war is fought.
But these ACE2 receptors are also found in the arteries, the heart, kidneys, and yes, the gut.
This is why 1 in 3 people who are infected with the virus come down with gastrointestinal symptoms. And it may be why people have lingering problems and possibly permanent damage to other organs.
There’s no way to know whether you will get the virus although you can lower your risk by reducing contact. It’s also probable that if you build up your gut health and, therefore, your immunity, the symptoms may not be so severe.
How Do I Protect Myself
Can the quality of your gut health affect your body’s capability to fight off COVID-19? This seems likely given the fact that a healthy gut microbiome improves your immune response.
There was a study done by the British Medical Journal that compared the gut microbiota of 3 groups: people who had contracted the virus, those same people 30 days after they healed, and people who had not had the virus. They found that:
“Gut microbiome composition was significantly altered in patients with COVID-19 compared with non-COVID-19 individuals…” and “Associations between gut microbiota composition, levels of cytokines and inflammatory markers in patients with COVID-19 suggest that the gut microbiome is involved in the magnitude of COVID-19 severity possibly via modulating host immune responses. Furthermore, the gut microbiota dysbiosis after disease resolution could contribute to persistent symptoms, highlighting a need to understand how gut microorganisms are involved in inflammation and COVID-19.”
Now, the only question is, did those who contracted the virus already have an unhealthy gut making them more susceptible to getting sick? Or did the virus cause their dysbiosis?
My guess is it may be both. Because there is a very strong link between the gut and the immune system, it makes sense that the better your gut health is, the more protected against infection you will be. It would also make sense that your symptoms may be more severe the more damaged your gut and immune system are, to begin with.
Can Probiotics Help?
In order to get our gut up to optimal health, we can make sure we are eating a healthy diverse diet that gives us a wide variety of bacteria that will keep our immune system in shape. We also should be making sure that we are paying attention to our mental health as stress and depression affect our gut microbiome. Taking a holistic approach to health is the best way to go and supplements are only a crutch.
But can probiotics help our bodies fight a disease like COVID-19? Perhaps.
In that same study, it was found that those with the virus “were depleted in gut bacteria with known immunomodulatory potential, such as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Eubacterium rectale, and several bifidobacterial species.
It seems there isn’t a product on the market yet that contains F. prausnitzii or E. rectale, however, there is another study that shows eating kiwifruit capsules increased F. prausnitzii in people experiencing constipation.
It may be the case that those who are low in this bacteria are more susceptible to getting not just this virus, but to other illnesses as well.
It seems possible that taking these along with a probiotic could help boost your immunity if you are deficient in these bacteria. It might be helpful to ask your doctor or to search for a stool testing kit to get a more accurate analysis of what’s going on before taking supplements.
But It Starts With Diet and Lifestyle
Taking probiotic supplements can really help you optimize your immune system, however, they are still just supplements to a healthy diet and lifestyle. If you continue eating junk food, crackers, cookies, chips, fast food, grease, and sugar while sitting on the couch all day, a pill is not going to save you. They can only help if you are helping yourself.
Make sure you are eating a diet that includes a diverse range of vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit, beans, and legumes. In order for your gut bacteria to work for you, you need to keep them alive with the food that they like to eat. And that preferred food happens to be plant fiber.
It’s also a good idea t aim to do aerobic exercise for at least 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week. You can start small, but keep progressing.
Giving yourself a solid foundation first will take the load off your body’s immune system so that it can stay focused on more dangerous intruders. It’s better not to distract it with inflammation caused by unhealthy eating. Are you already actively improving your health? What have you been doing since the pandemic began to strengthen your body’s defenses?