Intestinal health and COVID-19 |

Hippocrates was right 2,000 years ago: “All disease begins in the gut.”

Although COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease, mounting evidence suggests that an imbalanced gut microbiome may impact disease severity in some people.

The intestine is the largest immunological organ in the body. About half of our antibodies are made in the intestinal mucosa. Immune cells require a healthy gut microbiota for their production and functioning, while the lack of microbial diversity impairs metabolic function and immune response.

Your gut is home to a diverse microbiome of approximately 100 trillion microorganisms. A healthy and balanced intestinal flora contributes to digestive function, protection against infections, a healthy and stable metabolism and a well-functioning immune system. When the gut microbiota is compromised, chronic diseases can also occur. Factors that can disrupt the gut microbiota and cause the overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria include common drugs and antibiotics, stress, refined carbohydrates, industrial seed oils, and herbicides used in agriculture.

Your gut health is directly linked to countless other systems throughout your body. A microbiome imbalance and poor gut integrity are associated with chronic health conditions including obesity, diabetes, depression, impaired brain function, and more.

The gut-brain axis (GBA) consists of two-way communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, linking the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral gut functions. This bidirectional interaction between microbiota and GBA occurs through signaling through neural, endocrine, immune, and antibody-mediated pathways.

COVID-19 infection prompts the immune system to produce an inflammatory cytokine response. Analysis of blood samples shows that the disruption of microbial balance found in COVID patients also correlates with a pro-inflammatory gut microbiome, elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines, and blood markers of tissue damage, such as C-reactive protein and certain enzymes. This suggests that the gut microbiome could influence the immune response to COVID-19 infection and potentially affect disease severity and recovery.

There is a subset of recovered patients with COVID-19 who experience persistent symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, joint pain, depression, and hair loss for months after the initial onset of symptoms. A growing body of evidence suggests that gut dysbiosis may contribute to immune system-related health issues after COVID disease.

Observational studies show growing evidence that pathogenic bacteria contribute to inflammatory diseases both in the gut and elsewhere in the body. Increasing the species of beneficial gut bacteria found to be deficient during COVID illness may help reduce disease severity. Therefore, management of patients’ gut microbiota could be an important adjunct to recovery during and after illness and infection prevention.

What can a person do to improve their gut health and immune system? Again, attributed to Hippocrates, “Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”

Improve your food choices by reducing your intake of processed foods and increasing your intake of organic foods. A palate addicted to processed foods, junk food snacks, and fast foods may respond better by gradually introducing healthy alternatives. For example, try switching from pesticide-laden corn or canola oil to organic olive oil, ghee, avocado, or coconut oil. Gradually introduce healthy substitutes, such as fresh and dried fruits and nuts instead of processed snack foods.

It’s especially important to avoid foods sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, as any minute amount kills beneficial gut bacteria. In 2019, the Environmental Working Group ( reported widespread glyphosate contamination in many grains, wheat products, and legumes. More than 40 countries around the world have imposed bans and restrictions on the use of glyphosate.

Foods heavily contaminated with glyphosate are sugar, oats, wheat, barley, and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and other beans). Choose organic when buying these foods. The EWG offers dozens of dirty lists of toxic foods and products to avoid.

Health experts specializing in nutrition, colon health and gastroenterology can offer personalized support to improve diet and gut health. Learn more from Chris Kresser, MS, L.Ac., about how specific diets can help reduce inflammation and treat chronic disease.

The sources of the articles can be found in the online version of The Union.

Pauli Halstead is the author of “Primal Cuisine: Cooking for the Paleo Diet” and Joy Brann, MPH, works in health education and policy

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