How important is gut health in fighting Covid-19?

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  • Many people are experiencing 'long Covid' after recovering from the virus.
  • Poor gut health may be the cause of these lingering symptoms.
  • A healthy lifestyle can help normalise gut flora. 

Worldwide, millions of people have had Covid-19, and while most have recovered, many continue battling the long-term effects of the disease.

Research has indicated that an individual’s gut health at the time of infection may impact the severity of Covid-19, symptoms, as well as long term effects. 

The gut microbiome consists of millions of microorganisms, including bacteria, which live in the digestive tract.

As approximately 60% of our immune cells are found in our gut, and a healthy gut microbiome (which refers to the number and diversity of strains of gut bacteria), is essential for strong immunity.

Because our brain and gut communicate, gut health also plays a role in mental wellbeing, which is especially important during the pandemic. 

How does this happen? 

Gut bacteria (flora) contribute towards regulating the genes that control our immune response to pathogens and viruses, including Covid-19.

Covid-19 has the potential to diminish the immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory flora in our gut, which increases our susceptibility to Covid-19 and disease severity.

Diminished gut health results in an increase in ACE2 receptors. This is the receptor that the Covid-19 virus attaches to, allowing the virus to enter our gut and lungs.

The virus causes havoc, and it has been shown that even after one has recovered from Covid-19, the altered gut dysbiosis (altered gut flora) persists. 

The use of antibiotics

In many cases, antibiotics are used to combat Covid-19, which further diminish gut bacteria (intestinal flora).

The persisting dysbiosis could be a factor in developing persistent symptoms and inflammation that occur in some patients after clearing the virus.

What can we do? 

It is important to focus on ways to improve your gut health, especially before contracting Covid-19 as it can help you in three ways:   

  • Gut health can boost your immunity and decrease the risk of contracting Covid-19.
  • It can decrease the severity of Covid-19 if the virus is contracted.
  • It can help decrease the severity of lingering effects after you have recovered from the virus.                                                         

Fibre is essential

Following a high fibre diet is essential for promoting good gut health. The bacteria (flora) use fibre as a food source for their growth and development.

The bacteria (flora) produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) which support the colon cells and strengthen the gastro-intestinal barrier function.

A high fibre diet is one that includes fruits and vegetables, legumes (like beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas), whole grains (such as brown rice, bulgur wheat, quinoa and rolled oats), nuts and seeds. 

It is also advised that we should avoid processed foods as these contain unhealthy fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates, as well as other additives.

Examples of these include biscuits, doughnuts, cakes, pastries, sweets and chocolates, as well as processed meats such as polonies and pies.

These foods are low in nutritional quality and have a detrimental impact on gut health, as they diminish gut flora and promote inflammation.

Prioritise a healthy lifestyle 

The current Covid-19 situation has unquestionably impacted various aspects of our diet and lifestyle.

Some of these changes include altered eating habits, exercise, and daily behaviours.

Many people have been working from home, which has resulted in increased snacking. In many cases, the closed gyms have turned us into couch potatoes.

In addition, the psychological and emotional response to the Covid-19 situation has resulted in greater stress and anxiety.

Alterations in diet and lifestyle can seriously impact our gut microbiome. It is therefore important to focus on healthy eating, moderate exercise, and stress management. 

Should I take a supplement?

While there are numerous supplements available, there are also food options that act as prebiotics and probiotics.

A prebiotic is a type of plant fibre that promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Many fruits and vegetables are rich in prebiotics, for example, asparagus and bananas.

Fermented foods such as plain yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi contain probiotic cultures that strengthen the gut microbiome.

Speak to your dietitian who will guide you toward making the correct dietary changes and recommend a supplement if necessary.

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