The other day, I had someone in my office who was sharing how terrified she was about the prospect of catching the virus and getting sick. I understand her fear. She’s an older woman, who is overweight and has a history of diabetes, so she certainly falls in the high-risk category.
She was lamenting the fact that she didn’t think she’d be able to comfortably go out in public until a vaccine is developed – and that could be years away! The isolation was already taking its toll on her, and she was feeling anxious, fatigued, and dealing with chronic pain. That’s what brought her to me. She wanted to know if there was anything she could do to protect herself and lessen her chances of contracting this disease.
I told her what I’ve been telling all my clients: There is a lot we can do to be preventative in the face of the pandemic, and social distancing, while important, is just one of them. Today, I want to talk about something that is gaining more attention among researchers.
It’s something functional medicine practitioners have been talking about since March when the coronavirus exploded in the US. I’m talking about the connection between the gut the lungs and the potential impact of this relationship on the severity of the virus.
A video made by Dr. David Perlmutter in mid-March talked discussed the role of the gut in prevention of the virus, as an effort to move people from panic and fear to the power of knowledge. Understanding the role of gut bacteria in the regulation of inflammatory and autoimmune responses is critical in understanding how good gut health impacts the coronavirus.
The strong connection between the gut microbiome and the lungs (which have a microbiome of their own suggests that good diversity in the gut can reduce the severity of the virus in vulnerable patients.
Let’s explore this connection a little bit, then I’ll give you some tips on supporting your immune system and gut microbiome for preventing infection and disease – including this virus.
What is the gut-lung axis?
It may seem odd to think about the gut impacting the lungs, but this connection isn’t new information by any means. As far back as 1991, researchers were examining the relationship of the gut-lung axis and transmission of bacteria to the lungs in cases of sepsis. It’s well known that dysbiosis (imbalance of bacteria) in the gut microbiome is associated with lung disorders and respiratory infections such as asthma, allergies, and cystic fibrosis.
The longer the world deals with the pandemic, the more information we gain from experts and scientific research. In fact, a search for current research on the gut-lung axis turned up more than 3000 results from 2020 alone! This is good news, because it means this relationship is being taken seriously in the face of this worldwide crisis.
In a Feb 2020 review article in Frontiers in Cellular Function and Microbiologythe authors stated, “The gut–lung axis or GLA has emerged as a specific axis with intensive dialogues between the gut and lungs, involving each compartment in a two-way manner, with both microbial and immune interactions.” This review article also concluded that each kingdom and compartment play a key role in the dialogue, and therefore in body health and disease. While further investigation is needed, determining the roles of fungal and viral kingdoms in the gut-lung axis could lead the way to new management of respiratory diseases, the authors said.
The impact of the gut-lung connection on the virus
The gut and lungs communicate in both directions, as can be seen in the frequency of digestive disturbances observed in those with lung disease. The gut microbiota also impacts metabolic function and immune responses in our bodies.
Data shows that the virus causes digestive symptoms in half of symptomatic patients. The spiky proteins on the surface of the coronavirus unlock ACE2 receptors, found in many tissues in the body, including both the lungs and the small intestines and colon.
If your gut is already in distress, then, the health of the gut impacts the severity of disease, it stands to reason that a healthy gut may be your best protection. In fact, a new study from China, though not yet peer-reviewed, makes the case that the health of the gut microbiome may predict severity of the disease. And the good news is that the gut microbiome can change very quickly through changes in nutrition – so if that proves to be true, there’s a lot you can do for a better outcome should you contract the virus. Of course, more research is necessary to be able to say anything for sure, but a better diet certainly won’t cause any harm, so there’s really nothing to lose.
An article published in May 2020 discussed the possible links and implications of gut microbiota to the virus in great detail, discussing recent discoveries and recommendations for minimizing the impact of the disease in high-risk patients.
The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, causes lung infection primarily due to binding ACE2 receptors that are present on the alveolar epithelial cells. However, recent research shows that SARS-CoV-2 RNA was found in fecal samples from infected patients, suggesting a connection to the gut.
How gut health impacts immunity
Changes to the gut microbiome impacts lung disease through an immune response that results in systemic cytokine release. These compounds, which enter circulation, directly impact proper lung function.
The virus severity is more pronounced in the elderly or those with previous other conditions because immune cells release more cytokines than needed (often referred to as a cytokine storm) which in turn causes systemic inflammation which can turn fatal.
Diversity in the gut microbiome decreases with age. Since most fatalities from the virus are elderly patients, this suggests that gut health and diversity does, indeed, play a role in the severity of the disease.
Gut microbiota have a strong connection to immunity. I’ve talked about this in other articles related to the virus, along with links to other resources, including my Facebook live replays.
Although the ways the host interacts with microbiota are incredibly complex, the connections to immune regulation are clear. The relationship between gut microbiota and homeostasis (balance) of the immune system is also a two-way street, and the subject of much research in the field of infectious disease.
If the gut microbiome and immune system communicate effectively, this could normalize the immune response and reduce severity of the disease. A healthy gut microbiome, then, can be instrumental in optimizing the immune system to fight overzealous immune responses that have a negative impact on lungs and other vital organ systems.
Tips to Support a Healthy Gut Microbiome and Immune System
Food is the best medicine
Nutrition, as I said earlier in this article, may be the best defense you have against severe symptoms caused by the virus. Complex carbohydrates and fiber are key components to a balanced diet for a healthy gut microbiome. Fermented food and drinks are also important – they re-stock the beneficial bacteria your gut needs to stay balanced. A wide variety of whole, organic fruits and vegetables is also important in making sure you get the nutrients you need.
Sugar and simple carbohydrates can wreak havoc on the balance in your gut microbiome, so they’re best avoided as much as possible. Processed food is full of chemicals and preservatives that similarly impact the gut in negative ways.
Banish stress as much as you can
Some stress in life is inevitable and even necessary. But the immense number of stressors in today’s world can really take a toll on gut health, immune response, and overall health.
It’s essential to find ways to calm your nervous system. Meditation, deep breathing, journaling, spending time with family and friends (even in socially distant ways), exercise, or any activity that brings you real pleasure are all helpful in keeping your stress at an appropriate level.
Support your body with both probiotics and prebiotics
A good probiotic can make a huge difference in maintaining balance and diversity in your gut. This is especially true if antibiotics are required for any reason – though it’s best to limit antibiotic use whenever possible.
Some research is emerging that suggest that probiotics may be effective in reducing the incidence and duration of viral respiratory infections. That’s certainly relevant in the face of this virus.
Prebiotics are also important, since they feed the beneficial bacteria your body needs to thrive.
Find the right supplements for your unique situation
There are several supplements that are great support that I recommend for all my clients, including a high-quality daily multivitamin complex, and EPA/DHA Support. In addition, there are a range of supplements that are particularly good for specific situations – such as supporting your immune system or leveling out hormones. Digestive enzymes can be supportive for digestive difficulties
Several supplements are particularly useful for supporting your immune system. I can’t go into detail in this article, but in a nutshell, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, fish oil, Vitamin A, zinc, licorice root, and oregano oil can all be beneficial to your immune system.
I always recommend talking with a functional medicine practitioner about your own situation so you can find exactly what your body needs.
Examine your lifestyle choices
The way you live your life makes a big difference in how you feel. It’s no surprise to most people that these choices can weaken your immune system, throw hormonal balance off, and create issues in many of your body’s systems. It can be difficult to remember to make good choices when it feels like the world is out of control and you’re simply trying to survive every moment. But this is when it’s even moreimportant to make these healthy choices. That means being sure you get enough quality sleep (at least 8 hours per night), move your body with moderate exercise regularly, stay well hydrated, and avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and processed foods as much as possible.
We’ve been talking about the virus for months now, but there’s still a lot of panic and confusion that I hear from clients. More information is becoming available all the time, but research can’t be rushed. As the country reopens, finding ways to support your body – especially the gut and immune system – can help keep you protected and healthy. And if you do contract the virus, having a healthy body is your best bet at keeping symptoms mild.
Remember that I’m here for you and will continue to offer information every step of the way. You can live your best life even in uncertain times if you’re willing to put in the work to make sure your body is supported!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD